AUSTIN (KXAN) — Following a federal directive last week which states that students studying in the U.S. on certain visas cannot remain in the country if they are taking a full online course load, the University of Texas at Austin leaders announced their plan to help international students to continue to get their education through UT under the modified rules.
UT leaders acknowledged these visa-holding students as an “essential” part of the UT community, and laid out a plan to keep these students in compliance under the new guidelines.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced changes to the Student and Exchange Visitor Program “due to the pandemic for the fall 2020 semester.” If nonimmigrant students on F-1 or M-1 visas don’t comply with these new directions, ICE says they may face “immigration consequences” including deportation proceedings.
In a letter addressed to the Longhorn community Sunday, UT’s interim Executive Vice President and Provost Daniel Jaffe said that he, and interim UT President Jay Hartzell, developed this process in response to “concerns and frustrations” voiced by UT students, faculty and staff. Jaffe said this plan aims to ensure international students receive F-1 visa certification so they are able to continue studying at UT.
“I’d like to acknowledge and thank our community for rallying together to offer our support and solidarity to the students impacted by the guidance. Their presence on our campus is essential and we will work hard to ensure they have our support throughout this process.”UT Austin Interim Executive Vice President and Provost Daniel Jaffe in a letter on July 12
Jaffe explained that UT will stay in a “hybrid mode” of both online and in-person courses during the Fall 2020 semester. He stated that the university will not be going entirely online.
UT staying in this hybrid mode means that under the new federal rules, nonimmigrant F-1 students are allowed to take more than one class online, but are not allowed to take all their classes online.
The modified federal rules require universities with a hybrid approach to certify that the program is not entirely online, and that the student is not taking an entirely online course load. UT said Texas Global plans to file the paperwork required to do this in early August to certify that students are following the rules to maintain their visas.
UT says all of its hybrid courses will have an in-person component. Those courses will be made available across departments for both graduate and undergraduate students. F-1 visa holders will need to sign up for at least one hybrid or in-person course to follow the new federal rules, UT said. The university plans to move even more courses into this model in the coming week.
To give students more time to adjust their schedules, UT will be extending the amount of time students have to register for courses.
UT will also be hosting town halls to answer questions about the new guidance for the Student and Exchange Visitor Program, including one on Tuesday, July 14.
‘I was really relieved’
UT junior Edson Santos said he felt glad to see the letter from Jaffe to the UT community Sunday.
“I was really relieved the university made a statement about it,” he said.
Santos is an economics and engineering double major. He is from Luanda, the capital city of Angola in southwest Africa.
Santos has been an F-1 visa holder ever since 2014 when he came to the U.S. for an international boarding school where he attended high school. His family is in Angola, but due to border closures and travel restrictions to the country, he cannot go there to stay with family. For the time being, he is staying with friends in Florida until he can move into the apartment he has leased for the fall semester in Austin.
When the ICE directive was issued, Santos said he was in disbelief.
“I just could not believe a directive like that would come a month away from the beginning of school,” he said. Santos noted that when the modified guidance came out, he and many international students already had their travels to campus arranged, their needed coursework planned out, and their housing locked in place.
“Knowing that we would be subject to deportation in the middle of a pandemic was really, really scary,” Santos said of the conversations he had been sharing with other international students over the past week. “Our families back home were very scared.”
Santos is the president of Planet Longhorn, a UT student organization that supports international and exchange students on the 40 Acres. After the recent ICE announcement, Planet Longhorn launched an online petition, demanding UT immediately make accommodations for all foreign students by making in-person and hybrid classes to allow them to continue their studies under the new rules. The petition now has more than 16,000 signatures.
Santos explained that he and other students in upper-level courses were finding that all of the classes they need to complete their degrees were online classes. He is hopeful that with the expanded hybrid course offerings, he will be able to maintain his status and work towards his degree.
But the requirement for international students to take some in-person or hybrid classes has sparked concerns among students.
“It is scary because obviously we are living in a global pandemic and there are risks associated with having an in person class,” Santos said.
“But at the same time, the university has to oblige by the rules made by the government,” he noted, adding that he hopes the university follows health guidelines to ensure the students who need to take these in-person courses are kept safe.
Santos said Planet Global as well as UT Student Government plan on following up with university leaders with additional demands to keep international students safe and legally protected for the upcoming semester. Details of those additional demands will be released this week, he said.
UT junior Jesus Torres is a U.S. citizen, he also wants to see his fellow Longhorns who hold visas protected by the university.
Torres is a first generation college student and a member of Longhorn LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens). He feels strongly that UT’s international community benefits the campus as a whole.
“That is the beauty of it,” he said, “that we’re able to create diversity in Austin and at UT by welcoming in international students.”
Torres said he and other members of Longhorn Lulac were “furious” when they heard about new new ICE directive.
He still has questions about how UT will carry out this program to support students with these visas.
“I still think it is really concerning that you have to take a hybrid class and risk your health over a pandemic,” Torres said. “We should be trying to keep students safe, but we are forcing students on a visa to go into a classroom.”