BEMIDJI -- For Bemidji State University’s community of more than 60 international students, the recent announcement from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement -- which stated international students must transfer or leave the country if their universities transition to online-only courses -- came as a complete shock.

Neshina Giri, an incoming senior from Kathmandu, Nepal, who has been a nursing student at BSU for three years, was panicking.

“I was scared,” she said. “I don’t have enough savings to go home right now. And it’s a risk -- that’s a different thing. I was scared.”

Giri, and likely many other international students in Bemidji, are feeling more at ease now that BSU has reassured them that the university will make accommodations to keep them on campus.

“We didn’t hear from BSU for a day or so, and I don’t blame them, that’s a new thing for them too and they needed to decide and everything,” Giri said. “But that phase, not hearing from BSU and not knowing what’s going to happen to me, and not knowing anything, was scary.”

“The day when the updated policy came out, that was very shocking to all of us,” said Patrick Liu, Director for International Recruiting and the International Program Center at BSU.

Policy change and requirements

An international student is a student who is required to be registered under the federal Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). International students usually need an F-1 or J-1 visa to enter the United States to study. BSU usually has anywhere from 50-200 international students on campus per year.

International students are typically required to take most of their classes in-person while studying in the U.S. -- only three credits, which is approximately one class, may be taken online.

“That’s understandable, you know, if they only take online classes, there’s no need for them to come," Liu said.

This requirement was waived for the spring and summer semesters when classes abruptly went online for schools across the country earlier this year. ICE announced last week that it would enforce the requirement in the fall and that international students at U.S. institutions going online-only would need to transfer to another school or leave the country.

This announcement understandably came as a surprise to international students, and for many, going home isn’t really an option.

Giri said going home to Nepal for online classes wouldn’t work for her for a number of reasons -- current airline costs and restrictions, tuition costs, time difference, internet connections in Nepal, lack of access to labs and hands-on classes, breaking her lease in Bemidji -- the list goes on.

Costs are Giri's biggest concern. The main reason she chose BSU was for its affordable tuition, she said.

“That would affect (us) a huge, tremendous amount," Giri said. "We still have to pay the full amount for tuition, regardless of whether we are taking online -- and that’s not our choice. I don’t like online classes, personally, I do in-person classes better."

Giri said she doesn’t even have the money to fly home right now if she needed to because she hasn’t been able to work at her on-campus jobs like she regularly would.

She wears many hats on campus -- she works as a tutor for other nursing students, in technical support and at the campus bookstore. "I work pretty much everywhere,” she said with a laugh.

“As an international student, we can’t really work off-campus. So that has affected (me) greatly.”

She is able to work at BSU's bookstore for now but isn't clocking many hours. Giri also had an internship lined up in Detroit Lakes that was canceled due to the virus.

Giri has wanted to work in the medical field since she was young. She hopes to work in the states for a year or so after graduating from BSU to gain experience, and then "go wherever fits (her)," she said.

BSU’s solution

Liu made it clear that BSU will do whatever it has to do to keep students in legal status. He said BSU officials met Thursday to discuss options and the plan is to offer most courses as “high flexibility courses” -- hyflex.

“The hyflex code is new this year and at BSU we are being liberal in how we are applying it. For fall 2020, a course coded “HYFL” could be entirely online (synchronous or asynchronous),” an email sent to BSU faculty said.

“The concept with hyflex is that in-person experiences are available but not required. In that spirit, faculty members teaching remotely who are comfortable doing so could arrange face-to-face meetings with students (social distancing and limited size required) that complement their remote instructional delivery,” the email continued.

The current requirements for international students at universities opting to go for a hybrid model are:

“Nonimmigrant F-1 students attending schools adopting a hybrid model -- that is, a mixture of online and in-person classes -- will be allowed to take more than one class or three credit hours online,” according to the ICE website. “These schools must certify that the program is not entirely online, that the student is not taking an entirely online course load this semester, and that the student is taking the minimum number of online classes required to make normal progress in their degree program. The above exemptions do not apply to F-1 students in English language training programs or M-1 students pursuing vocational degrees, who are not permitted to enroll in any online courses.”

“We’re going to make sure that the on-campus, in-person components of the classes are there, so students can meet these requirements,” Liu said. “The whole campus is working very hard to make sure that all students, including international students, are safe on campus.”

Hopefully, the announcement will put students like Giri at ease.

International students at BSU

Currently, there are expected to be 57 international students returning to BSU to continue their degree programs in the fall. Of these, 40-45 of them are still within the U.S. -- either in Bemidji or somewhere else in the states.

It is unknown how many new international students, if any, will begin in Bemidji in the fall, Liu said. Currently, most U.S. embassies and consulates are closed, Liu said, which makes it particularly hard for new students to apply for visas.

While the COVID-19 situation may make it difficult for new international students to begin at BSU, he said they could easily defer their enrollment until the spring or next fall or take online classes for this semester and then apply for their visas and arrive in the spring.

“Because the embassies and consulates are still closed, we don’t know at this point exactly how many new students will be coming," Liu said. "We are hoping for 10, 15 newly admitted students from overseas. It’s a constantly changing situation, it’s really difficult to track.”