Nirhan Nurjadin hoped to stay in Maine during his senior year at Bowdoin College, even as the school announced last month that almost all classes would be taught online this fall and most upperclassmen would not return to campus because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Federal immigration rules released Monday, however, have added to confusion of fall reopening plans for Nurjadin and other international students, who are now being told by the government they cannot stay in the United States if their course loads are fully online.

The rules from U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement, or ICE, state that international students enrolled only in online programs will not be granted visas and must depart the country or transfer to a school with in-person instruction to maintain their legal status.

Schools offering a hybrid learning model – a mix of in-person and online classes – must also certify that international students are not taking an all-online course load.

Bowdoin College in Brunswick plans to keep most of its students off campus in the fall and have almost all of its classes taught online. That means new immigration rules increase the uncertainty for the 140 international students enrolled for the coming year.  Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“All of us are really concerned,” said Nurjadin, who is from Indonesia and is president of the International Student Association at Bowdoin. “It’s a really, really unfortunate situation for us to not be able to live in the U.S. I know a lot of international students are trying to come back or are already here and were trying to live on or off campus or with friends.”

Most colleges and universities in Maine, including the public university system, are planning to have most, if not all, students return to campus this fall. Bowdoin is an outlier with its plan to have almost all classes, except freshman writing seminars, taught online, and have almost all upperclassmen stay off campus and take online course loads.

The college enrolls about 1,800 students and has 140 international students enrolled for the coming year. There were about 1.1 million foreign students enrolled in institutes of higher education in the U.S. in 2018, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, or about 5.5 percent of the 19.8 million students enrolled in colleges and universities in the U.S.

It’s unclear exactly how the federal rules will affect Bowdoin students. Doug Cook, a spokesman for the college, said Tuesday the administration is reviewing the ICE rules with legal counsel and will discuss a course of action.

He said he could not provide further information on the impacts on international students forced to take classes in another country, or whether the college has a sense of how many of its international students planned to study remotely in the U.S.

In an email Monday night to international students, Bowdoin President Clayton Rose said the new rules appear to affect students at colleges and universities across the country, including Bowdoin, and that the college was still working to understand the rules. He said the school will keep international students informed and provide them with a plan.

Nurjadin said he applied to be among a small number of upperclassmen the college is allowing to return to campus this fall. They include senior honors students and those whose home situations make online learning difficult.

Being in Indonesia would mean an almost 12-hour time difference and could make online classes a challenge, Nurjadin said. It would also be harder to look for a job in the United States.

“I’m trying to navigate interviews, potential work visa complications and contacting alumni,” Nurjadin said. “That would be 10 times easier in the United States. The proximity to alumni and the job search would be dramatically hardened if I was abroad.”

Another student, from Canada, said she too was feeling scared and helpless about the new rules. She asked that her name not be used because she feared deportation and was unsure whether or how soon the rules might require her to return to Canada.

“I think it’s just scary,” she said. “International students are really feeling used as a political tool right now. A lot of us have dedicated our energies, our lives and our efforts to contributing our all to the United States, to our American institutions, to our American counterparts, to making changes and doing great things at our institutions. To be tossed aside just because of our citizenship at this time of uncertainty is really scary.”

Maine’s public university system, as well as Colby College and Bates College, which like Bowdoin are part of the New England Small College Athletic Conference, have said they plan to bring most students back in person in the fall, though campuses will look different with modified schedules, virus precautions and plans for mass testing.

Unity College, which enrolls about 700 students, announced last month it would move to remote learning for the 2020-21 school year. However, the college enrolls fewer than 10 international students, all of whom were already enrolled in distance learning programs and studying from their home countries.

Bar Harbor’s College of the Atlantic is planning to use a hybrid model this fall, but 40 percent to 50 percent of faculty will be teaching online and students have been encouraged to choose classes and living arrangements based on their academic needs and health and safety concerns. About one-quarter of the school’s 375 students are international.

“These misguided regulations read like a direct affront to our international community, and will accomplish little more than sowing confusion and harm,” said College of the Atlantic President Darron Collins in a statement Tuesday. “Colleges and universities nationwide have been working extremely hard to create flexible, safe alternatives for their students and faculty come fall, and many of these involve online learning.

“To now tell international students that they cannot continue to live in the U.S. if their course of study is only available online, or that students who are unable to return to campuses with in-person coursework due to travel or health restrictions will lose the benefits of F-1 student status, completely ignores the reality of the pandemic that we are in and what is going to be necessary to safely operate institutions of higher education during the coming academic year.”

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