Hours after he heard that international university students could no longer study in the US if they just took online classes, 21-year-old Huang Liqin posted a photo of himself to messaging app WeChat.
He was wearing a gas mask and goggles.
“Hello everyone, this is my equipment for next semester,” he wrote.
The Chinese student had been studying at a private liberal arts college in Minnesota but has been staying with a friend in Irvine, California since March, when classes were shifted online as the coronavirus began to spread across the country.
“When I learned about the [visa] rule, I realised some of my worst predictions had come true,” he said.
Huang, one of 370,000 Chinese students in the United States, is among those whose lives have been turned upside down by the new visa rule announced by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Monday.
To comply with the rule, foreign students will have to risk exposing themselves to Covid-19 by taking an in-person class – the country is the hardest-hit in the world by the pandemic, with more than 3.1 million infections and nearly 134,000 deaths.
Otherwise, they either give up their studies there altogether and forgo future job opportunities in the US, or return home and continue taking online classes – but still pay hefty international tuition fees.
For Huang, none of those options are palatable. His best hope is that the visa ruling will be overturned by a lawsuit filed by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Wednesday.
“It would be the best outcome but I can’t count on it since this is a long shot,” he said.
International students made up 5.5 per cent of those in higher education – some 1.1 million people – in the US during the 2018-19 academic year, according to the Institute of International Education.
In the spring semester, more than 251,000 international students were attending classes on campus at about 600 higher education institutes in the US surveyed by the IIE in May.
But the rule also affects students who have already returned to their home countries.
Iris Li, who is in her third year studying law and sociology at Emory University in Atlanta, travelled home to Beijing in March after classes went online because of the pandemic. She was lucky – others who left it later have struggled to get one of the limited flights back. “I didn’t suffer that much” trying to get home, she said.
Now Li, and others who have left the US, have a tough choice to make. If she wants to go back, she has to get around the US entry ban on people who have been in China for the 14 days prior to arrival – meaning she would have to travel via a third country, which is costly and difficult at present.
Or she could just give up her student visa, Li said, adding that “many plans have been ruined”.
“[It’s the] shock of having to redo all the plans, shock of things being changed in such a brief time, shock of not knowing what else awaits us,” she wrote on Twitter.
Li had planned to do a PhD in the US, and perhaps work there in the future. Now she is thinking about trying another country like Britain.
In Shanghai, 18-year-old Tiffany Chan is staying with her parents after returning from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where she studies psychology and economics.
She spent four weeks in quarantine and had to travel through three cities in March before arriving in Shanghai, but now she has to go through it all again to return to the US. She said the new rule meant she had to go back because she did not want to lose her visa, or the opportunity to work there.
“I was debating whether or not to go back to Brown because obviously it is a lot safer here in Shanghai than it is in the US,” Chan said. “But because of the new rule, I’m kind of forced to go back – it’s not ideal, but what can I do?”
The new rule has also got parents worried. Huang said his father, who lives in the southern city of Guangzhou, was losing sleep over it. His mother told him to book a ticket home immediately.
“My dad actually felt very guilty,” Huang said. “My parents feel responsible for me, but … they can’t do anything and I have to look after myself.”
Huang has been studying in the US since high school and has only returned to China twice in the past four years. His father had wanted him to get a degree in the US, but after the new visa rule was announced, “my dad just wants me to come home”.
For Huang, that is not an option – aside from the difficulty of getting on a flight, he said he was worried about a lengthy wait for a visa if he wanted to return to the US.
But while he waits for the court decision, Huang said he felt supported by locals and other international students. Three hours after he saw the ICE decision on Monday, Huang launched an online petition against the new rule, which had garnered more than 11,000 signatures as of Friday.
“That blew my mind. It’s way more than I expected,” he said. “And it means I’m not alone.”
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