Anxiety, then relief for international college students in Alaska after week of changing rules

The University of Alaska Fairbanks campus. (Courtesy University of Alaska)

The past week has been a roller coaster of emotions for international students across the country and in Alaska. 

On Tuesday, the Trump administration rescinded its controversial plan issued just a week ago that would have required international college students to take in-person classes or leave the country entirely. 

That plan from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement drew immediate pushback last week. It sent shockwaves across universities that were in the middle of planning for fall classes during a pandemic — many expecting to rely on online classes to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

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One master’s student at the University of Alaska Anchorage, who did not want to give her name for fear of drawing attention to her immigration status, said she found herself “weeping uncontrollably” at the thought that she might have to unexpectedly return to her home country of India. 

“I live here. I rent an apartment, I have a year lease. I have a dog. This is my home,” she said. 

Now, she is breathing a sigh of relief that there is no longer the threat of deportation if she can’t find in-person classes to take. 

She said being an international student entails crossing many hurdles to come and stay in the country. She felt like her two-year graduate program was stable. 

“You think, ‘Okay, for at least the next two years, I don’t need to jump through any hoops. This is pretty certain [and], if I keep my grades up, there’s no reason for someone to kick me out’,” she said. “So when you get news like that, it takes you back to all those times where you’re doing your GREs and your extra exams and doing all the extra things so that you can stay in the country. It was just so scary.”

She is just one of the 467 international students currently enrolled across the University of Alaska system. That’s about two percent of the entire UA student population. Across the country, international students make up about five percent of the nation’s post-secondary student population. 

Last week’s guidance that would have forced international students to find in-person classes to take or leave the U.S. was met by eight federal lawsuits, which generated support from hundreds of colleges and universities across the country.

They argued that plans were already in the works for the upcoming semester, and for the government to change its course now would be arbitrary and devastating to the colleges, their students and local economies.   

At the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Philip Wight, a professor of history and Arctic Northern Studies, said he and his colleagues hurried last week to come up with ways they could help UAF’s international students.

He offered to teach an in-person class, on top of his current course load, to any student who needed it in order to comply with last week’s order. 

“I just felt compelled to do something, because I was just really struck by the cruelty and a lack of due process in this law,” he said.

Wight said Alaska has long attracted attention and interest from around the world, including countries in the circumpolar North like Norway and Russia. International students bring an unique perspective to his classroom, he said. 

Paul Layer, UA’s vice president of Academics, Students and Research, said the public university system was prepared to sign petitions and encourage Alaska’s congressional delegation to oppose the guidance, which UA felt was unfair. 

Now that the guidance has been rescinded, he said, it takes some of the pressure off of administrators, faculty and staff. They no longer have to reassess or change their plans for reopening campuses in the fall. 

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Right now, the UA system is operating under what is calls “Phase B.” That means most classes will be online during the upcoming semester that starts in late August. There will be some in-person classes when necessary, such as for labs or hands-on research.  

Each phase is described in a system-wide reopening plan, and each university can decide which phase its campuses will operate in based on local coronavirus conditions. 

However, things could change at any moment.

That’s one reason why Jean, another international student at UAA who’s studying aviation technology and math, said he’s skeptical about the government’s decision to rescind the destabilizing guidance. 

Jean, who also didn’t want to share his full name because of fears about drawing attention to his immigration status, said when he heard about the guidance, his first thought was that he would have to pay $7,000 for a plane ticket back to his home country of Kazakhstan. 

“Our government doesn’t want to help us most of the time, your government doesn’t want to help us either, UAA cannot help us. So it’s just very frustrating,” Jean said. 

Even though the guidance has since been rescinded, Jean said, there’s nothing stopping the government from issuing a different set of rules again. He isn’t ready to breath that sigh of relief just yet.