Mark Elliott

Vice Provost of International Affairs Mark Elliott examines the recent struggle with Immigration and Customs Enforcement over allowing students from other countries into the U.S.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard file photo

Nation & World

The conundrum for international students

long read

Vice provost on the challenges from U.S. restrictions, remote locations

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued a directive on July 6 saying that international students at American universities who limited their class attendance to remote learning in the fall semester would not be allowed to travel to, or stay in, the U.S. Shortly thereafter, Harvard and MIT challenged the directive in court, ultimately convincing the Department of Homeland Security, to which ICE reports, to rescind the order.

Still, the challenges for international students planning to attend American institutions this fall are many. For one, incoming students enrolled in institutions using entirely virtual learning, including Harvard, will not be allowed to enter this country.

The Gazette interviewed Vice Provost of International Affairs Mark Elliott to learn about the context of the July 6 directive, the ongoing challenges faced by international students who are integral to the University community, and the resources that will be in place this fall for students studying at Harvard from locations abroad.


Mark Elliott

GAZETTE:  Let’s begin with the widespread move to online learning made by many institutions of higher education across the country. How did that initial decision affect the status of international students here in the U.S.?

ELLIOTT:  As you know, on March 13, Harvard made the decision to move to remote learning to reduce the number of people on campus and limit the spread of COVID-19. Within weeks, pretty much every school in the country decided to go to all-remote instruction for the remainder of the semester. This move created a potential problem for international students, most of whom are here on F-1 visas. According to existing regulations, which limit them to one online course per term, the move to entirely online education put them in violation of their visa conditions, subjecting them to potential loss of F-1 status, possible deportation, and as much as a 10-year bar on reentering the U.S.

In response to efforts by colleges and universities to adapt to the public health emergency, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), which falls under the auspices of Immigration and Customs Enforcement within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), announced that it would exempt currently enrolled students on an F-1 visa from this online course limit, meaning they could remain in the country and in status even though they were taking all their courses online. SEVP said further that this exemption would be in effect “for the duration of the emergency.” This was a welcome demonstration of flexibility on the part of the government.

As the spring semester came to an end, it became clear that the public health emergency was nowhere near ending and there would be a continuing need for remote instruction in the fall. This meant that we were going to need further guidance as to how the one-course limit would be applied in the fall when it came to entering students, who were not included in the March flexibility. We made persistent efforts to get clear guidance for the fall starting in May, efforts that included a letter from President [Larry] Bacow on June 2 to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Chad Wolf. Changes to the ICE FAQ in June made it sound as though the March exemptions were good at least through the summer. But we heard nothing definitive until July 6.

And that’s when everything blew up.

GAZETTE: You’re talking about the directive that said that international students in the U.S. on F-1 visas would have to return to their home countries if they were taking only online courses.

ELLIOTT:  Exactly. According to this directive, not only would there be no exemption for new students, but the prevailing exemption put in place in March would be discontinued for continuing students, too. Under these new rules, virtually every international student in the U.S. pursuing a curriculum of entirely remote instruction would be required to transfer at the last minute to a school with in-person courses, or else leave the country. This was clearly an effort to force schools to bring all students and professors back into the classroom as before — as if the pandemic had ended already, which it quite obviously hadn’t. It was also seen as a distinctly unfriendly move to the 1 million or so foreign students who study in the U.S.

GAZETTE: And that’s when Harvard, in partnership with MIT, took DHS to court.

ELLIOTT:  Right. Faced with litigation, DHS decided to rescind the July 6 directive. Unfortunately, the general elation around our victory in court — and it was a great victory, and people should be elated — led many to think that the problems we were facing with respect to international students all went away. In reality, what we won in court was the right to put into practice the reopening plans we had previously announced and to go back to working on the problems we had not yet solved before the release of the July 6 directive.

GAZETTE: What does this mean for Harvard College upperclassmen from countries outside of the U.S., since they aren’t guaranteed housing this fall, and must show they do not have access to an adequate learning environment in order to live on campus?

ELLIOTT:  The revocation of the July 6 directive means that returning students remain covered by the exemption and are free to take their courses remotely while staying in F-1 status. For those who remained in the U.S. after we closed the campus in March, they can continue to study remotely here in the fall as they did in the spring. If they went home, they can stay in their home countries and study remotely from there.

Returning international students who went home can also come back to the U.S. and study remotely from a location here on their F-1 visa. As you note, upperclass students in the College are not guaranteed housing this fall unless they are in a category of high need. But still, they can be in the U.S.

GAZETTE: Do students beginning at Harvard in the fall have the same choices as those who are returning?

ELLIOTT:  Unfortunately, they do not, and this is what the Schools have been grappling with. Because they are not covered by the March exemption, entering students — meaning first-years in the College, G1 students in GSAS, and entering students in the professional Schools — are bound by F-1 rules and can take only one online course per semester. With the exception of the Business School and the upper levels of the Medical and Dental Schools, all the Schools have announced that instruction in the fall is entirely online. Of course, to qualify for a visa, a student must be full time; and since full time means a load of four courses, if those are all online, this puts students well over the one-course limit, making them ineligible for F-1 visas and therefore unable to come here. The most recent guidance from SEVP issued on July 24 makes that explicit.

But the problems do not stop there. Let us imagine that the government were to decide to grant the exemption to the one-course rule to all entering students for the fall — something we are hoping legislation will address. Students would still face the reality that it is very difficult even to get an appointment for a visa interview. The State Department suspended routine visa processing worldwide back in March and closed consular offices. Only in the last 10 days or so has it announced that it will gradually resume handling student visa applications in certain locations. The backlog is so large that some students will not have interview appointments until October. And not every student has been offered an appointment yet. On top of that, you have the complex and ever-changing web of travel restrictions and quarantine requirements that make international air travel unusually hard, with flights that are few and far between.

Given all of the above, we could already see a couple of months ago that it would be unrealistic to expect our entering international students to be here in time for the start of the term. Indeed, in addition to public health concerns, this was one reason why many Schools decided to adopt a remote-only curriculum for the fall, so that international students would not be unfairly disadvantaged over domestic students.

GAZETTE: What about the suggestion that Harvard should go hybrid, in order to circumvent this ruling on incoming international students?

ELLIOTT:  I’m glad you asked. Last week, Dean Rakesh Khurana explained that, despite the College’s invitation to first-years to study remotely while resident on campus, most incoming international undergraduates would not be able to take advantage of that offer, because current regulations do not permit them to enter the country to study fully remotely. This isn’t likely to change, unfortunately, despite all the advocacy we’ve done to this date to try to convince the administration to change those regulations in light of the pandemic. So indeed, why not try to figure out a way around the one-online-course rule by instituting something we could call hybrid?

First, let’s be clear that, while there are various definitions of hybrid out there, there is fundamental agreement on one thing, which is that it involves online instruction in combination with some measure of in-person interaction between students and teachers. And under current rules, such conditions would need to be part of the requirements for at least three of an international student’s four courses.

Now, as I think most everyone is aware, Harvard College made the decision to go completely remote for the fall to protect the health and safety of students, faculty, and staff, and to do its part to prevent the wider spread of the virus in the community and the region. It turns out we had to go to court to defend that decision — and happily we won, so that no one has to choose between their health and their education. To introduce a hybrid program of instruction now would be to compromise our public health priorities. We think there is still too much uncertainty for us to take that risk, and, on the advice of the experts we have been consulting with all along, we continue to believe that all-remote remains the only safe option. Given the government’s inflexibility on the rules, the consequences for our entering international students make us all unhappy. It’s of course not at all what we would have wanted for our international first-years. But none of this is what we wanted.

GAZETTE: Harvard has spent significant time and resources ensuring that the fall semester of remote learning will be very different than the spring, while providing resources for students to enhance the virtual learning experience. Undoubtedly, international students will face challenges to remote work, particularly related to differences in time zones. Are there specific resources on remote learning at Harvard for international students who can’t be on campus?

ELLIOTT:  There are quite a few resources for international students. The Office for International Education (OIE) is actively working with first-year students in the College to determine technical needs so that those who wish to study remotely have the tech support to do so. OIE has also set up a program called “Study Away” that allows for returning students in the College to enroll for Harvard credit at partner universities in their home countries. I’ve been working closely with OIE to expand the range of choices here. I would add that the Harvard Alumni Association has also been busy, brokering connections between international students in the College and our extensive global alumni network. Not everyone realizes this, but fully one-sixth of all Harvard grads live outside the U.S., and they have told us they are ready to help however they can.

Finally, let me mention the Woodbridge International Society, which is the international student association. Its leaders are also working hard to find ways to provide virtual social opportunities for everyone, starting with this year’s all-remote First-Year International Program. Now more than ever, Woodbridge will be a valuable resource for international students across all years.

On a more practical level, for students in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences who will be studying remotely, the academic day has been extended. In my case, I have two students in one of my courses who I know are in China, so I’m teaching my class from 7:15 p.m. to 10:15 p.m. East Coast time to facilitate the time difference. Lectures can be recorded, and courses can combine synchronous and asynchronous classes and sections. Faculty members and teaching fellows alike have been asked to keep in mind the time zones of all students when thinking about class times.

Across the University, the Schools are implementing similar policies. The Graduate School of Education (HGSE), for example, is offering multiple time-zone-based sessions of each of their most popular courses, as well as courses they expect to be in demand from international students. They’ve added new classes that are relevant to the current times, including one on how COVID-19 is affecting education systems around the world, and another on education in disruption. The School is also putting together a series of asynchronous sessions specific to HGSE international students that will be available for them to view during orientation week, along with synchronous opportunities for these students to engage with each other in real time, virtually.

At the Law School, the HLS Graduate Program has been matching incoming students in the Master of Laws program (LL.M.), which is predominantly international and typically includes students from more than 65 countries each year, with Class of 2020 LL.M. graduates to strengthen network ties across the years, and enable LL.M. graduates to share lessons from their own remote-learning experiences with incoming students.

GAZETTE: Impressive as these efforts are, clearly this is a difficult time to be a foreign student in the U.S. What would you say is ultimately at stake, even thinking to times when the pandemic is at last behind us?

ELLIOTT:  It is a difficult moment for them, no question about it. It’s already not easy to make the decision to study in a foreign country, and even under normal circumstances there is a lot to adjust to. Now, though, there is all this other stuff to deal with. Having been a foreign student myself once upon a time, I completely sympathize with the predicament so many are finding themselves in.

As to what is at stake in the long run, for Harvard, the answer is simple: Our future is at stake. American higher education is the undisputed global leader because of our ability to attract hard-working and creative students and scholars from all over the world to our institutions. Our colleges and universities are the best, our medical research is the best, our entrepreneurial climate is the best, because we draw from a 7-billion-person talent pool and offer students from all over the world opportunities to fulfill their dreams of achievement and self-realization that they may not otherwise have. The tragedy is that our own federal government is in the process right now of diminishing that talent pool. The July 6 directive from ICE is just the latest in a series of policy decisions discouraging people from coming to America to study. I hope that policymakers understand that this must not continue. International students and scholars need to know that they are welcome in the U.S. and that it is possible to play by the rules and make a future here that will enrich us all.

The recent litigation provided an opportunity for stakeholders across the whole social and political spectrum to come together to demonstrate that we remain committed to our international students, and to recognize that we would not be where we are today without them. Support for our challenge of the July 6 directive went well beyond higher education. We saw amicus briefs and letters of support from state attorneys general, from industry groups, including Google and Facebook, and from members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, all of whom recognize that threatening to impede the flow of international students to the country makes no sense and does not serve the national interest. Labor unions stood side by side with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in supporting us, for this reason.

Without international students in our institutions of higher learning, contributing to academic discourse, furthering the research enterprise, and driving the growth of new businesses and industries, we are collectively much, much less well-off. I’d add that just as we are far poorer without international students, we are also far poorer without immigrants. The Harvard president himself is the son of immigrants to this country, and I’m sure that is one reason why he has risen to the occasion to fight for us on this issue.

Already, working with the Massachusetts congressional delegation and others, we have made progress in this regard. We will continue to push for immigration policies that fairly and accurately reflect the contributions that foreign students and scholars make to Harvard and to the U.S., and we will continue to advocate for incoming classes of international students to make sure that they have opportunities at Harvard and other colleges and universities across the country. As I say, our future depends on it.