After learning she’d lose her government job in Wales due to COVID-19-related budget issues, 32-year-old Lorna Griffiths decided to realize her dream of studying abroad and pursuing a career change to become a nurse.
But amid the pandemic, making that happen wasn’t easy. Griffiths traveled to Iceland to get a student visa in time for fall semester. And despite having the correct paperwork in hand, she was stressed while traveling to the U.S. and was worried she’d be turned away.
But now she’s in Las Vegas and is enrolled in her first semester of classes at the College of Southern Nevada.
“I always wanted to actually study abroad somewhere and it came down to a choice between Australia and the United States,” Griffiths said, adding she’s happy to be in the U.S.
In Nevada and nationwide, many colleges and universities are seeing fewer international students this fall due to factors such as the COVID-19 pandemic and associated travel restrictions and visa delays.
U.S. colleges and universities could lose a minimum of $3 billion due to a drop in international student enrollment for fall semester, according to results of an April survey by NAFSA: Association of International Educators.
In March, the U.S. Department of State temporarily suspended visa services worldwide — with the exception of emergency cases — due to the pandemic. Embassies and consulates have since resumed routine services on a “post-by-post basis,” according to the department’s website.
In July, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced a rule change that was rescinded later that month after it was challenged in court. It would have prohibited international students with a F-1 academic visa or M-1 vocational visa from entering or remaining in the country if they were taking online-only classes during fall semester. It would have affected more than 2,000 students at Nevada colleges and universities.
“The rule really raised a lot of fears all over the world,” CSN’s International Student Center Director Carol Fimmen said. “It was just unbelievable that suddenly, out of nowhere, the decision was made.”
Now, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has a proposed rule related to “duration of status” that’s drawing concern, Fimmen said. It applies to those with F, J and I visas.
The rule would “require a fixed period of stay for international students, exchange visitors and foreign information media representatives to encourage program compliance, reduce fraud and enhance national security,” according to a Sept. 24 news release from the department.
As barriers are being put up to receive international students in the U.S., some students are already choosing to go to other countries instead, Fimmen said, noting Canada in particular is extremely welcoming to international students. That has an economic impact on the U.S., she added.
Impact on UNLV, UNR
University of Nevada, Reno has 476 international students this semester — down 27 percent compared with 656 in fall 2019.
And UNLV has 914 international students this semester — down 13.4 percent compared with 1,055 during the fall 2019 semester.
“As I understand, this is a trend that universities nationwide are experiencing and there are likely a number of contributing factors,” UNLV spokesman Tony Allen said in an email to the Review-Journal. “These may include travel and related restrictions due to the ongoing pandemic, as well as general uncertainty for students stemming from both the pandemic and a complicated regulatory environment.”
Overall, though, UNLV’s total student enrollment is essentially flat compared with last fall. In total, 31,142 students are enrolled this semester.
Nevada State College, which has more than 5,500 students at its Henderson campus, doesn’t have any international students this semester.
CSN has 254 international students — up two compared with fall 2019, but down from the 289 during spring semester.
When CSN classes went fully remote in March due to the pandemic, dozens of the college’s international students returned to their home country and took classes online.
Fimmen said the majority of international students from spring semester returned, but a handful are taking CSN classes remotely from their home country or decided to hold off continuing their education.
Of those who decided not to return this fall, “I think that was really more of a family decision and they were afraid that they would be caught in the middle of the unknown,” she said.
For new students, “it was a challenge because many of the students could not get their visas on time,” Fimmen said, noting many visa appointments weren’t until October or November.
Enrollment for the spring 2021 semester already looks higher than a year ago at this time, Fimmen said. One reason for the increase: Some students who wanted to enroll for fall semester deferred their admission to spring semester. “This has been a pattern across the country.”
For its international students, CSN is holding an online meeting every other week to allow them to ask questions and discuss any concerns.
“We’re trying to provide the students with all of the support we possibly can,” Fimmen said.
International student perspectives
Simon Lamsal, a 22-year-old international student from Kathmandu, Nepal, has been at UNLV since fall 2018. He’s studying information management and plans to graduate with a bachelor’s degree this spring.
He transferred to UNLV after spending one year at Arkansas Tech University. His decision to move to Las Vegas was influenced by the location — he has family in the area — and to have better access to opportunities such as internships and jobs.
“Honestly, the location was amazing in my point of my view,” he said.
As for his decision to go to college in the U.S.: “I think it was mostly access to a lot of opportunities and the quality of education, to an extent.”
He also looked into college options in other countries such as India and Australia, but decided on the U.S. due to factors such as the quality of education and school accreditation.
Lamsal said he hasn’t traveled back to Nepal — he has spent summers taking classes — but his father has visited him. He was thinking of traveling to his home country this year, but that’s not going to happen due to COVID-19.
He said he has talked with friends who were supposed to come to the U.S. for fall semester, but decided not to primarily due to financial concerns spurred by COVID-19.
Lamsal said many students decided to halt their plans because applying for a student visa in time was “a little bit tricky” due to embassies and consulates suspending services. “You never know if your visa will be approved.”
And he said the proposed ICE rule change this summer was a “big shock” for a lot of international students.
Lamsal said he’s looking into attending graduate school, either at UNLV or other schools across the U.S. or Canada. “After that, who knows. I honestly don’t have a set plan.”
He said it would make sense, though, to return to Nepal to help with his family’s business.
Nataliia Kovtunenko, 25, is an international student at UNLV studying hospitality management. She grew up in Ukraine and after spending two years at a community college in Los Angeles and earning an associate degree, she transferred to UNLV in fall 2018. It’s her last semester at the university and she’s on track to graduate with a bachelor’s degree.
She said when it was time to transfer, it was an easy decision to make because she received a scholarship, noting UNLV was also the most affordable and top rated school for hospitality management.
Kovtunenko said she was planning to make a trip to Ukraine in May but canceled her plans due to the pandemic. She said she’s not sure yet if she’ll stay in the U.S. or return to her home country after earning her degree.
She said UNLV is extremely supportive of international students and is good at explaining guidelines.
For Griffiths, the COVID-19 pandemic pushed her to go back to school to pursue her dream of becoming a nurse and midwife.
Her job for the Welsh government was managing access to government-owned estate and forest lands. Due to budget cuts, she was slated to lose her job at the end of September and said there weren’t other jobs available as the country was still coming out of a lockdown.
Griffiths applied to CSN after doing a lot of research into college and university options. She said she has visited Las Vegas for many years and has a great support network of friends.
Now at CSN, Griffiths is working on prerequisite classes and hopes to get into the nursing program to pursue an associate degree.
“It’s been a bit of a challenge going back into education,” she said, especially since her last schooling was at age 17.
Griffiths said she thinks online learning is beneficial because lectures are recorded and she can watch them back while studying.
Meanwhile, she said the COVID-19 situation in her home country is quite bad — there are local lockdowns in Wales as case numbers surge — and aside from wearing a face mask in Las Vegas, everything seems almost normal.
She won’t be able to go home for Christmas, and no friends or family will be able to visit her due to travel restrictions and quarantine requirements. But she said CSN is an excellent college to attend and employees have been extremely helpful.