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Support Systems for Students

From health advice and counseling to groceries and meal plans, U.S. universities stepped up to support their international students during the coronavirus pandemic.


The coronavirus pandemic, which has affected most facets of life, has also had an enormous impact on higher education institutions in the United States. Universities across the country had to shut down campuses in March 2020, with little time to prepare for the weeks ahead. For institutions like Brown University in Rhode Island, the College of Idaho and the University of Nevada, this meant meeting the challenges of transitioning to online classes as well as ensuring that students and staff were safe. The situation was especially difficult for international students, who could not return home due to international travel restrictions or financial hardships.

For Asabe Poloma, assistant provost for global education and director of the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellows Program at Brown University, this was a time to ensure “really intentional student advising and support.” “This was no longer about what classes students can take, but more about logistical issues,” she says. And thinking about “how we could redefine concepts of education and define our core priorities, because we cannot do everything online.”

Andrew Heald, program director for the Global Brown Center for International Students, adds, “We immediately reached out to students and reassured them that we were there to help.” Shreeyash Gotmare, Aryan Srivastava and Sobhit Singh Arora, undergraduate students who stayed back on campus at Brown University, were moved to different dorms to ensure proper distancing. “Even students without meal plans were allowed to use the dining facilities,” says Gotmare. “We were getting emails about how to stay safe and did not have to pay summer fees to use health services on campus.”  

Clear communication and a desire to ensure the safety and well-being of students were priorities for The College of Idaho, too. Sonali Thombare, a student of business administration, had just been approved for optional practical training when the campus closed. “We were allowed to stay on in our dorms and our meal plans were upgraded to cover three meals a day,” she says. Lindo Gama, who graduated this spring, says, “The college was under no obligation to take care of me, but they allowed me to stay on since I could not go home.”

Students were also given gift cards from Walmart and other grocery stores to buy essentials. “We realized that those who stayed back on campus were students who simply could not leave, so ensuring that no student was potentially food insecure was very important,” says Paul Bennion, vice president for student affairs and dean of students at The College of Idaho. The college also prioritized mental health services and quickly brought in a telehealth approach that made robust access possible for any student who needed help. Tutoring services as well as learning support and disability services were made available online.

Shifting classes online also brought up complex issues around visa validity for many international students. “International students are not allowed more than three credit hours online,” says Maritza Machado-Williams, executive director, Office of International Students and Scholars at the University of Nevada, Reno. The office worked round the clock to answer students’ queries regarding visas and optional practical training opportunities. It also reached out to international students at the university through phone calls, emails, webinars and Zoom meetings. “The phone calls gave us a chance to assess their mental health and provide for immediate needs,” says Machado-Williams.

At Brown University, the Global Brown Center for International Students was an access point for students to get answers and aid resources. “Our leadership understands the unique needs of international students and they are an important priority,” says Poloma. Much of the center’s work was restructured to meet health regulations. It organized virtual events like coffee hours on Zoom and got the international office to answer students’ questions about immigration and visas. Counseling services transitioned online and remained accessible.

Since classes transitioned online, students working as teaching assistants were able to keep their jobs. “For one chemistry course, we were able to offer 24-hour teaching support because we had several domestic and international teaching assistants across many time zones,” says Poloma. “This is just one example of the enormous value that our international students bring to our campus. We must recognize and leverage that value.” 


Paromita Pain is an assistant professor of Global Media Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno.