International Students Face Uncertain Futures With COVID-19 Campus Closures, Travel Restrictions | KERA News

International Students Face Uncertain Futures With COVID-19 Campus Closures, Travel Restrictions

Apr 30, 2020

Sara Alharbi is a doctoral candidate at the University of North Texas who is studying how to design curriculum for children. She plans to graduate in May, but friends and family are urging her to celebrate the occasion at home in Saudi Arabia.

“I don’t know what’s the future. I don’t know…I didn’t expect this ending after eight years,” Alharbi said. “I also belong to this land, as a Saudi Arabian, because I’ve been here for eight years.”

While Alharbi can work at home and the university has been flexible with her research, other students are having their studies more directly affected.

Chinese international student Dongni Xie teaches the piano while earning her doctorate in music performance at UNT. She said some classes ended the eighth week of the semester.

“We currently are not teaching the normal class online right now because the practice buildings are closed,” Xie said. “We don’t want students to go to the practice rooms and practice, and a lot of people do not have access to a keyboard or a piano at home, so they cannot practice.”

Xie added that even minor delays on Zoom calls make it hard to teach lessons in real-time. Instead, she has to work with students in new ways.

“For students who have a piano at home, I am meeting them individually through Zoom, and I give them tasks,” she said. “Then they send back the video, then I will grade them.” 

Xie admitted that isolation is nothing new to a lifelong musician, so not much has changed for her.

“Honestly I haven’t felt that much of a big difference in my life. As a musician I spend a lot of time by myself practicing in a practice room,” Xie said. “I don’t really go out to bars or for entertainment a lot, so even when everything is shut down I don’t really feel that my world is closed.”

Jennifer Cowley, provost and vice president for UNT’s Academic Affairs, oversees students’ academic and professional success. Right now, that means helping students adjust to the realities of the pandemic.

Cowley said most of UNT’s international students are choosing to stay in the area while they continue their classes. But graduating students like Alharbi are not sure about what they should do when their visa status changes.

“By August, let’s say September, I need to be out of the United States anyhow,” Alharbi said. “My visa is done.”

Alharbi has the added challenge of looking after her parents. They came to Texas in early March ahead of commencement ceremonies, but then graduation events were postponed and air-travel restrictions began, leaving them stranded in Denton. She admits the extra family time is nice, but it’s making it hard to finish her dissertation.

“I usually stop studying and go out, sit with them, try to make them feel better about the situation,” Alharbi said. “I feel responsible – somehow – for the letdown.”

According to Cowley, international and domestic students will be eligible to live on-campus throughout the summer, if necessary. Cowley added the university is working on finding solutions for students who plan to start at UNT in the fall.

Meanwhile, Alharbi is doing her best to stay calm.

“It’s not like wars or something where you can blame someone for whatever you’re in. It’s just – we have no one to blame,” Alharbi said. “That’s it.”

Cowley said UNT is providing scholarships and emergency funding to its students, with additional resources available for graduate research. More information on how the university is handling COVID-19 can be found here.

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