Editorial: Tufts must reflect on past and future needs of international students amidst crises

On the evening of March 10, our student body received an email that outlined the university’s response to the spread of COVID-19. However necessary, this action decimated the normalcy of college life, giving students living on campus only six days to pack their belongings and move out of their homes; with changing travel restrictions and midterms compounding already, this announcement peaked student stress. In an attempt to curb some of this upheaval, the university reassured the community in the email that “students who are unable to return to their permanent residences at this time due to travel restrictions or other significant constraints will be allowed to remain in the dormitories.” 

Despite this effort to mitigate anxieties, Tufts did not succeed in doing so, for a series of decisions forced community members, in particular international and exchange students, to deal with unnecessary uncertainty and distress. The aforementioned positive intention of housing was immediately overshadowed by the Office of Residential Life and Learning’s (ORLL) rejecting many requests for extended stay; Tufts received 590 applications for on-campus housing and only 301 of those students were granted a chance to stay on-campus, leaving nearly 49% of students who applied for on-campus housing without a place to live. Unfortunately, these rejections included many international and exchange students, severely limiting their options to purchasing an expensive international flight home amid daily changes to travel restrictions or scrambling to find off-campus housing on their own. Tufts student organizations, such as Tufts Mutual Aid (TMA), as well as the FIRST Center, stepped in to fill the void left by the university and help peers with last-minute housing and travel plans. Despite the difficult decision to send students home amidst unprecedented circumstances and time restrictions, Tufts should have provided more extensive support to its international and exchange students in the early days of the crisis. As our community moves forward from this event, Tufts must emphasize the importance of their international populations by ensuring the administration’s proper attention to this valuable community in the future.

Tufts’ handling of the circumstance posed extensive problems for international students. In addition to the pressing time constraints and burdensome expenses that complicated travel arrangements for many students, international students had to take into account international travel restrictions as well as the outbreak status in their home countries. In the university’s email regarding its COVID-19 plans, Tufts announced that all students must desert campus by the afternoon of Monday, March 16, unless granted extended stay by the ORLL. While some international students could return home quickly, others faced much hardship as a consequence of the university’s deficits.

Sophomore Lyanna Abdul-Rahman, a student from Singapore, was among the many left scrambling the week of the announcement. She planned to stay on campus over spring break, but she did not receive clear instructions from Tufts’ administration about the new policy until it was too late. After reaching out to three people from TMA, Abdul-Rahman did not receive housing.

“I wish they had given us more time to figure things out,” she said. Luckily, a friend of a friend allowed her to move in; however, the university’s denial led to the need for last-minute stressful arrangements on top of the unavoidable incertitude of the situation.

Exchange students also faced extensive difficulties as a result of the university’s decision to suspend the Global Education program as students in this program were informed that the “exchange student program will close effective March 20, 2020” with the expectation that students would depart the U.S. by that date. However, the cancellation of the exchange program contradicted the university’s earlier public statements, which asserted that the visa status of international students would remain unaffected by the transition to online learning. After the release of the university’s March 10 email, Carlos Aroca Fernandez, an exchange student who lived in the Spanish house, was denied a housing extension from the ORLL, leading to his quick arrangement to move off-campus only to then receive the email announcing the cancellation of the Global Education program. Further, as Aroca Fernadez experienced first-hand, the delayed communication from the Tufts administration only exacerbated the already persistent stress of exchange students in this time.

Thus, the Tufts administration should have taken greater measures to ensure the security of its international students and must maintain the safety of these students in the future. In order to allow a longer, more stable adjustment period, Tufts should have given students at least a week and a half to move out and mandated midterm rescheduling. While many professors canceled class and pushed back exams on their own accord, some professors still expected distressed students to complete midterms and coursework on top of arranging travel accommodations and moving out. While this adjustment would have helped all students, international students would have especially benefited considering the extreme nature of moving out, shipping items and traveling back to far-away homes. Abdul-Rahman echoed this concern.

“If they had given us a week to figure things out, I think most people living around the area would have gone home early, and then the people who are still behind would have had time to figure out what they were doing,” Abdul-Rahman said. 

Beyond exacerbating these unfortunate move-out and academic situations, the compounded anxieties caused by the housing crisis proved unnecessary, for Tufts has over 25 residence halls, leaving more than enough room for students in need. Although we commend President Monaco’s dormitory to patient-housing reconfiguration, this effort is compatible with fully addressing student needs given this ample dormitory space. When deciding who to grant on-campus housing to throughout the COVID-19 crisis, the ORLL should have, and should in the future, consider international students in conjunction with the needs of our Massachusetts and global communities — and if the university was truly unable to house international students, they should have immediately connected them to resources or students looking to sublet their off-campus housing.

The university should have addressed the similarly unanticipated impacts on exchange students as well, for students’ visas were canceled as a result of the move to distance learning. Because of the exchange program’s discontinuation, students were left with no choice but to return to their respective countries on very short notice, regardless of their countries’ safety status.

We acknowledge the sudden nature of this crisis that affected both the administration and students. However, this situation must serve as a wake-up call for the university to implement improved strategic procedures to ensure that its international student populations are not affected so adversely again. Further, Tufts should set, and release, a statement on their policies regarding dorm stay extensions, specifying that international community members in pressing situations can remain on-campus. In order to ensure this effort’s success, the university should also compile a list of those willing to offer emergency off-campus housing. A committee and fund could help organize this necessary action that, although especially imperative in this time, would prove helpful for emergency international situations both on a community and individual basis in the future. On a wider scale, implementing a secondary public procedure that specifies the scale of crises warranting midterm rescheduling would hold professors accountable to changing midterm dates if faced with a community-wide or individual crisis like that caused by COVID-19. In this form, the university expresses its commitment to all students regardless of where they reside across our globe.