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Strategies for Supporting International Students on US Campuses during the Pandemic


Strategies for Supporting International Students on US Campuses during the Pandemic

When COVID-19 forced Minnesota State University, Mankato, to effectively close its campus and move to an entirely online course delivery format, it was hard for all of the more than 14,000 students enrolled. But the changes were particularly hard on our 1,266 international students from 92 countries, most of whom stayed in Mankato to finish the spring semester and many even the summer to weather the pandemic. As an institution that has had success recruiting and graduating international students (top 10 among Midwest regional institutions, top 15 nationally among master’s institutions for international student population[1]), we take their concerns and needs seriously. Our response to them has demonstrated the kind of commitment we believe it will take for higher educational institutions to continue to successfully recruit and graduate students from outside the United States.

The students who remained on campus have faced serious challenges, including severe economic hardship, due to the crisis here and in their home countries. As university leaders, we have been working to find ways to support and encourage our international students. We know that they have unique challenges due to their immigration status. Their only opportunity for employment is on campus, for example, and they aren’t eligible for the same government-funded financial support, including the dollars made available in the CARES Act, as other students are.

Within the first few weeks of the crisis, the university decided to continue paying all of its student workers—including international students—even after entering an online instructional mode in which many students no longer were able carry out their face-to-face work assignments. That includes more than 100 international graduate students, who received their full tuition waivers and stipends even if they were unable to perform their assigned duties.

Unfortunately, that didn’t apply to the students who worked for our dining services partner; all those students, including a high percentage of international students, were furloughed. In an effort to help those students, the Memorial Library offered the furloughed students jobs working on a special project documenting the current pandemic crisis. Keeping the students employed is one of the best ways we can help them right now.

Given the prolonged nature of the crisis and continued need for student employment, the university also made a change in policy regarding working on campus during the summer. Usually, students must be registered for at least a one-credit class to be able to maintain student employment. That requirement has been waived this summer, allowing students to accept student employment during the center without registering for any credits. This means that our international students have been able to continue to earn money without having to spend additional dollars on tuition.

Members of the campus community have demonstrated their commitment to helping students as well. In April, the university raised over $40,000 from faculty and staff to support both domestic and international students program with emergency grant dollars. Since 2018, private donors; the Minnesota State University, Mankato Foundation; faculty; staff; and sponsors have combined to commit hundreds of thousands of dollars in support for vulnerable students. That support is especially important now as these funds help students like Padam Chauhan, an EdD candidate in educational leadership from Nepal, cover living expenses and Sambridi Pradhan, a business management student, pay for her health insurance premiums.  

University leadership came together to create the International Student Emergency Assistance Program to capture, allocate, and manage financial assistance specifically designed for international students at the university. This program uses a well-designed, systematic process where students in need work with their immigration advisors to receive rapid assistance through the emergency grant program while at the same time planning for a sustainable financial future. Marjan Hussein, a sports management student from Kenya, will use the grant money to increase his chances of future financial stability: “The grant will be a huge aid in my tuition payments as [tuition payments] have proved challenging for a couple of semesters and with the pandemic hitting hard the situation got even trickier.” He goes on to say that “the grant will take some heavy weight off my shoulders and the focus will shift from overly stressing about the tuition balance I owe to mapping out my future plans of acquiring an OPT card in addition to finding a job.”

Dining services staff have also collaborated with the university to continue providing meals to student workers, even though they aren’t able to work. Each student is provided one free meal a day. Already, more than 690 meals have been provided through that program.

This additional marshaling of emergency assistance rests atop a robust international student support program, and these are examples of strategies that each and every institution should be pursuing in order to provide the necessary support for international students. Alumni and donors, faculty and staff, university partners, and corporate sponsors should be apprised of unique student needs, and then careful yet insistent consideration and decision-making must be engaged to solve these problems.

We know that international students come to Minnesota State, Mankato, to earn an excellent education in a welcoming atmosphere and supportive community. We are pleased that so many choose to attend this university, because we know that they bring so much value to the university through their academic talents and through sharing their cultures. Our international students help us realize the institutional vision of Minnesota State, Mankato, to go further than we thought possible, by stretching our perspectives and ways of thinking.

We are more committed than ever to caring for and supporting our international students. We will continue to respond to their needs and to help in every way we can. Oluwaseun Sholola, a mechanical engineering student from Nigeria, summarizes our mission: “Before I transferred to Minnesota, my friends told me how MNSU and Minnesota as a state provides avenues for every student to succeed. In these difficult times, MNSU has proven not to only care for me as a student, but as a human.”

Anne Dahlman, PhD, is the interim dean of global education at Minnesota State University, Mankato

[1] According to the 2019 U.S. News & World Report college and university rankings.

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