LSU Bell Tower

The bell tower on Wednesday, June 17, 2020 on LSU's campus.

“The land of dreams” — that’s how Santosh Pathak refers to the U.S.

Pathak came to the University from Nepal to study agriculture. He is a graduate student, a research assistant and the secretary of the Nepalese Student Association. 

And while he was studying for a test, he turned on the news to learn that F-1 and M-1 visa students must attend in-person classes next semester or risk deportation. 

“It’s really a sad thing,” Pathak said. “For the graduate students, even during the pandemic, have been going to their labs and working. They have been working day and night, and their work is not appreciated as it should be.” 

International students contributed $45 billion to the economy in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. 

Thankfully, Pathak’s research-related courses will be conducted in-person. He is mostly concerned for the long term implications on undergraduate and prospective international students. 

“This is the privilege I have,” Pathak said. “There are a lot of students who aren’t research assistants, and for them there is a very difficult situation.” 

A week earlier to Kwadwo Poku-Agyemang’s meeting with the Reveille, he had just concluded a dialogue on diversity and inclusion with University administration, and one of the things called into question included how the University “needs to do better for international students.” He says the University needs to hit its response to the ICE guidelines out of the park in order for international students to feel like they are cared about by the University. 

Once Louisiana began to go into Phase 1 for the COVID-19 crisis, Poku-Agyemang said the University followed the federal guidelines for domestic students, but international students felt like they were not as cared for in comparison. However, the University is now facing a situation where it is strictly about international students. 

Interim President Galligan is confident the guidelines won’t affect the LSU community, he said in an interview with the Reveille Thursday. 

“We will work very hard and succeed to make sure that no international student is in 100% online classes,” Galligan said. “Even if it looks like they are, we will work with them and we will meet with them to figure out how to add an independent study or tutorial session so the student can spend time with a faculty member in person. And if we have to re-issue all the visas for LSU students, we’re going to do that.”

In terms of filing a lawsuit against the regulations, like Harvard, MIT and now others, Galligan said this has not been discussed. LSU hopes to use smart scheduling strategies rather than legal action. The lawsuit, if successful, would apply to all U.S. higher learning institutions. 

“We’re going to make sure this doesn’t apply to us,” Galligan said. “Even if we were to say we are going online, we would figure out a way for international students to have those in-person experiences.” 

Galligan said he would find a solution, even if it means him teaching next semester. 

Interim Director of International Affairs Matthew Lee said while he keeps close watch over federal regulations, he wasn’t anticipating these changes. 

“It’s not a good policy,” Lee said. “We’re going to conform to it while it’s in effect because it’s federal law, but we’re going to do everything in our power to protect our students and we would like to see a more well thought out and a more human policy in place.” 

The regulations only affect international students studying on F-1 or M-1 visas, but Lee said this is a large majority of the University’s international population — around 1400 students out of the total 1600. The law could cost LSU its teaching assistants, its research conductors, its student leaders and a valuable part of the university experience. Lee, who received his Ph.D. in sociology from LSU in 1999, called these potential community implications “devastating.” 

“[International students] come here and gain a great education and are exposed to American culture, but on the other side of the coin, our native students benefit tremendously from having international friends and colleagues, and it expands their global horizons and gives them a much deeper understanding and appreciation for what people from different cultures around the world are like,” Lee said. 

Lee has been in contact with the advising units on campus about generating a list of all the international students on campus so the advisors can reach out to them individually and review their schedules. Roughly two-thirds of the University’s international population are graduate students whose classes qualify as dissertation hours, Lee said. Dissertation hours are typically categorized as face-to-face classes and involve students conducting research or field work alongside a professor. 

As for undergraduate international students, advisers will ensure students are enrolled in sections small enough to qualify for hybrid learning. Even in the case of large general education classes, there should be some sections available to meet these standards, Lee said. 

“I think we’re in good shape,” Lee said. “The international student community is a little shaken up by this, but they’re our students and we’re going to keep them here.” 

There is still a problem facing international students — whether they want to risk their health attending in-person classes or jeopardize their American education. The irony was not lost on Pathak, who wishes the University could spend another semester online without consequences. And given current international travel restrictions, he is unsure how students would even make the return. 

“Coming to the land of dreams, and just getting them written off… that will be the most disappointing day of their life, for people who get deported,” Pathak said. 

Dependra Bhatta has been working on his dissertation tirelessly to obtain his Ph.D. in agricultural economics by the summer, but due to the pandemic, he is hopeful to complete it by December. 

Bhatta was conducting research when he heard about the ICE guidelines on Monday. By the next day, the International Service Office contacted graduate students like himself to ensure that students registered for their TCs, dissertations and projects — all of which are not meant to be online courses — are “safe.” 

Despite the reassuring words for graduate students, Bhatta said the email did not discuss the fate of undergraduate international students.

When Bhatta came to the University in the fall of 2013, he didn’t expect to have any issues with ICE. Since the news broke, he was able to speak with his advisor, and his advisor assured him that something positive can come from this situation, and something will be able to protect the international students in order for them to stay in the country and continue their studies.

“It’s not possible to go back to your country in this scenario. Let’s say if someone is from Europe, and Europe has banned travel from the U.S.; how will the student go? What about international students from rural parts of the world? The internet isn’t as accessible. It would be very difficult if that situation were to come,” Bhatta said. 

With the University transferring to online coursework after the Thanksgiving break, there is an uncertainty as to whether or not this would be affected by ICE’s guidelines for international students. This puts these students in a difficult situation, according to Bhatta.

International students are continuously working on research in collaboration with the University, but in the instance that they would have to return back to their countries, the University and students’ research would deplete. 

Columbia and NYU are both creating a one credit in-person global course in order for international students to not be deported by ICE, but for the University to opt for a program like this, Bhatta said, it could pose a risk for faculty, staff, students and the campus community.

“Since the [coronavirus] cases are increasing day by day, [and] if the cases go like this, it will be very hard to operate a face-to-face class,” Bhatta said. 

Within the past three months, all domestic and international students were impacted, but this did not stop international students from continuing their work as a research or teaching assistant.

“We didn’t have any problems, until now,” Bhatta said. “Given the situation, we cannot work like before from 8 [a.m.] to 8 [p.m.]. Still we’re continuing our part to finish the research.”

Graduate student association president and international student Poku-Agyemang panicked when he heard the news about the ICE guidelines. 

“It’s something I owe to the graduate students. I owe it to every international student, not just the graduate students, even the undergraduate,” Poku-Agyemang said. “We have to do the best to make sure everybody is taken care of.”

When initially looking through the ICE guidelines, Poku-Agyemang noticed numerous “loopholes,” and he is looking forward to sharing his ideas with University administration including.

“Creating a cause to get us out of the way of deportation would be the easiest they could do, actually reaching out, making sure these international students are okay.” Poku-Agyemang said. “With the pandemic, with everything closing down, with students stranded in a country where they’re cut off from all of their support system, this is where LSU actually has to be the support system. This is where the administrators have to act like a family.”

Poku-Agyemang noted that the quarantine has been difficult, especially for international students. He reaches out to many of his peers to ensure everyone is safe and doing well, since they were unable to have the luxury to safely return home like their domestic students. He has had to work with families to help students find a place to live once campus began to close. 

Poku-Agyemang planned to be home in Ghana for the summer with his family, but unfortunately, the country had issued a travel ban on March 21. 

“To threaten these people (international students) who are in a foreign land, cut out from their support system, telling them ‘hey, I’ll deport you,’” Poku-Agyemang began. “One of my questions is where are they going to take us? Our countries are in lockdown; nobody’s coming in; there’s nowhere to go.” 

With universities such as MIT and Harvard suing the Trump Administration for the ICE guidelines for international students, Poku-Agyemang praised them for their response, starting the conversation against the injustices the international students have faced. He believes the University should sign onto these class actions and is in favor of them starting litigation of their own. “Just hop on board,” he said. 

“I may be from Ghana; you may be from the U.S.; other international students are from all other parts of the world,” Poku-Agyemang said. “Wherever I’m from, I’m still going to be a Tiger. This is when the tigers should stand for each other [in a] text, a call; These are the things international students would expect from other students.”

Poku-Agyemang felt so elated when he saw in a mail that domestic students who are going to meet their classes in person were willing to give up their seats for international students. 

“For international students I believe we’ll make it through this,” Poku-Agyemang said. “Just like a pandemic, just like everything shutting down around us, we know we’re going to make it through this. The University, I hope and believe is going to take care of us.” 

President of the International Student Association Saachi Chugh drafted an email with her team to meet with University Administration. She met with Galligan, Executive Vice Provost Stacia Haynie, the chief of staff and the international services office on July 10 via Zoom to discuss the fate of the international students. She said she is optimistic especially since the administration noted that they will not send away the international students. 

When looking at the possibility of the University transitioning into online learning — whether it is before or after Thanksgiving break — there would be a 1-2 credit hybrid program for international students in which they will be required to go to the University, according to Chugh, even if it is having a face-to-face conversation with a faculty member once every few weeks in order to not violate any federal laws. She added the University will help international students as much as possible in terms of maintaining scholarships, even if it is possible for them to lose their scholarships due to federal reasons; they will try and give them other scholarships. 

“The administration is doing a really good job tackling the situation,” Chugh said. 

In comparison to Universities suing the Trump administration due to these ICE guidelines, the University said they are supporting this notion highly, including having numerous conversations on speaking with immigration services to help students who’ve traveled back to their countries to return back safely to the University. 

“It’s not okay. Especially considering the situation of the pandemic, the borders are closed for so many countries,” Chugh said. “It’s more like the students are stranded, and there was one thing they were sure about during this pandemic, and that was their education, and now they're not even sure about that. It’s really disturbing. It’s really mean.”

Chugh said it was “so lovely” how Galligan and Haynie both indicated that if international students have to take classes, they would provide an in-person credit to meet with them. She added that she commends their work as an international student. 

Despite not having a concrete statement for hybrid courses for international students after Thanksgiving break, she is confident the University will be doing everything they can so international students won’t have to leave. 

“I believe that the administrations and the officials understand that everybody right now, especially the internationals are in a tough position. They’re doing their best to help us out. Of course we should raise the concerns that we have to fight back what’s happening, and just be optimistic about the fact that we are strong enough to get through this,” Chugh said to international students. “We are strong enough to come here and study. We are strong to get through this and get our degrees.” 

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