Offer support before requiring vaccines for international students

In many regions of the world, the pandemic is still in full swing and without an end in sight

Students around the globe dream of studying in the United States. However, the reality of what a U.S. education is has shifted in both a reputational and tangible sense.

After all, no one dreams of 3 a.m. Zoom calls from their parents’ living room. Many students around the world are now eager to return to American campuses after a year of online instruction.

As institutions move to re-open, it is critical that we do not forget our international students and their needs. Varying global locations, socioeconomic status, and other factors influence students’ scenarios daily. Rapid shifts in regional outbreaks and national response policies have made it more difficult than ever to ensure we are supporting all of our students as they apply to college and matriculate into our community.

As more and more institutions release plans to mandate vaccination against COVID 19, it can be tempting to feel like things are about to get back to normal. However, in many regions of the world, the pandemic is still in full swing and without an end in sight.

As the U.S. approaches herd immunity, it is easy to focus on the practicality of a return to “how things used to be,” while leaving international students in a state of uncertainty.

Lack of access to vaccines

Institutions should be careful not to inadvertently contribute to this uncertainty by mandating vaccinations for all students, before clarifying support services or policies for international students who may not have access to a vaccine at home. Alternative arrangements should be made available and communicated clearly to international students.

We all need to think more globally as this pandemic perhaps begins to subside in the U.S. but surges elsewhere. Even before the pandemic, international students in the U.S. encountered a wide range of political, safety, and economic issues.

Shifting immigration policies, tense international trade relations, ongoing discrimination at home and abroad, and continuing security concerns due to gun violence all presented formidable obstacles.

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The pandemic has exacerbated this already challenging situation by introducing additional, seemingly insurmountable issues that are sometimes overlooked by members of our community. For instance, many embassies are closed and/or are still not issuing visa appointments, and the U.S. has banned entry for travelers from many countries (although recent changes have allowed for students to travel from some of these).

But even for those privileged few not held back by visas and travel, the pandemic presents real concerns such as separation from family members and fear that reentry to their home countries won’t be possible or that flights will not be available.

International education’s recovery

International enrollment in the U.S. has already dipped by 16% this past semester and could fall further if we are not mindful and responsive to international students’ needs in the coming months. While clarifying policies regarding vaccinations, quarantines and in-person instruction are important, the reality is that some of these policies may not be confirmed or may be subject to change.

Even when concrete answers are unavailable, it is important to listen to international students’ concerns, to respond as openly and honestly as we can and to elevate their stories to those in a position to set institutional policies.

If we are to succeed in keeping students at the center of our mission, we need to demonstrate our shared humanity. This means understanding and responding to obstacles that impact particular communities across campus, including international students.

We need to consider the needs of the few as well as the majority as we work towards our new reality. Being upfront with open communication regarding our strategies for support and understanding of the challenges facing our international students is a first step toward the recovery of international education in the United States.

Anna Wise is the associate dean of admissions and director of international recruitment of Hamilton College in New York. 

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