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Stony Brook: Students won't lose F-1 visas if enrolled in one on-campus class

Stony Brook University students talked on Thursday about news that they will not lose their F-1 visas or have to leave the country this fall as long as they remain enrolled full time and in at least one three-credit, on-campus class. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Stony Brook University students in the United States from abroad will not lose their F-1 visas or have to leave the country this fall as long as they remain enrolled full time and in at least one three-credit, on-campus class, university officials said this week.

The university and other schools on Long Island are speaking out after the federal government, which had granted temporary exemptions to international students allowing online study in the spring and summer sessions because of the pandemic, announced Monday it  would end the exemptions.  Now they will be required to take at least one course that includes in-person classes.

Of the university's 25,576-student enrollment in the spring, 4,133 were international students.

While Stony Brook and other local universities intend to reopen with a mix of online and in-person classes, international students worry about losing their visas if COVID-19 infections surge in the fall and force classes back online. Eligible classes this fall can be hybrid, in-person and online courses. Students returning from abroad also would retain their visas.

"There is no guarantee we’ll be able to have any in-person courses," said Andrew Dobbyn, 32, a doctoral candidate in philosophy who is business agent for the Graduate Student Employees Union of Stony Brook. 

"The university administration wants that and I want a pony," he added. "Any basic look at how this has spread in the last couple of weeks shows anywhere you have congregate, social settings, like a university classroom or commons, it’s a powder keg. This school could be a petri dish in short order."

Colleges take action

Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had intended to offer mostly online classes in the fall and sued the Department of Homeland Security on Wednesday to overturn the new regulation, which could impact about 9,000 of their students combined. 

Their suit was supported by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, who called the new rule "cruel" and illegal. Dozens of colleges and universities plan to join and support the suit.

Working toward a PhD in material sciences at Stony Brook, international student Sean Mascarenhas is teaching and researching metal alloys for fusion reactors, under contract with the U.S. Department of Energy. He is unsure if his visa is at risk because he is no longer taking classes, he said. If he were forced to return to India, he said, he would lose access to "my professor, my peers, and the facilities. My degree would be finished." 

"It's confusing, worrying and quite scary," he said.

Those in approved programs or research abroad this fall will retain their visa while others may not.

Hofstra, Adelphi react

Hofstra University issued a statement Wednesday noting that it was offering hybrid courses, "So we do not expect this rule to affect our international students."

However, it continued, "We have heard from many in recent days who have questions and concerns" and that it joined in calls for the Department of Homeland Security to rescind the new rule forcing universities to open on-campus classes or risk deportations for their international students. Last fall, about 7% of the 11,000 students were international. 

A statement posted by Adelphi University President Christine Riordan and Provost Steve Everett decried the policy and offered support for the school's international students, stating, “We are forming a dedicated advisement team to work with each student and their academic adviser to create a course plan based on preferences for study and to ensure that those who want to stay at Adelphi will be able to, and to progress in their chosen program.” 

Columbia University, New York University and other top universities and colleges are offering hybrid in-person and online courses and taking other steps to accommodate international students.

Among the groups opposing the new rule, which is seen as an effort by the Trump administration to force schools to reopen their campuses, are the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities, the Presidents' Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, and the American Association of Universities. 

Stony Brook's new president, Maurie McInnis, released a statement saying, "International students are a vital part of our campus community and I am concerned about any barriers that are created that prevent them from attending and contributing to the diversity and intellectual rigor of this community. 

"Our plan is to return safely to campus in the fall with a prudent mix of online, hybrid, and in-person classes, depending on the class and the college, and do not believe this action would apply."

Samet Demircan, 26, of West Virginia, a PhD candidate in physics who is steward of the Research Assistants Union at Stony Brook — nearly half of the nearly 2,000 combined membership in the two unions representing graduate employees are international students — said there remained a lot of unanswered questions.

"What happens if we start off all happy with the hybrid model, things go south and we have to pivot immediately to the online model? It’s unclear where that leaves us legally," Demircan said.

The threat of losing visas or facing a pandemic could dissuade enrollment from abroad, Dobbyn said. "Why would you come here and pay all this money if the threat of deportation is looming over your head?"

Demircan added, "It's important to point out between the COVID-related budget crisis and losing so much revenue from the international student situation, the university is facing a real financial crisis."  

Describing student reaction to the ruling, Demircan said, "Outrage and fear."

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