OPINION: Pomona must address stresses faced by international students during distance learning

(Jadyn Lee • The Student Life)

For international students returning to Claremont, exchanging horror stories from the COVID-19 semesters has become a new bonding activity. One and a half years of remote learning did not normalize taking midnight classes and calculating time differences for exams and assignments. Besides the struggles with time zones, international students constantly worried about travel restrictions and maintaining a valid F-1 student status, all while struggling to justify the overwhelming tuition fees for asynchronous classes that are usually unsubsidized for international students.

Ziang Xue PO ’23 maintained a schedule of waking up at midnight for two whole semesters to attend the classes required to graduate on time. The nocturnal semesters left him with loneliness and physical discomfort, which he took a whole summer to recover from.

Anna Choi PO ’23 lost much of the quality time she could have spent with family and friends because she had to go to bed very early for 5 a.m. classes. She also dropped her sociology class because of the synchronous discussions that happened at midnight in her time zone.

Riki Imai PO ’24 took a gap semester after a remote one in fall 2020, where he struggled with attending classes and submitting assignments on time, saying that his mental health was severely impacted during that period.

When Charlotte Cheah PO ’23 had a chance to spend a semester at Yale-NUS College in Singapore, she had to make a petition and gain support from the Pomona faculty after being rejected multiple times by email from Dean of the College Robert Gaines. Ultimately, she was told she would be allowed to transfer academic credits back to Pomona 30 hours before the deadline to enroll. The lack of transparency about the policy led to much panic and confusion for other international students who were also planning to switch to local education.

Even though some of these examples represent structural challenges that international students in schools across the world faced during the coronavirus pandemic, Pomona College’s lack of consideration for international students was apparent. The college invested minimal effort in engaging international students in the relevant decision-making processes, and in making education accessible to this community that faced the most complicated circumstances during distance learning.

During the remote semesters, Pomona suspended all study abroad programs. International students who wished to participate in a local university program in their home country had to take a leave of absence from Pomona and enroll in the program on their own. Students choosing to do so risked terminating the SEVIS record and repaying the $350 reactivation fees to legally reenter the United States. Meanwhile, Claremont McKenna College kept its study abroad option open throughout the pandemic, so that international students could enroll in an approved local institution and maintain their status as full-time students at CMC.

Even during move-in last month, Pomona gave strict move-in time slots for both international and domestic students. However, due to the reduced number of flights and greatly inflated airfares, many international students had to arrive early and stay in hotels before being allowed on campus.

Many of the faculty have certainly been understanding and flexible for international students: Some professors were considerate enough to move class times to accommodate international time zones. For example, Manisha Goel, Associate Professor of Economics at Pomona, began her International Economics course at 7:45 p.m. PST in the spring 2021 semester and attracted around 10 students living outside the United States. However, it is a tragedy for the College if students can only count on the leniency of individual professors instead of institutional support for a smooth continuation of their higher education in a time of crisis.

Returning to campus has not been the end of international students’ struggles. As the nation continues to wrestle with the virus through aggressive vaccination, the prolonged pandemic is still likely to impact the international student community through complications related to international travel, financial support and visa status.

It is not yet time to celebrate the students’ return and reunion. The Pomona administration should take time to listen to feedback from international students and acknowledge the lack of support it demonstrated in its COVID-19 policy over the past few semesters.

To better recognize and address the needs of international students, Pomona has to institutionally increase the representation of international students in the school’s decision-making process, possibly by inviting more input from entities like the International Student Office and International Student Mentor Program.

Besides the International Student Advisor, there should be more platforms for international students to communicate and give feedback to Dean Anne Dwyer at the Office for International Initiatives during any major policy-making process that involves international students. The school should also devote more resources to the Office for International Initiatives after the dissolution of I-Place, the only international student office of The Claremont Colleges.

During a time when international students are increasingly anxious to return to their home countries amid huge upheaval, we chose to continue our education at Pomona. Now, with many international students from the classes of 2024 and 2025 arriving on campus or even in this country for the first time, we ask the Pomona administration to increase institutional support for international students so that the college may live up to the accessibility and inclusivity it has long promised.

Yutong Niu PO ’23 is from Shenyang, China. She is a mentor at Pomona’s International Student Mentor Program. She has extensive experience with all types of COVID-19 tests, last minute flight booking and quarantine policy interpretation as she travelled back and forth between three countries during the pandemic.

Anna Choi is a Photo Editor for TSL.

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