While U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement last week rescinded a directive that would have kept international students from attending colleges in the United States this fall if their college offered a full load of courses online, it doesn’t do United World College-USA any good.
Really a two-year international high school, about three-quarters of the 220 teenage students at UWC-USA are from foreign lands. But most of them now find themselves shut out from entering the country because of travel bans and their inability to obtain F-1 visas due to the closure of U.S. consulates worldwide as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
F-1 visas are issued to students wishing to study in the United States. In order to get one, students must fill out paperwork and participate in a visa interview with a consular officer in their native country.
U.S. consulates and embassies across the globe were closed and workers sent home in March after the pandemic hit.
The travel bans are impacting more than 100 of its students in 31 countries, according to UWC-USA.
Sure, the school in Montezuma near Las Vegas, New Mexico, does offer foreign students the opportunity to “attend” classes through online courses. But the students in many countries don’t always have easy access to the internet where they are.
And, besides, distance learning is not the United World College way.
“We decided months ago when the pandemic first hit that, given our mission, it was important for students to meet face to face,” UWC-USA President Victoria Mora said. “Not only would it interfere with how we function operationally, it would have precluded us from fulfilling our mission as an institution.”
Founded in 1962 at the height of the Cold War, UWC maintains that education is “a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future.”
Among its core values are international and cultural understanding, celebration of difference, compassion and service, and a sense of idealism.
Ideally, Mora says, those things are best accomplished through first-hand, non-virtual experiences and interactions between students from 90 countries.
“I understand, of course, that there’s concern in this country (about spread of the virus), and we are being careful with regard to health and safety,” she said, “but, educationally, the importance of diversity among international students we feel is very real.”
The ICE directive from earlier this month was a surprise to many, and it received considerable pushback from colleges and universities, and students themselves.
The Institute of International Education estimates there are more than 1 million foreign students studying in America, or about 5% of the students attending college in the U.S.
But just a week later, ICE rescinded the decree, the Department of Homeland Security saying that the rule complicated immigration enforcement.
United World College is a global school system that teaches an International Baccalaureate curriculum at 18 schools on five continents, but only three in the western hemisphere. The picturesque campus surrounding the iconic Montezuma Castle nestled in the hills north of Las Vegas along the Gallinas River and a short walk from pool natural hot springs is the only UWC site in the United States.
Mora said the other 17 UWC schools around the globe are in better shape when it comes to opening school. If not all, nearly all of them are expected to continue operating as usual, “and that is an odd position for us to be in,” she said.
While some public school districts in New Mexico are favoring a fully remote approach to opening schools for the fall semester, UWC-USA says it is a unique case. The school is already located in a relatively isolated, largely self-contained area in a county that has experienced fewer than 30 coronavirus cases in all. Mora said school officials are hard at work preparing the school for a safe and secure environment for students on campus.
She said the college is also in position to verify that students are quarantined from the moment they are met at the airport, “and all the other things that we need do to ensure a safe, healthy community.”
A handful of students are on campus now. Students from China, Ecuador, El Salvador, Nepal and Timor-Leste remained here over the summer. They’ve been working five days a week on a farm, the harvest of which is distributed in the community.
The rest of the school’s second-year students are due to report August 1. First-year students are scheduled to show up August 15.
Carl-Martin Nelson, director of communications at UWC-USA, said many of the incoming students are ready to go, but they can’t go anywhere without a visa. And they won’t be able to get one until consulates reopen.
Last month, UWC-USA launched a campaign urging people to appeal to President Trump and members of Congress to lift the travel bans and reopen consulates.
“The UWC community is typically focused on action to solve problems rather than just talk about them,” Nelson said in a statement. “We can all write letters and call our representatives in Washington to support these students and the international study community as a whole. We’re better off as a country when we have opportunities to learn with and from people from other places and with different backgrounds.”
Up for the challenge
Nelson said the school will open next month well short of capacity with the foreign students able to travel or who remained in the U.S. over the summer and 50-55 American students. More will show up as travel bans are lifted, he said.
In the meantime, Mora said the college will blend in-person and distance learning, though that presents another unique challenge. When it’s 1 p.m. in New Mexico, for instance, it’s midnight in Nepal. International students will have to dramatically adjust their lifestyle to participate in class and interact virtually with classmates. The school will adapt the best it can.
“We will be providing synchronous and asynchronous learning offered at different times,” she said, adding that sessions will be recorded and archived for later viewing.
Mora acknowledged UWC-USA could also take a hard financial hit without students.
“It will absolutely be a financial challenge if we don’t bring in our students,” she said.
Not only will the UWC-USA, which functions with about 110 contract employees, lose income from tuition, but also the school wouldn’t be able to access endowment funds that help pay scholarships.
“We rely on philanthropy. How we deal with that challenge of not being able to distribute scholarship money is another concern. There are layers and layers of challenges here,” she said.
But Mora says UWC-USA is ready to meet the challenges in the only way it knows how – uniting people for a sustainable future.
“What’s really important, given the rhetoric that’s out there blaming countries for the virus or blaming others in geographical areas where there are spikes in cases in the U.S., it’s important to note that we’ve been working with local officials, partner organizations and experts to make sure we can bring our students back safely. We want to be an example of the American tradition of working with the best science and without fear of one another. We’re setting an example for ourselves and the country for what it is to work corroboratively for the common good.”