After it was announced the pandemic would bring classes into a remote setting this spring term, the majority of Knox students flocked home. International students—who face challenges in their ability to both go home and return to the U.S—have largely stayed on campus.
“Luckily I haven’t had any communication barrier with my family at home. Everything is still in place,” senior Tehreem Anwar said. “But just like the U.S, my country (Pakistan) is also locked down. Airports have been shut down so that means I can’t go home if the situation goes bad and it’s true for most of the other countries represented at Knox here too and that’s why most of the students are here too.”
International students who pursue an undergraduate or graduate college degree in the United States maintain F-1 visas, allowing them four years in the country as long as they remain full-time students. After those four years are completed, international students can apply for one additional year to attain work experience in the U.S—known as Optional Practical Training (OPT).
As the pandemic grounded international flights, students from other countries were forced at the end of winter term to make a difficult decision: Remain in the U.S. separated from their family, or go home without any certainty of when they would be able to return.
“It’s really hard being an international student because my parents are really worried about me because the U.S. is number one in (COVID-19) cases right now and you know it’s getting worse and worse day by day,” said Musaddiq Javed, a senior from Pakistan.
Javed was looking forward to going home over spring break and after he was shut in his Galesburg apartment, thought it would be better to join his family in Pakistan. But ultimately his parents and him agreed he should stay in the U.S. He has seen freshman and sophomore international students return home but unlike them, seniors such as Javed and Anwar are nearly finished with their four-year visa.
Once international students graduate they have a 60 day window to apply for OPT. International students can only apply for OPT if they are within the U.S. and though they do not need to have a job to initially secure OPT, according to UC Berkely’s International Office the 12 month visa only allows 90 days of unemployment.
For this reason, Javed decided to stay in the U.S. and not graduate this spring as originally planned but take another term in the Fall to buy more time to secure OPT.
Anwar is considering whether she will do the same. She stayed on campus, continuing on as a Resident Assistant in Hamblin Hall for the term, but given the hiring freezes and layoffs widespread throughout the U.S. she said she is finding it difficult to secure a job.
“It’s already hard finding jobs as an international student but it’s harder in a situation like this,” Anwar said. “Like if someone wants to work and they really have to go back home because they can’t afford expenses here or in case something happens—or if someone back home is sick—they won’t be able to apply for OPT.”
For Anwar and many other international students, OPT is a critical component of their time in the U.S.
“Honestly, given how much financial resources my parents have sacrificed and provided me with so I can come to the U.S. it would be sad for me to go back home without any practical work experience,” Anwar said.
While it remains uncertain when international flights will be fully reopened, international students will continue to live on campus. Freshman Shubhanga Satyal said he contacted the school’s Office of Campus Life and confirmed he would be able to live at Knox if he cannot return home to Nepal over the summer.
“It doesn’t feel like college anymore,” Satyal said. “It feels like I live here.”