Wilson Chan, an international student from Hong Kong, expected to be back in Ann Arbor this fall, starting his senior year at the University of Michigan and getting ready to graduate with all of his friends.
But once his mom saw how the United States was handling the COVID-19 pandemic, she told him she didn’t feel it was safe for him to be here, and asked him to defer a year and stay at home in Hong Kong.
“To be honest, I was opposed to this idea originally because I really wanted to go back to Michigan because my friends are there, and I really wanted to graduate with them,” said Chan, 21. “That sounds like a small factor, but emotionally I felt like that was what I really wanted.”
Chan’s return home in March was a pretty abrupt transition.
Spring break had just ended and new COVID-19 cases were popping up around the country at an exponential rate.
Travel was becoming more expensive as many people began to realize that they needed to return to somewhere safe in case of a stay-at-home order, like what was happening in countries who were hit hard with COVID-19 early on.
“I was really hopeful at first. I thought that everything would be better by the end of July and then I’d go back to Michigan and spend two weeks of summer with my friends and then start school. But that’s not what happened,” Chan said.
As colleges reopened for the start of a new school year in late August and early September, COVID-19 case numbers began to climb again, stirring from outbreaks on college campuses.
Five Michigan universities — Central Michigan University, Michigan State University, Adrian College, Grand Valley State University and University of Michigan — all have outbreaks of well over 100 cases.
Michigan, as a whole, is also still battling COVID-19, with more than 118,000 confirmed cases and 6,600 deaths. And the United States has remained the country with the most cases and deaths in the world for months, with about one-quarter of the total cases with 6.9 million and more than 201,000 deaths. Hong Kong has had 5,050 cases and 104 deaths.
While avoiding America during this pandemic made sense, taking online classes wasn’t a viable option for Chan, given the 12-hour time difference.
When he returned to Hong Kong in March, he still had a few weeks left of the winter semester after the university shut its doors and moved completely online. But for Chan, that meant many of his classes, which were now on Zoom, were happening in the middle of the night for him.
While he made it work in the spring to round out the end of the semester, it didn’t make sense to go through his entire senior year virtually.
The nearly 1.1 million international students in the U.S. likely had to face the same decisions Chan had to make on whether or not it is in their best interest to continue their education in a country still struggling to manage the pandemic.
The Institute for International Education reports Michigan is ninth in the country for the number of international students who study here — 33,236 students in 2019. U of M is 15th in the nation for highest international student population, making up 15% of its total student body.
In early July, President Donald Trump tried to pass a directive to bar international students who attend college in the United States on visas if their school’s classes were entirely online during the fall semester.
However, the Trump administration rescinded the rule after a number of attorneys general, including Michigan’s Dana Nessel, filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) policy.
“International students play an incredibly valuable role in the learning process at Michigan’s colleges and universities, and contribute not only to the vibrant culture of those institutions but also to our local economies,” Nessel said. “This is just another example of the Trump administration using our educational system to make a political statement, at the expense of our students and schools.”
However, the restriction wasn’t lifted for all international students. First-year international students are still barred from entering the country if their courses are taught entirely online, like at Michigan State University.
These restrictions and the decrease in enrollment are going to cost universities.
A survey from NAFSA: Association of International Educators, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, shows universities in the United States could collectively experience a $3 billion revenue hit due to the loss of international students this fall.
At U of M, international students are among the highest-paying students, as they can’t receive financial aid if they are on a temporary visa, and are expected to pay the full price of tuition.
According to reporting by Stateline, international students at MSU pay over $41,000 a year for tuition, which is about triple the amount the average in-state student pays.
Patty Croom, MSU director of international admissions, recruitment and student success, told Stateline that many international students have deferred for the fall semester and plan to enroll in the spring. Last fall, international students made up 7% of MSU’s freshman class.
Beyond the health risks of the pandemic, Trump has made countless xenophobic remarks about the coronavirus, calling it the “kung-flu” or the “Chinese virus” because it originated in Wuhan, China.
In June, Trump also banned Chinese graduate students who have any connection to Chinese institutions deemed to have military ties.
Stateline reports that the growth rate of international student enrollment in U.S. colleges has slowed since Trump was elected in 2016.
“As an international student from China, or the area of China, it is difficult, because not only do we have to think about financially how do we plan for this sudden change, but we also have to pay attention to the political tension between China and the U.S., because Trump loves to use that,” Chan said. “Oftentimes, there is nothing really as international students we can do about it.”
This story includes reporting from our partners at Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.