Preparing for the Arrival Of International Students

4 min read

Benjamin Boivin

Many call the COVID-19 pandemic a "once-in-a-century" virus. The fiercely contagious and deadly outbreak has impacted nearly every industry on Earth, but higher education is no stranger to societal challenges and change.

December 2020 marked the one-year anniversary of identification of the first human cases of COVID-19. How have colleges and universities responded over the past year, and how can your institution best serve international students in the Spring 2021 semester? 

New York University decided if international students can’t get to New York City, they will bring NYU to them. The “Go Local” option is designed for undergraduates who may not be eligible to travel to their home campus for the Spring 2021 semester, but want to take in-person classes at another NYU location. The global institution remains cautiously optimistic, specifying on their “Go Local” page: “Decisions about opening each NYU global location for in-person classes and student housing in Spring will reflect local governmental and public health guidance, among other factors.”

In a similar NYU strategy, The University of Arizona launched Global Locations across five continents and 34 countries, conveniently delivering the UArizona brand to international students. Due to heightened travel restrictions and challenges with visa issuance, the timely program offers 10 customizable degree paths to more than 200 undergraduate majors in over 130 cities. 

"This program is tailored to meet the access needs of international students. Many cannot afford to attend college in the United States; some do not have high-speed internet required to take classes online; and nearly all are unable to travel internationally, due the COVID-19 pandemic. This initiative addresses all of these issues." - Brent White, dean of Global and vice provost of global affairs at the University of Arizona

While globally recognized universities have the financial resources and academic connections to develop robust satellite campuses, most colleges worldwide have to learn from their mistakes from Fall 2020’s reopening, and improve their in-person learning strategy for Spring 2021. To reduce campus outbreaks and keep students in class, colleges are looking at increased testing, contact tracing, school specific mobile app usage, updated social distancing guidelines, and wastewater surveillance. No higher education institution has control over the pandemic, student visa issuance, or international travel restriction. However, they have control over how international students are welcomed back to the community in the spring.

How can your institution improve the international student experience for next semester? Below we have gathered some useful tips and strategies.  


International student advisers are a great resource, but probably need backup in our current environment. Are your admissions representatives trained to field questions from the global population? From student airfare and ID cards, to living arrangements and meal planning, the admissions team will need to be an extension of the international student service office until things are relatively back to normal.


Get them back on their feet socially, emotionally, and academically upon their return. Offer a student mentor program for first and second-year students. Mandatory social interaction and guidance from a more experienced student will add lasting benefits to the international student experience. The COVID-19 pandemic has been incredibly isolating for most college students worldwide, but international students forced to return to their home countries have experienced the worst of the “new normal.” 


In the United States, the federal government allocated financial support to domestic students struggling in the pandemic, but left out international student support. Visa restrictions create disadvantages the international student population in many ways, and the inability to work off campus to help pay for college is one of them. By offering meal plans or residence hall support during the uncertain Spring 2021 semester, these students can continue living and learning abroad without having the added stress of paying room and board. 


Language, cultural, and time zone barriers already create a difficult online experience for international students, but as more campuses reopen their doors to a hybrid or fully in-class model, it’s time to focus on returning international students. Without ignoring domestic students, professors need to pay extra attention to the international population this spring. 


Prioritize a new student orientation program for international students returning to campus. College administration can’t expect business as usual even when the worst of the virus has passed and students are vaccinated. Faculty, students, and staff need to take it slow to ensure a smooth transition back to the traditional classroom setting. Share more stories. Talk about family. What have your international students learned about themselves over the past year? Through compassion and authenticity, your students can connect with each other and the domestic community like never before. Embrace the fact that we are all in this together. 

As institutions respond and adapt to the fourth wave of international student mobility, student safety must remain the #1 priority. The devastating economic impact will force some institutions to permanently close their doors. In contrast, others may see an overwhelming resurgence of international students as the world breaks free from the travel and social distancing restrictions. Only time will tell as university leadership waves goodbye to COVID-19, and hello to a new era of higher education. 

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