University of Iowa international students contend with online curriculum and time differences

With a hybrid instruction at the UI for the fall semester, international students chose to stay in the US or travel back to their home countries.

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University of Iowa sophomore and member of OASIS (Organization for the Active Support of International Students) Sydney Nguyen poses for a portrait outside of Phillips Hall on Tuesday, September 22, 2020. Originally from Vietnam, Nguyen came to the university her freshman year to pursue a degrees in English and creative writing.

Sabine Martin, News Reporter


University of Iowa international student Saloni Upadhyay faced a decision in March — whether she should fly home to her family in Mumbai or stick out the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. She chose to stay and traveled to live with relatives in New Jersey when the UI announced it would offer hybrid instruction for the fall semester.

“I had to change my plan,” Upadhyay said. “I felt pressure at all times and then decided to stay here [in the U.S.] when the university announced their plans.”

In an email to The Daily Iowan, UI Associate Director of International Student and Scholar Services Michael Bortschellersaid students were not forced to leave when COVID-19 began spreading in the U.S.

The needs assessment of international students studying in the spring semester found that around 90 percent of respondents said that they were still in the U.S., he said.

“Many continuing students who had courses which required them to be inside the U.S. have already returned,” Bortscheller said. “Others are choosing to take a full course load of online classes from their home country and hope to return in the spring semester. Some have decided to take the fall semester off entirely and resume full-time study in the spring.”

For students choosing to return for the spring semester, the earliest they can enter the U.S.x is 30 days before the start of spring courses, Bortscheller said.

UI administrators expected to maintain the same number of returning international students, but see a drop in incoming international students for the fall. The UI hasn’t yet released its breakdown of international, in-state, and out-of-state students for the 30,000-plus student campus. But the UI’s class of 2024 maintained the same share of international students —69 of 4,530, or 2 percent. That’s the same as the 2019 class, when 120 freshmen were international students.

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UI international student Sydney Nguyen said she considered going back to her home country of Vietnam, however she opted to sign a lease for an apartment in Iowa City and live off campus instead.

Nguyen said she watched many of her close friends choose to travel back to their home countries. She said they now have to adjust to the time difference between here and there, while they take their classes from their respective home countries.

“My friend just had to change her whole schedule to be in classes and meetings and everything because she is also involved in student organizations,” Nguyen said. “It is very tough, and I don’t think that it has only happened to her.”

Bortscheller said the UI has made accommodations for international students who are in their home countries.

“We have encouraged colleges to offer classes in such a way that will allow students to get the information at a time that is reasonable in their home countries,” he said. “This means that some courses are being offered earlier in the U.S. so that they will be in the early evening hours for students overseas. Others are taught in a way that students can keep up with the material asynchronously.”

Bortscheller said UI International Programs, the Academic Advising Center, Admissions, English as a Second Language Programs, and representatives from some of the colleges met in spring and summer 2020 to ensure that the UI was thinking about international students who would not be able or who would not want to return to the U.S. to study in person this fall.

The U.S. Student and Exchange Visitor Program rescinded an order in July that had stated “Nonimmigrant F-1 and M-1 students attending schools operating entirely online may not take a full online course load and remain in the United States.”

Bortscheller said both the constantly changing announcements from the program over the summer and general uncertainty because of the COVID-19 pandemic created a stressful situation for international students.

“It sure created chaos that was very unnecessary,” Nguyen said. “I don’t want to straight up say xenophobia, but there is for sure something underlying there.”

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