Internships, Leaves of Absence and Local University Enrollment: How international students are experiencing the semester from their home countries

For freshmen, in particular, travel restrictions for newly enrolled international students have altered the course of their fall semesters.

From travel restrictions imposed on foreign nationals from more than 30 countries to the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement rule announced in July that would have deported or barred entry for non-U.S. citizens enrolled in online-only courses at American universities for the fall, 2020 has been a year of uncertainty for international students. With nearly 25% of USC undergraduates coming from outside of the country, the COVID-19 pandemic has adversely impacted large portions of the student body that call the U.S. their second home.

USC was among a coalition of 20 institutions in the western United States to sue the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and ICE for their allegedly discriminatory ban on international students. President Carol Folt announced this move in a community-wide email on July 13. Following major outrage from U.S. universities and students throughout the world, ICE eventually rescinded the discriminatory ban, but revised its target. On July 24, ICE announced that newly enrolled graduate and undergraduate students with foreign citizenships, “will not be able to enter the U.S. to enroll in a U.S. school… for the fall term to pursue a full course of study that is 100 percent online.”

According to the USC Office of Admission, 12% of students in the USC Class of 2024 are student visa holders — these freshmen were unable to study in the U.S. as a result of the policy. This year, international students have also grappled with more travel and education challenges than their U.S. citizen counterparts. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and constantly changing travel policies, many international students decided to remain in their home countries this semester.

Annie Xie, a freshman majoring in communication, grew up and currently lives in Shanghai, China, though she maintains Canadian citizenship. When the Canadian government offered assistance to evacuate its citizens from China in early February, just as COVID-19 began to gain global attention and concern, Annie and her family decided to stay in Shanghai for her father’s job.

“Shanghai was dead,” said Xie, in reference to China’s lockdown between the months of February and March. “There was no activity anywhere.”

Xie recalled seeing empty streets during her runs throughout her neighborhood, noting that the only people outside were the occasional delivery workers for food and shopping services. Earlier this year, the Shanghai Municipal Government implemented strict lockdown rules, including limitations on personnel entering and exiting neighborhoods, checkpoints at highways entering the city, suspension of public events and mandatory mask mandates, among other guidelines. But after a few months of confinement at home, Xie was relieved to see Shanghai return to normal by May.

“When I saw the color-coded map [that tracked coronavirus cases] slowly turned to green from red, I knew it was finally over,” Xie said.

Xie attributes Shanghai’s fairly successful control over the virus to effective municipal leadership and citizens' compliance with stay-at-home orders. And unlike many high school seniors in other parts of the world, including the U.S., Xie was able to attend her high school graduation as planned.

Though certain travel bans on select foreign nationals do not apply to Xie due to her Canadian citizenship, she plans to stay in China for the fall semester due to health concerns. However, the challenges international students face go beyond travel restrictions and uncertain academic status. For students taking classes from their home countries, adjusting to time differences and online learning has proved difficult.

USC Provost Charles Zukoski announced that for international students, class attendance would not be required for classes that are scheduled outside of the traditional 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. time frame for students' local time zones. As an alternative, USC now requires professors to record their classes so that students can watch recordings and learn asynchronously, which gives them flexibility to work in their own adaptable time zones.

However, Xie, along with many others, insists on taking her four courses synchronously through Zoom.

“I think synchronous classes are more effective,” Xie said. “But still, the nocturnal schedule [is challenging] though.”

It has become typical for Xie to stay up for classes past midnight, wake up at 5 a.m., nap in between her courses and sleep during the day. But despite being over 6,000 miles away from Los Angeles, Xie has still been able to connect with USC classmates and get involved in organizations such as the Chinese American Student Association.

But Xie is not alone in these challenges. Alexis Lu, a freshman majoring in communication also from Shanghai, said she has also lived through months of lockdown, similar to Xie. After her high school graduation in May, however, she has enjoyed increased freedom to be with friends in the city, where temperature checks and ID registrations are implemented to ensure public health and safety.

Lu spoke to Annenberg Media from her apartment arranged by Shanghai Jiao Tong University. She is currently enrolled as a part of the “Go-Local” Program at SJTU. According to an email in early August from USC’s Associate Vice Provost for Global Engagement in the Office of Strategic and Global Initiatives Paulo Rodrigues, the “Go Local” program is hosted by the USC-SJTU Institute of Cultural and Creative Industry, a partnership between the two universities that primarily provides Master’s programs to Shanghai-based graduate students.

Following guidance from the University and from OSGI, Lu decided to take her USC classes asynchronously, watching lecture recordings instead of joining live video classes. In order to better her studies, Lu also frequently communicates with her professors and teaching assistants through email. But on top of taking 16 units, Lu is also enrolled in three non-credit SJTU courses. She decided to take advantage of the "Go Local'' program because it offers an on-campus environment for local Chinese students and an academic atmosphere for her to network with fellow students and professors. Lu finds that the program has given her great in-person opportunities, compared to solely taking USC classes on Zoom.

While Lu and Xie are tackling the challenges of attending USC from China, other students in the region are taking advantage of online courses to gain work experience. Hana Liu, a junior majoring in intelligence and cyber operations, returned to her home country of Taiwan in March, right after USC announced that students would be leaving the school as then-concerns of the pandemic increased.

“People started panicking about corona in L.A.,” Liu said, “And I was worried that USC might close residential buildings and I’d have to move out of my dorm at the risk of exposing myself to the virus.”

Liu also noted that because Taiwanese public health authorities had already started monitoring travelers from China since late December 2019, and seemed to be steps ahead of the U.S., she believed that it was best for her to return home. After finishing the spring semester at home, Hana decided to take a leave of absence, or a gap semester, from her studies.

“Since the school already informed us that the fall semester would be remote, I didn’t want to pay for full tuition if the classes were gonna be online,” Liu said. “I won’t be able to access facilities like the libraries and swimming pools either.”

During her time away from USC and amid the pandemic, Liu is grateful to have found an internship to fill her time. Currently, she is working as an intern for Deloitte Taiwan, a regional branch for the multinational consulting firm in Taipei. Liu said that the advantage of taking time away from USC at home in Taiwan is that entering the workforce has given her a better understanding of how she wants to spend her time at USC when she returns to campus.

“While I gain more hands-on experience in work, I also start to see what type of classes I need to take to advance my knowledge in the area,” Liu said.

For the time being, however, she plans to stay in Taiwan for safety concerns.

“I do wish to return to campus next semester, though,” Liu said, “No matter how things turn out, I’d like to be at school to study. Plus I don’t think I can stand living with my parents for another semester.”

As a spring admit, Liu did not get to spend her freshman fall semester on campus. She also spent her sophomore fall away from L.A. to study abroad. Liu feels as though she has not yet experienced the full extent of an academic year on campus.

“I was really looking forward to the tailgate season, so hopefully things will get back on track by next fall,” she said.

Whether it’s attending USC classes over Zoom, taking classes at a local college, or pursuing internship experiences on a leave of absence, USC students have each found new and unique ways to advance themselves during this global health crisis.