As many OU Norman students prepare to move off campus and leave behind their residence halls over coming weeks, several hundred international students are stuck in place and bracing to deal with the financial burden of lost jobs and continued expenses.
OU is home to a community of more than 2,000 international students from more than 100 countries who are already feeling the impact of COVID-19’s worldwide spread. International travel restrictions, loss of university jobs and tightening finances mean that for now, many of those students have nowhere else to go.
As of Friday, a survey put out by OU’s International Advisory Committee showed that slightly more than 250 out of about 500 international student respondents said they are unable to get home right now, IAC president Youssef Kamel said. Another 140 students said they are potentially able to get home, but weren’t sure of the details yet, Kamel said.
While the survey does not represent all of OU’s international students, many countries have closed borders or air travel restrictions right now, and the U.S. government has cautioned against international travel. Kamel’s home country of Egypt has suspended air travel until March 31, leaving him far from loved ones for now.
“Even if people decide to try to go back home, it is near impossible,” Kamel said. “...I feel trapped, a little bit — I’m not here with my family, I’m not here with most of my support networks. Of course, I have friends and I have people who I care about and who care about me, and there has been a lot of support shown from a lot of institutions, but I’m not home. That usually is something that we deal with everyday, but right now, in times of crisis, it’s always a little bit better to be around family.”
On top of their inability to return home for now, many international students are out of work.
Over the last week, as OU has shifted the rest of its spring semester online and started to implement various precautionary measures against the virus, the university has also announced that only some of its student employees will be able to return to work.
“Not a lot of people have places that they can fall back onto, so they are forced to stay here and without any employment, staying here will get expensive...a lot of students who have student employment jobs are currently unable to work,” Kamel said.
While student employees have been encouraged to telework when possible, many of the university’s dining options are closed for the remainder of the semester, and students in jobs that require in-person work are finding themselves without an income for the last few weeks of the semester. OU has committed to paying student employees two-week transition pay, but has not announced any further measures for those workers.
Kamel is an Arabic tutor and can do his job virtually, but said that other international students – especially those who work in food services — have not been as fortunate this week. OU is allowing international students to stay in campus housing while most other students have been asked to move out over the next few weeks, but Kamel said housing, tuition and even basic necessity costs are going to be significant for international students who are now out of work and have few other resources.
“International students depend primarily on university employment, because our F1 visas do not allow us to work anywhere outside of campus, which means that with a lot of jobs either stopping — especially Housing & Food, which is the largest international student employer at the university — or [reduced hours], all of that means that basically, there is so much less work that is available for international students,” Kamel said. “...Currently there are just very little support networks for international students in the United States, which means that it’s kind of hard to do much.”
Because of restrictions on social gatherings and events, IAC has already had to cancel its biggest event of the year, the Eve of Nations. Students spend months planning the Eve of Nations, a huge multicultural event that was scheduled for April 10 this year.
The IAC has already set up a GoFundMe to help cover some of the costs that international students will face. The fundraiser — which has raised more than $2,800 so far — will offer money to international students who apply for assistance. The organization has started offering a community bank that will allow students to share supplies and services.
OU’s College of International Studies also offers an International Student Emergency Relief Scholarship of up to $1,000, and the university has launched a fundraising campaign called “Sooners Helping Sooners” that should offer some assistance, Kamel said. Kamel and other university leaders are involved in a working group that is looking at best solutions for helping international students through the rest of the semester
Kamel said the university is actively working to assist and accommodate international students, but there are still a lot of details to work out. Students who can return home are still trying to figure out how to best access online classes internationally, and the working group is still discussing housing and food details for students who are staying.
For now, while international students are supporting international students and OU is working out support for thousands of students, there’s a lot of remaining concern.
“There is a lot of worry — there’s a lot of uncertainty, and that’s something that the university is trying to deal with on a bigger scale,” Kamel said.
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