While all students at Dakota State University live in uncertain times, one group faces more uncertainties than others.
Each day, the number of active COVID-19 cases in the state grows, with the number at DSU following that trend. As of Tuesday morning, 11 students had tested positive and 71 students and employees were in quarantine or isolation.
But, for international students, that is just the tip of the iceberg. Last week, the Department of Homeland Security indicated plans to change the way student visas are handled in the United States.
"There are all kinds of changes coming for my students on F-1 visas," said Nicole Claussen, director of international programs at DSU.
On average, more than 50 international students attend DSU each year. This fall, 28 undergraduate students and 28 graduate students are enrolled, with seven taking classes online from their home countries.
The largest populations come from India, Nepal and Ethiopia, but students also come from South America, Asia, Europe and other African countries, according to Claussen. Of these, approximately 65% are enrolled in the Beacom College of Computer and Cyber Sciences and another 20% are studying in the College of Business and Information Systems, she indicated.
DSU is attractive to foreign students not only because the university is more affordable than many American colleges and universities, and because it offers the programs they are seeking, but also because of the Madison community.
"My students love walking down the street because it's so calm and so welcoming," Claussen said. "They think they have died and gone to heaven."
She reported that one student found it impossible to describe to family members back home in India how peaceful he finds life in Madison. Another student from the United Arab Emirates was awestruck by the night sky; he had never before seen the stars.
To attend DSU, students must not only be fluent in English and have acceptable SAT scores but also jump through hoops in order to get a visa. This year, that proved to be even more difficult than in the past due to COVID-19.
"Last January, we had a record number of applications for graduate and undergraduate students," Claussen said. "I could have had an amazing fall."
Between 40 and 50 students who were accepted could not even get visa interviews because the U.S. embassies around the world were closed.
While facing uncertainties created by the pandemic, those who wish to study in the U.S. have had to face additional uncertainties created by the Trump administration. In July, the administration introduced a rule barring international students from living in the U.S. while taking online classes during the pandemic.
The administration later backpedaled on that rule but has more recently introduced significant rule changes in a 256-page document. The changes come at a time when Canada, the U.K. and Australia are rolling out the red carpet to attract international students, according to Claussen.
"The number of international students has declined in the U.S. in the last three years," she said.
Those who attend American universities are concerned with the uncertainties posed by the rule changes, especially as they are reflected on social media. Claussen said that she has had students come to her crying and has comforted them by encouraging them to check their information sources.
"You have to be careful what you listen to, who you listen to," she said she tells students.
That being said, she did acknowledge that the proposed changes will make it more difficult for international students to study in the States.
"They have a whole new set of requirements," Claussen said.
In the past, student visas were initially issued for five years. Students could then get an extension to attend graduate school and another extension to complete a PhD. In addition, international students could get an extension of up to three years for Optional Practical Training (OPT), which is temporary employment related to the student's field of study.
With the proposed changes, student visas will be issued for either two or four years, depending upon the student's country of origin. Students can still file for extensions, but there is a cost associated with that and no guarantee that the extension will be granted, according to Claussen.
"There's going to be paperwork, a huge fee, and they'll have to wait for an answer each time," she explained. She is surprised that decades-old rules are being changed.
Unlike their American counterparts, international students' options are limited, especially since they cannot work off campus to support themselves. They essentially had three alternatives when the campus closed in March.
"A couple went home and came back. Some went home and stayed," Claussen said. "The rest just stayed here with relatives and friends. They realized that if they went home, they might not get back here."
In speaking about the student population with which she works, Claussen emphasized two points. First, DSU graduates will work in a global world, and it's good for all of them to have multi-cultural experiences while still in college. Second, international students appreciate the opportunity to live and study in Madison.
"They have huge connections to families in the community," she said.