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How to Stay in the US if Your School is Going Online-Only

 

Studying in the library

To mitigate the impact of the coronavirus on the US economy, the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) recently imposed restrictions on international students attending US universities. Although these restrictions were later rescinded, anxiety remains over whether international students will be allowed to study in the US for the upcoming academic year. This article will help shed some light on this issue and provide some recommendations to help international students retain their student-visa status during this difficult time, should further restrictions be imposed.

On July 6, 2020, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced that international students must leave the country if their institutions decide to offer all instruction online this fall. This announcement has caused widespread panic among international students, who are afraid of losing their F-1 visa status.

How can international students stay in the U.S. despite this new policy? Will it be necessary to take a gap year or attend a university in another country? Not necessarily. Here is what you can do to maintain your F-1 status and attend courses in the U.S.

1. Register for research credits.

On July 6th, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) announced that “F-1 students attending schools adopting a hybrid model – that is, a mixture of online and in-person classes – will be allowed to take more than one class or three credit hours online. These schools must certify to the SEVP, using Form I-20 (Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status), that 1) their program is not conducted entirely online, 2) the student is taking an entirely online course load this semester, and 3) the student is taking the minimum number of online classes required to make normal progress in their degree program.”

Although this sounds complicated, the idea itself is simple: If you can prove that you are taking at least one in-person class (i.e., not an online class), you are allowed to stay in the U.S., even if you are taking your other classes online.

“But what if my university is not offering any classes offline?” There is a surprisingly simple solution to this circumstance.

Many institutions allow students interested in undergraduate research to register for research credits. For example, Stony Brook University’s Department of Physics and Astronomy offers PHY 287 (Introduction to Research) and PHY 487 (Research) as “classes.” These are not classes in the traditional sense but are only intended to compensate you for the time you invested in conducting research by granting you credits.

“How do I register for research credit?”

You will most likely need your department’s permission to register for research credit. To get departmental permission, you need a faculty advisor. Undergraduate research is not (at least, not typically) independent. Whatever research you do will be supervised by faculty.

Reach out to professors who are involved in research you are interested in. Do you want to research computational linguistics? Email a professor who is actively publishing papers in computational linguistics. Most professors have a personal website and/or a professional CV that they regularly update; you should be able to find a list of their publications there. Skim through to get a feel for the kind of work they do, then read a few of their more recent publications. Now you are prepared to write a professional, respectful email to the professor you’re most interested in working with. Don’t be too nervous. Professors, especially those at research universities, are usually willing to take on a few undergraduates.

Once the professor has agreed to advise you, tell him/her that you would like to register for research credits. They will contact the department office, and the administrators there will authorize you to sign up for the credits you need.

Finally, have your school to certify to the SEVP that your fall course load is not fully online through the Form I-20.

Note: Research credits are graded. In other words, you cannot sign up for research credits and then not do any research. Your faculty advisor can give you a low grade – or fail you–if you don’t do enough work. Be able and willing to put in the work your professor expects from you.

See more advice regarding undergraduate research.

2. Register for internship credits.

Internship credits are similar to research credits. The key difference is that internship credits involve participation in off-campus work related to your major, whereas research is on-campus work conducted under the supervision of a faculty member. Like research credits, you will likely need your department’s permission to register. You may also need to submit certain documents, such as a letter of employment, project proposal, etc.

Some schools and departments require you to be officially employed at a company or organization before registering for internship credits. Others, however, grant internship credits (or some other equivalent) for independent projects.

Note: Internship credits are usually not graded on the letter scale, but you may still “pass” or “fail”. Be sure you are aware of your department’s policies regarding internship credits.

See advice on securing an internship during the COVID-19 pandemic.

3. Transfer to a school that offers in-person classes.

In the same July 6th announcement, SEVP stated that international students enrolled in schools that are operating fully online for fall 2020 may “take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction to remain in lawful status.”

Some schools, such as Bard College and Georgia Tech, have announced that they will be fully reopening their campuses for the fall semester. Many others, such as Arizona State University and Colorado State University, have announced that they will be adopting a hybrid approach that will “provide some in-person classes but offer a significant amount of coursework virtually.” Transferring to such an institution is one way you can maintain your F-1 status and stay in the U.S.

See the Chronicle of Higher Education’s frequently updated list of colleges’ plans for reopening. The Chronicle is currently (as of July 13th) tracking about 1,150 colleges all over the U.S.

As of right now, transfer deadlines for the fall semester have passed for most schools. However, many schools have rolling admissions. This means that they take applications throughout the year and don’t have a specific deadline. Schools that are adopting the hybrid model and have rolling admissions include Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) and the University of Tulsa. Schools that are planning for in-person classes and have rolling admissions include the University of Minnesota (Twin Cities) and the Rochester Institute of Technology. Check out the Additional Resources at the bottom of this page for more information on schools with rolling admissions.

Note: The exact details of a given school’s rolling admissions process can vary. Go to the school’s website to get the most to date information regarding their admissions policy.

You may also apply to transfer for the spring semester. The transfer application deadline for spring enrollment typically takes place later in the fall. (9)

Note: Keep in mind that your institution’s COVID-19 policies may change by the end of the fall semester. Even now, many schools are making active efforts to adopt hybrid models and coming up with other creative measures to make in-person instruction possible.

If you are not particularly attached to your school, transferring to another is a legitimate option.

“But is transferring out of my current institution a good idea?” Well, that really depends on your situation.

For example, if you have never taken a leave of absence (LOA), and your degree progress is on-track (i.e. you’re scheduled to graduate within four years of having started college), it probably makes more sense to take a gap year than to transfer to another school.

On the other hand, maybe it’s of the utmost importance for you to graduate quickly, and you can’t afford to take a gap year. Or perhaps it’s essential that you stay in the U.S. In this case, transferring might be your best option, especially if you are enrolled in a program that requires a lot of hands-on experience.

Note: You should also keep in mind that transferring to another school (as opposed to taking time off) might not save as much time as you think. The credits that are working towards your degree at your current school may not work towards your degree at a different school. Different schools have different requirements, and there is no guarantee that your new school will accept all the credits from your previous one. You may have to take more classes, even some that cover material you have already learned. If you are seriously considering transferring as an option, do your research. You don’t want to be unduly surprised by the policies of your new institution.

Although this administration’s policy regarding foreign student visas has been rescinded, the future of higher education remains a bit uncertain for international students. The potential financial repercussions of this policy would huge, not only to universities but also to businesses. International students pay far more tuition than their American counterparts and are often not on any form of financial aid. They also play a significant role in livening up the local economy. According to studies cited by Daniel J. Hurley, chief executive of the Michigan Association of State Universities, 33,236 international students contributed $1.2 billion to Michigan’s economy in 2018.

Most schools are getting creative and finding solutions to keep international students on-campus. Do your research, talk to your advisors, talk to your undergraduate program director, and stay well-informed so that you can make the best possible decision regarding your education and future.

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Additional Resources

COVID-19 Resources (US Study)
Getting involved in research as an undergraduate (APA)
Internship Guidance During COVID-19 (University of Maryland)
Top 12 National Universities With Rolling Admissions (US News)
10 Excellent Colleges with Rolling Admissions (CollegeTransitions)
Mapping U.S. colleges’ fall 2020 plans (The Daily Pennsylvanian)