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Kansas City Colleges Plan To Reopen, But Uncertainty For International Students If They Have To Close Again

About 16% of Park University's enrollment is international students.
Park University
Park University
About 16% of Park University's enrollment is international students.

New visa rules don't allow international students to stay in the U.S. if a coronavirus outbreak forces their university to move classes online.

The Trump administration announced earlier this week that international students taking all of their classes online will have to leave the country. But, international students taking a combination of in-person and online classes will be allowed to stay in the U.S., but they will have to leave if their school switches to online-only later in the semester.

The Association of American Universities immediately condemned the policy as misguided and “deeply cruel” in the middle of a public health crisis, as did many schools in and around Kansas City.

Joy Stevenson, the director of international affairs at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said not all of the students she works with can log into online classes from their home countries.

“In some countries, that would be very simple to do. In others, they may not have an internet connection. There might be limits to ... what software is allowed,” Stevenson said. “There’s a lot of advocacy going on trying to push back on this rule and others like it.”

President Trump has made it very clear that he wants schools open next year, from pre-K to college. He has also directed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to divert funding from K-12 schools that don’t re-open this fall. The Immigration & Customs policy for international students was announced as prominent colleges like Harvard committed to remote learning for the academic year. .

International students typically pay more to attend U.S. colleges and universities, and losing them now would hurt already cash-strapped schools. At UMKC, international students make up about 5% of enrollment.

But, the loss of international students will impact more than the bottom line. Stevenson said losing them would undermine efforts in recent years to create an international campus experience in Kansas City.

“This is a global world,” Stevenson said. “It’s important that all of our graduates have that exposure and that experience, that they understand how to work with individuals who have different cultural backgrounds.”

A New World Order

The global pandemic has already disrupted the lives and education of international students. When colleges and universities started closing in March, many international students were stranded on campus, unable to get flights home. Others couldn’t renew their visas because embassies and consulates were closed.

“From a visa perspective and a travel perspective, it’s very difficult to get home and very difficult to return,” Park University President Greg Gunderson said. “We’ve been trying to help our international students during the summer by employing additional students on campus because they can’t work off campus except in their field of study.”

About 16% of Park University’s 1,600 students are from other countries. Gunderson said because Park is so small, he knows many of the international students personally. Like their American classmates, many are struggling financially because of the pandemic, and Park is trying to help them with a campus food pantry and other resources.

Because Park is planning to blend in-person instruction with remote learning this fall, Gunderson said international students who want to live in the Kansas City area should be able to maintain their visas.

But if the number of new coronavirus cases continues to trend upward, and local colleges and universities have to close, international students will be in limbo.

Missouri Commissioner of Education Zora Mulligan said it’s a “complicated issue” that “institutions are working on addressing to make sure students are served as effectively as possible.”

Mulligan made the comment at a news conference to announce $80 million in state aid to help colleges return to in-person instruction next month. Gov. Mike Parson, who met with the President on Tuesday, also wants all schools to reopen next year.

Re-imagining the College Experience

At the University of Missouri, international students who were able to go home have been told to arrive in Columbia no later than Aug. 10 so that they can quarantine for two weeks before classes start.

They will return to a campus that looks very different than the one they left in March. Most large lectures will be taught online or staggered throughout the week with a different group of students rotating in each class. Professors will teach wearing face shields. Students will be required to wear masks in classrooms.

Despite an expected decline in enrollment, MU President Mun Choi said freshman enrollment is up about 2%.

As students prepare to return to class, UMKC director of admissions, Alice Arredondo, said their primary questions are whether classes will be online or in-person and what the university will do when someone tests positive for COVID-19.

And, they are also concerned about making friends and participating in campus life.

“Will we have recruitment for the Greek organizations? Will we have an opportunity for students to get involved in other activities on campus? The answer to all of those questions is yes, but we won’t be gathering in groups of 500 or 600,” said Arredondo, the director of admissions at UMKC.

Arredondo said most of the families she’s been working with who were undecided about enrolling for the fall semester have committed, not wanting to delay the college experience. But she also doesn’t think higher education can go back to what it was like pre-pandemic.

“Everything we did was face-to-face,” Arredondo said. “COVID changed that pretty quickly. We had to move into that virtual environment, and families appreciated that they could get on and get their questions answered quickly. A lot of families didn’t have the ability to travel around the country for that initial look at colleges and universities. I know from an admissions and recruitment perspective, we’re not ever going to be able to go back to what we were before.”

KCUR is licensed to the University of Missouri Board of Curators and is an editorially independent community service of the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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