CUNY International Students in Limbo

Rania El Frougui, 18, must stay in Casablanca, Morocco and postpone her studies until 2021 after her visa wasn’t approved for the fall semester.

By Lylia Saurel 

For international students enrolled at CUNY, the United States has become a land of uncertainty as health measures imposed by COVID-19 caused campuses to remain closed for the fall semester.

The ongoing global pandemic that forced American universities to conduct distance learning in the spring continues to impact the way education is delivered. And after seven months of distance learning with no end in sight, international students are having doubts about their US academic journeys.

“For students that went back to their home countries or for the ones that were unable to obtain the F1 visa this semester, they’re unsure if they will be able to go to the US due to travel and visa restrictions, closure of U.S. embassies, discrimination and fear,” Kim Vo wrote in an email, a former designated school official (DSO) now also working for International students Admissions and Recruitment at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC).

In the case of Rania El Frougui, 18, whose visa wasn’t approved for the fall semester, she must stay in Casablanca, Morocco and postpone her studies at BMCC until 2021.

“Everything was ok, the problem was the embassy,” she said. “It was open for American citizens who were stuck here, but not for students’ visas. It reopened on the last week of August but it was too late for me. School had already started so they told me to defer to next semester.”

El Frougui virtually graduated high school in June with a baccalaureate in economics and sociology. She has wanted to move to New York City to pursue a degree in business management ever since she was a child.

“I decided that when I was in middle school. My sister had the chance to go there so that was an opening for me to make my dream come true,” she said.

Despite the bitter news, she uses her free time productively. Her sister, who is already enrolled at Baruch College, sends her math exercises to study so she can prepare for her arrival in the States, scheduled for late December. She is eager to begin her college life.

“I had a period where I considered going to another country, I had been accepted in very good schools, like La Sorbonne in France but the best opportunities I can have are in the USA so canceling my plans isn’t an option,” she said.

With embassies closed, some students have started their freshman semesters from their home country, participating in classes online. Often this means adapting to time differences and dealing with weak internet connections.

Thierno Nouhou Bah, 23, started his first year of studies as a scientific engineer at BMCC but is forced to attend his courses from Lomé, Togo, where he resides with his family and is completing another degree from his local university.

According to Bah, one of the biggest struggles in attending a classes while overseas is difficulty communicating.

“I have a bad Internet connection but the hardest is exchanging with other students and professor,” he said. “Following classes in English causes me trouble, because even though I’ve studied English in Togo I feel a difference with the accent.”

Staying motivated while studying alone in his apartment is hard. Bah describes feeling tired when having to focus on hourslong science lectures over Zoom.

The lack of access to campus facilities also makes it harder to learn.

“One of the reasons I decided to study in the USA is because we have access to more practice in the labs, so I’d say it’s pretty disappointing not to be able to have access to all this material. I’m hoping next semester will be different because engineering science is a passion of mine and I really want to get started with more practice,” he said.

For those who were here physically in the early months of the pandemic only to return home over the summer, the situation has become complex. Many are torn between the memories of a chaotic spring and the desire to come back.

A photo of Lake Quilotoa, shared by an anonymous international student who took a road trip with his family during quarantine in Ecuador.

A BMCC sophomore, majoring in business administration, who returned to Ecuador in May and asked to remain anonymous for fear of immigration complications, said he missed going to campus and learning in the classroom.

“Everything is going in a self-taught mode. There are some factors such as my family, my dog, my friends who want to go out that prevent me from focusing on my classes but I’m trying my best and I’m doing okay so far,” he said.

For the 20-year-old, who first arrived in the United States with hopes of discovering a new culture and meeting friends, the completion of his studies has become a stressful and blurry phase in his life.

“My family doesn’t want me to go back to the states, my dad wants me to stay with him,” he said. “And it’s hard for me to understand that because the main reason I came to the USA was to get a better education and a better perspective of what things are like in another country.”