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OU International Students Face Uncertainty And Confusion Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

Ifechukwu Nwafor, an international student from Nigeria at the University of Oklahoma, puts away food at his student apartment that he received from a food pantry in Norman.
Katelyn Howard
Ifechukwu Nwafor, an international student from Nigeria at the University of Oklahoma, puts away food at his student apartment that he received from a food pantry in Norman.

The University of Oklahoma’s international students in Norman and across the world are experiencing unique challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even with resources being offered to accommodate them, OU’s international student population has been cut in half, and some of those who remain are facing confusion about U.S. immigration policy and their place in American society. 

Scott Fritzen, Dean of the OU College of International Studies, said the university had about 2,000 international students enrolled in the fall of last year, but it’s now down to about 1,000. 

OU created the International Student Response Task Force to address the needs of international students. Fritzen, who is also chair of the task force, said the group was created after the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement declared in early July that international students attending U.S. colleges could not enter or stay in the country if their classes were entirely online. The policy was later rescinded. 

The university is expecting a large drop in first-year international students since the ICE guidancestill states new international students, unlike continuing international students, likely won’t be allowed to enter the U.S. if they are only taking online classes. 

Frtizen said it’s been difficult for international students to interpret and stay in compliance with the current ICE regulations. 

“We're not even sure that different parts of the government will work together in a unified fashion in implementing the current guidance,” Fritzen said. “And that, of course, sends international student anxieties through the roof.”

To make the situation even more complicated, many U.S. embassies and consulates around the world are temporarily closed or working at a reduced capacity, leaving international students outside of the U.S. waiting to see if they will even be granted an interview to be issued a visa. 

Michael Lowry, a South African international student at OU who’s currently in Eswatini, is a senior who’s enrolled in both in-person and online classes for the fall. He has an appointment scheduled to renew his visa at the end of August, but that’s after the semester will have already started. He said he’s anticipating the appointment will be cancelled, which means he’d likely have to complete his semester online and try to return to campus in January. 

Lowry returned to Eswatini in mid-March as flights started being cancelled and borders began closing due to the coronavirus. He’s supposed to graduate in May 2021, but that might not be possible if he can’t return to campus this semester.  

Since the situation is changing on a daily basis, Lowry said it’s hard not knowing what’s next. 

“I think I'm not alone as an international student in saying that we just don't know if we're doing the right thing, if we're like making the right decisions and things like that,” Lowry said. “So I would say the biggest thing is just the anxiety and the fear that we don't know when we're going to return. We don't know if we’re going to have to defer. We don't know if we're going to graduate late.” 

Lowry created the #LetMeLearn campaign to urge the U.S. Department of State to consider student travel essential by granting appointments for F-1 and M-1 visas and to resume students visa processing services within U.S. embassies in a safe and efficient manner. The petition currently has almost 1,000 signatures. 

According to Fritzen, the university is allowing international students to defer and are encouraging them to enroll in online classes if they can’t come, or decide not to come, back to campus. The university is also working to accommodate international students who might arrive in Norman after the semester has already begun. 

OU and university organizations like Sooners Helping Sooners and the OU Food Pantry have also worked to assist international students who have been in Norman during the pandemic by providing meals and ingredients for cooking and helping with rent costs. ShaRhonda Maclin, assistant dean of students and executive director of housing and residence life at OU, said the university allowed international students to stay on campus during the pandemic regardless of their situation and is also helping international students who graduated find housing until they are able to go home. 

These accommodations from the university have helped international students like Miguel Colaiocco from Venezuela and Ifechukwu Nwafor from Nigeria. They both lost their student jobs at the university in March when campus shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic and have had practically no other employment options since their visas only allow them to work on campus. 

This summer, Colaiocco and Nwafor have gone to a local food pantry together about twice a month. Since they don’t own vehicles, they typically rely on friends for a ride to pick up food.

Nwafor just recently got his student job back, but was unemployed for almost four months. He was supposed to return to where his parents live in Mozambique for the summer, but he had to stay in Norman since the borders were closed due to the coronavirus. Nwafor said he can try all he wants to make himself feel at home, but it’s not that simple. 

“I think this whole situation makes you realize that this is not your country and this is not your home,” Nwafor said. “And that no matter how much you tried to integrate into society, it's always easy for people to just see you as an outsider.” 

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Katelyn discovered her love for radio as a student employee at KGOU, graduating from the University of Oklahoma with a bachelor’s degree in journalism, and then working as a reporter and producer in 2021-22. Katelyn has completed internships at SiriusXM in New York City and at local news organizations such as The Journal Record and The Poteau Daily News. Katelyn served as president of the OU chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists from 2017 to 2020. She grew up in Midland, Texas.
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