Consulate closures keep international first-years stuck in home countries

Sixty-five students are tuning in to their first year at Calvin from homes around the globe, sometimes dealing with time differences as great as 12 hours. Most of these students couldn’t come to campus this semester because closed consulates made it impossible to obtain a visa.

“All consulates around the world were closed at [the beginning of the semester] and not booking any visa appointments,” said Tara Braun, associate director of international admissions. “There are still many consulates that are not open at this time or who are extremely short staffed, which is causing delays in scheduling visa appointments or constant rescheduling of those appointments.”

This caused enrollment numbers for first-year international students to decrease. There were 370 international students admitted, but only 175 responded to their offers of admission. Roughly 37% of respondents enrolled this semester, a majority of whom are participating online. “It’s hard to estimate how many [students decided to participate online] due to visa problems and how many were due to fears or general complications related to COVID-19, but only three students were able to get visas this year compared to over 100 in a normal year,” said Brent Wilkinson, immigration coordinator.

Some students expect to come to campus mid-January 2021, and others have deferred their enrollment to the fall 2021 semester. Chimes spoke with nine students from the international online cohort (IOC), and each expressed a  desire to come to campus when it becomes possible. 

Joshua (Dohun) Lee, joining from Seoul, South Korea, said that one challenge for him was the “lack of feeling like a true university student.” Lee hopes to come to campus in-person this January.

Online learning from abroad presents many unique challenges. “It does feel a little weird not being able to actually see everyone. Especially when we have to do class calls and everyone has to play that weird game of ‘not wanting to cut anybody off so we all end up saying nothing,’” said Nisya Tiffany, who is currently residing in Jakarta, Indonesia. Tiffany added that class discussions became smoother after several meetings.

Tiffany also spoke of the challenge of procrastination, saying: “It’s hard when you’re not in an actual college campus where there’s a sort of vibe that motivates you to learn.”

Many IOC students have struggled with internet connection or other technological issues. “The internet fees are very expensive in my country so that has been a challenge,” said Misgana S. Dinberu, a student residing in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. “Even then, we don’t get power 24/7 so there are times when I can’t do any academic work because I don’t have internet connection.”

Even through these challenges, IOC students have found joy in learning and in building new relationships with other Calvin students and professors. Yue Han Jin, who participates from China, talked with friends over Teams, and Lee has connected with other Calvin students living in Korea. 

Additionally, facing the same struggles has connected the IOC students. “I think there’s a certain comradery gained when you’re all stuck in the same situation with no clear answer whether we’ll even meet each other in person one day,” said Tiffany.

Virtual relationships have taken adjustment, however. “I’ve never had virtual friends before, but I’m getting used to it,” said Evangelica Hutahaean, a student living in Indonesia. 

Wilkinson asked on-campus students to pray that the IOC can be on campus as soon as possible and in the meantime feel encouraged rather than lonely.

Amidst all the difficulties, IOC students expressed gratitude to those working with and reaching out to them from campus. “I can see that they’re doing their best to make us feel like we’re part of Calvin’s community and I really appreciate that,” said Dinberu.

“I’m a little bummed I can’t [come in the spring], but with the kind of support I’ve been seeing from not only my fellow classmates, but also from the faculty and staff, I don’t mind waiting a little longer,” said Tiffany.