CIANA Explains: The Impact of COVID-19 on International Students


Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States led globally in the number of international students it hosted. At the end of 2019, international students in the United States numbered 1,095,299, making up 5.5% of the total population of those pursuing higher education. Not only bringing a wealth of cultures, perspectives, languages, and knowledge, they contributed $44.7 billion in 2019 alone to the U.S. economy.


For international students in the U.S., three main visa options are available. The F1 Visa and J1 Visa, which both allow for employment, and the M1 Visa which does not. These visas generally give students 60 days after they finish their education to enroll in another program, obtain a visa through alternative means, or leave the country.


Much of this changed in March 2020 with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. As movement began to become restricted, chaos ensued for international students who were currently enrolled in American universities. Over 1,000 universities and colleges shut down and finished the spring semester with online classes. Some schools allowed students to remain in student housing, while most gave students very limited time to pack their belongings and leave their campuses. This was much more complicated for students whose families did not reside in the United States, especially because various travel bans went into effect in March. Ninety percent of international students remained in the U.S., which posed its own financial and logistical issues. They feared that they would be forced to leave the country despite pursuing remote learning at their universities and that they might face obstacles to enroll in the upcoming fall semester.


Almost $7 billion was set aside for international student relief, yet many were ineligible to receive the economic aid. To qualify, a student must have been attending a US IIENetwork member institution, been enrolled for the fall 2020 semester, held either a F-1 or J-1 visa, and demonstrated a high financial need to cover living expenses. Many students meet three out of the four eligibility requirements, yet all four are needed to qualify.


As Ms. Cai, a USC cinema major from China, told the New York Times, “All we want is to continue our education in peace during a global pandemic. It seems this administration has no concern for international students beyond our wallets.”