Quarantined students worry they may lose visa statuses, won’t graduate on time

Coronavirus quarantine threatens students’ UB experience

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Emily Mingxia’s* sophomore year at UB came to a halt when she was quarantined in Wuhan, China before she could return to Buffalo. 

Mingxia said UB was unable to offer solutions to her predicament, as she said she may graduate later than expected and might lose her student visa as a result. 

Mingxia said she reached out to her academic advisor after she realized she may not be able to return to the U.S. from her trip to China over winter break. She was grateful her advisor helped her enroll in online courses for the semester, but online courses won’t help her maintain her visa status. Federal regulations require UB to terminate students’ F-1 status –– a non-immigrant student visa –– if they enroll in only online classes, according to International Student Services (ISS). Students with F-1 status have to enroll in at least 12 credits, nine of which must be in-person classes, for the fall and spring semesters in order to maintain their visa.

And Mingxia may not be alone. She is one of roughly 20 students who weren’t able to return to UB this semester following the Chinese government’s travel ban on the Hubei province on Jan. 23 to contain the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). The virus has infected more than 66,000 people, and killed at least 1,523 globally. UB’s coronavirus website advised quarantined students to contact International Student Services (ISS) to discuss their “best course of action.” ISS said it will determine “the best course of action” with each student “on a one-to-one basis.” 

Kathryn Tudini, assistant vice provost and director for ISS, said ISS will advocate for students who hope to reactivate their I-20 even if they’ve been outside of the U.S. for more than five months. Tudini said the Department of Homeland Security said it would consider exceptions for students who were impacted by the Chinese travel restrictions.

Mingxia said she didn’t receive ISS’ email about the quarantine –– which included information about how a schedule with only online classes will impact her visa status and what her other options are, like taking a leave of absence –– until Jan. 28, five days after the Chinese government issued the travel ban and one day after classes began. Mingxia said ISS’ response was “late” and “unclear” and made her feel like UB did not care about her. 

“I really hoped UB could help students who have trouble and give them solutions in a timely manner, just like how they say they care about the students,” Mingxia said. 

Mingxia said ISS told her that she will not be able to enter the U.S. with her student visa for the remainder of the semester, and that she will lose her F-1 status because she is only enrolled in online classes. Additionally, she cannot use her I-20 –– a document indicating ‘the reason’ for her stay –– to return to the U.S. for the remainder of the spring semester. Mingxia will not regain F-1 status until 30 days before the start of the next semester she is enrolled in in-person classes, according to ISS. 

Mingxia says she did not know how to handle the situation and struggled to find answers from ISS. 

Mingxia said ISS’ email she received on Jan. 28 did not help her understand what she should do, so she tried calling ISS. Mingxia said the staff who answered the phone “sounded frustrated” when she called. She said she knew there are some staff members at ISS who can speak Mandarin and she wished she was able to speak with them since English is not her first language. As a result, she said it was difficult to understand everything ISS told her.

“I can understand they might feel irritable because a lot of students called them, we are not native speakers and have a lot of questions,” Mingxia said. “But we are really worried since it was our first time to face such problems and the school hasn’t given any response.”

Tudini said ISS has the “resources” to communicate with some students in Mandarin, but that it didn’t have enough “resources” to translate all communications. 

“We do have resources to communicate with students in Mandarin when necessary and those resources were mobilized during the past several weeks,” Tudini said. “Immigration regulations are complex and difficult to navigate even for native English speakers but we don’t have the resources to translate every communication that is sent.”

Tudini said ISS was “in the midst” of a new student orientation at the beginning of the semester, but that they tracked students who reported coronavirus and quarantine issues by creating a “central list.”

“When the outbreak first started we were in the midst of new student orientation but we worked diligently to begin tracking students who reported issues and began to keep a central list with the help of CSSA,” Tudini said. 

Mingxia said she is worried she won’t be able to graduate on time because the online classes she enrolled in do not fulfill the requirements for her major. She described this semester as a “waste.”

“It definitely influenced my study, because none of my major classes are available online,” Mingxia said. “I may have to spend an extra semester to graduate because of the waste of this semester.” 

Tudini said ISS encouraged all students impacted by the coronavirus travel restrictions to contact and work with their academic departments. ISS can only assist students with their immigration status, according to Tudini. 

*Student’s name changed to protect their privacy. 

* Student quotes were translated by Shuyi Li from Chinese into English.

The news desk can be reached at news@ubspectrum.com 

JULIAN ROBERTS-GRMELA


Julian Roberts-Grmela is a senior news editor for The Spectrum and an English and philosophy major. His favorite book is “White Teeth” by Zadie Smith and he hopes that one day his writing will be as good as hers.