UI international students grapple with difficult decisions on travel plans with upcoming winter break

While no new travel restrictions have been put in place since the start of the Fall semester, international students must take into account a variety of factors when it comes to health and safety, as well as regulations and flights.



Mary Hartel, News Reporter

International students across the U.S. and at the University of Iowa have an added COVID-19 stressor: figuring out travel plans during the pandemic.

When UI senior Mingzhe Liu went home to China in June, he said he had no idea when he would be returning to the U.S. Though he opted to complete the fall semester from his home in Beijing, Liu said he was looking forward to returning to campus for his final semester in the spring.

With increasing animosity toward immigrants and safety concerns throughout the country, however, Liu said he’s struggling to decide whether or not returning to campus is in his best interest.

Liu, who is a marketing analytics major, said he opted to stay in China for the fall semester because his parents were concerned about his safety. Although he was originally planning to return to campus in January, Liu said, with raising COVID-19 cases and difficulty tracking down flights, now he is not so sure.

UI Associate Director of International Student and Scholar Services Michael Bortscheller said in an email to The Daily Iowan that while there are no blanket travel restrictions for international students being able to come back, students need to take other factors into account, including health, safety, and coordination.

Bortscheller added that International Student and Scholar Services is advising students to consult with them to discuss personal traveling plans.

While there was a “whirlwind” of changes during the spring and summer, nothing has changed since the start of the fall semester, Bortscheller said.

“There are no new changes which would cause students from any particular country to be concerned about not being able to reenter,” Bortscheller said. “However, the ability to enter or re-enter the U.S. is determined by a number of factors which may be affected by current executive orders and health safety closures.”

Bortscheller said re-entry into the U.S. is already more difficult for students from Brazil, China, Iran, Ireland, the Schengen Area, and the United Kingdom because of an executive order signed in the spring that states all noncitizens must spend at least 14 days outside of these countries before entering the U.S.

“That is incredibly difficult to coordinate,” Bortscheller said.

When students return to the U.S., they need an unexpired passport, an unexpired visa, and a signed immigration document, Bortscheller said.

“If a student’s visa has expired, they must apply to renew their visa at a [U.S.] Consulate or Embassy overseas.” Bortscheller said. “Many of these facilities are either closed or only partially open. If the conditions in a student’s home country prevent them from being able to renew, then they would not be able to return.”

Director of Academic Support and Retention Mirra Anson said the office has been collaborating with different administrators and offices across campus to provide specific resources for international students to help them navigate difficult situations amid the pandemic.

“We’re here to support them in whatever their needs may be,” Anson said. “And whatever may be best for them.”

The biggest concern for him, Liu said, is his personal health because he is not sure people in the U.S. are handling the virus in the right way. He said that he did not see many mask-wearers before he left in June.

When he returned to China, Liu said he had to spend 14 days quarantining in a hotel before re-entering society and seeing his family.

Liu said he feels safer in China because people treat the virus more seriously, whereas in America people act very “brave,” like they aren’t afraid or concerned about the virus — they think it is nothing.

“If I cannot return, I will definitely be sad. I really love Iowa City and I really love [the] University of Iowa,” Liu said. “Because this is a place that I had all my experience in America for these years.”

RELATED: Federal proposal could limit the duration of status for international students

Liu said most of his friends from the UI chose to stay in China for the same reasons as him.

“Usually, most Chinese students like [to] go back to America, because America is kind of like freedom,” Liu said. “And also, there are no parents around you.”

Liu added that being home feels lonely because all of his friends from China live in different provinces. For these reasons, he said he hopes he can return in the spring.

“It is a great university, and the people in Iowa are very friendly. And I love them. And I also love the teachers and professors,” Liu said. “I’m missing Iowa City now, I think I will try my best if I can return to America because I really want to take a picture with my friends at the University of Iowa after graduation.”