USC professors grapple with international travel restrictions

For the university’s global community of faculty members, the pandemic has complicated life.

A plane takes off at LAX Airport.

As USC approaches the one-year anniversary of transitioning to online learning, its international community of professors is reflecting on the challenges and unexpected opportunities the pandemic has brought about.

Constantly changing restrictions have made international travel complicated for many, which is especially stressful for those who do not call the United States home. For USC professors, these challenges differ depending on their individual citizenship status.

“I have [gone back home] because I have a green card,” said Raffaella Ghittoni, an assistant professor of biological sciences who is originally from Italy. “I could travel back to Italy because I was Italian, and the advantage was that I could come back because I was a permanent resident.” Unfortunately, Ghittoni added, not every professor has that luxury.

Many don’t want to risk the prospect of infection from traveling, but for some — those from China, Iran, Brazil and South Africa — the U.S. maintains travel restrictions that legally ban them from getting aboard airplanes to return home. Additionally, there are 143 foreign national teaching and research faculty at USC who require visa sponsorship in order to reside in the U.S., said Joseph Elias, who directs visa services for faculty and staff.

As a result of the discovery of the highly infectious COVID-19 variants that originated in the U.K. and South Africa, several presidential proclamations currently suspend and limit entry to noncitizens into the U.S. from over 20 countries including China, Iran, Brazil, South Africa, Europe and the United Kingdom. These strict travel bans mean that professors currently residing in these countries may have difficulty returning to campus in the fall. At the least, they will have to present a negative COVID-19 test taken within three days of departure or proof of recovery from the virus within the last 90 days if they attempt to fly back to the U.S.

Robert English, an international relations professor at USC, traveled to Italy for the summer with his wife. He said the two got stuck there through the beginning of the spring semester after it became difficult for them to find a direct flight back that they felt comfortable taking. Most flights stopped in other European cities, which English worried would exacerbate their chances of contracting COVID-19. They were eventually able to secure a flight with strict COVID-19 testing regulations and returned in late February.

English said the great difficulty of teaching abroad was the time difference. Both English and his wife are USC professors, and their class schedules often ran until 2:30 a.m. English added that they were lucky to have exceptionally good wifi and understanding neighbors who didn’t mind the late-night noise.

Despite this, the unusual instruction had its upsides for English.”The pandemic just magnified everything, all the divisions and the frictions between the U.S. and Europe under the Trump administration,” he said. “For me, it actually enhanced the teaching quite a bit.”

He could see one of the Italian Navy’s ports from his apartment, which he says provided an enriching virtual “field trip” experience for students in a class he teaches on technology and international relations.

Other professors living outside of the U.S. may want to plan on adopting English’s immersive international teaching style, as U.S. travel bans continue to shift.