The pandemic has made it almost impossible for international students to travel to the United States or return home.

The pandemic has made it almost impossible for international students to travel to the United States or return home.

The Trump administration has rescinded a plan to strip international students of their visas if they did not attend in-person classes this fall. But even with one hurdle gone, many challenges remain for students who come from other countries to the Washington region to earn a degree.

From travel restrictions and limited flights to closed U.S. consulate offices, the pandemic has made it almost impossible to travel to the United States or to return home.

So, how are students coping? And what might a decline in enrollment mean for local universities?

Produced by Julie Depenbrock



  • 12:00:03

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast we hear from the new President of the University of Maryland Darryll Pines. But first for international students in the Washington region the coronavirus pandemic has brought an array of challenges from travel restrictions and limited flights to closed consulate offices and dorm evacuations.

  • 12:00:25

    KOJO NNAMDISo what does it all mean for the upcoming semester? In our continuing series on Education in a Pandemic we look at the plight of international students and what a decline in their enrollment might mean for local universities. Joining us now is Kelly Yan, New York Times best-selling Author and winner of the 2019 Asian Pacific American Award for Literature. Her most recent novel is called "Parachutes." Kelly Yang, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:00:52

    KELLY YANGThanks so much for having me.

  • 12:00:55

    NNAMDILet's try to get some context to this conversation, Kelly Yang. "Parachutes" is a novel about international students. What made you want to tell this story?

  • 12:01:05

    YANGYeah, so I wrote parachutes after I had taught in Asia for 15 years. I was a writing instructor and I had taught a lot of students, who were going to come over to the U.S. either in high school or in university to study. And these kids came by themselves on their own. And that's where the phrase comes from. They would literally parachute into the U.S. to study, and I watched, you know, all the sort of issues that they were going through, a lot of discrimination and racism, a lot of sexism, sexual misconduct that they were facing in school.

  • 12:01:40

    YANGAll of this they were carrying on their own and it was a really unique experience and I wanted to show all the different effects of that, the vulnerability and the loneliness. But also the extreme, you know, fascinating joy of like being on your own as a kid and being in a new country and being able to do whatever what you want for the first time in your life.

  • 12:02:00

    NNAMDIWhat particular challenges are those international students facing during this pandemic?

  • 12:02:05

    YANGThey are facing an extraordinary challenge right now. I mean, they're dealing with not only the fear of the virus but the unbelievable astronomic, you know, anti-Asian, anti-people of color racism and xenophobia that has gone through the roof thanks to our president and thanks to all of the anger and hostility due to the COVID virus. And so they're facing all of these things. And often they're also facing inability to go back home because flight have been canceled, inability to stay because of these Visa restrictions that keep changing. You know, being torn in terms of what to do and not knowing where their future is.

  • 12:02:50

    NNAMDIKelly Yang, can you talk a little bit about your character's experience studying in the United States? What were her impressions on arriving?

  • 12:02:57

    YANGRight. So my story "Parachutes" it has two -- it features two girls. One is Claire who is a parachute from Shanghai. And she comes over and she lives in L.A. And she's going to high school there and she lives with Dani, who is a girl in this host family. So she's actually living with a host family. Dani is not a parachute. She's a Pilipino American girl. So for Claire a lot of it is just navigating this new school, this new environment, trying to find your place in this foreign country when a lot of people don't like the fact that you're there, and that, you know, a lot of people don't understand parachutes.

  • 12:03:37

    YANGThey don't understand why these are coming here. They're often coming with some money and privilege. And they don't understand why, you know, they needed to leave their home country to begin with to study here. And really a lot of it is just about accessing, you know, opportunities and education, wanting to have the full academic experience, including like freedom of speech and academic freedom, which are not always the case in Asia that you would be able to experience. And then coming here and facing this extremely hostile, but also facing administrations that want you, because they want that lucrative pipeline of full paying students, but sometimes at a very high cost. And when things happen, you're all on your own.

  • 12:04:26

    NNAMDIHow important do you think it is for American students to meet and study with international students?

  • 12:04:32

    YANGI think it could be really eye opening. You know, a lot of people have misconceptions about Asia particularly China especially right now with tensions being so high. A lot of people have no idea what life is like outside the United States. And I think it's a really good experience to have, you know, that cultural exchange.

  • 12:04:51

    NNAMDIKelly Yang, international students often pay full tuition that translates into big money for schools. Last year alone they contributed $41 billion, with a B, to American school. According to NAFSA's Association of International Educators. What happens if these students cannot make it back to campus?

  • 12:05:10

    YANGI think the colleges will lose a lot of money. And the Trump administration knows that and so when they start putting these Visa restrictions in place it's really using it as a pressure point to try to get the universities to open up and try to make them choose, you know, their bottom line over health, which is unfair to have to make that choice to have to be forced to open up, because you can't afford not to. But I think it's a really good question, which is like why are so many of these kids coming. You know, they're paying full tuition. And to what extent have our universities become too dependent on that.

  • 12:05:50

    NNAMDIYou mention the Trump administration trying to force universities to open up. The Trump administration had initially tried to bar international students from staying in the country unless they had in-person classes to attend. Was that part of the strategy that you discussed and how did it turn out?

  • 12:06:08

    YANGAbsolutely. Absolutely. You know, Trump is really good. Our president is really good at distracting and blaming. This has always been his play card. But he also knows the pressure points. The universities have a major pressure point right now, because they've already lost a lot of revenue due to having no summer classes which is generally a very lucrative source of income for universities. You know, they run summer camps and various different summer programs. And they didn't get to do any of that. And so they're facing like, what do we do? How do we make back some of the money? How do we not go under?

  • 12:06:43

    YANGYou know, we have so many universities that are facing this crisis right now. And I think a lot of them may go under. And I think that, you know, even though the Visa rules have slightly changed if you're a new international student you still don't get to come if your school is being open only online. It's only the existing international students like you're already a sophomore or you're already a junior, then okay, fine.

  • 12:07:07

    YANGYou know, they've circled back on that rule and they've done a U-turn. But if you're a new international student you still don't get to come. So universities are still facing a lot of pressure in that sense.

  • 12:07:17

    NNAMDIAnd I was saying they're facing a lot of pressure to actually reopen. How are they responding to that pressure?

  • 12:07:23

    YANGI think -- I don't think it will work in terms of forcing them to reopen, because, you know, they still have to balance it with the health and safety of their students and of their faculty population. But I do think that it is going to be tough to see them. How can they pivot quickly and making sure that the kids who have gotten in number one are going to come at some point. They're not all just going to take gap years. And not pay another year of tuition, another two years of tuition potentially. And how are they going to make that money back. This is a really big problem for universities and higher education right now.

  • 12:08:02

    NNAMDIWe're talking with Kelly Yang. She's a New York Times best-selling author, winner of the 2019 Asian Pacific American Award for Literature. Her most recent novel is "Parachutes." Here is Yohan in Silver Spring, Maryland. Yohan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:08:16

    YOHANHi, good morning, Kojo. Yeah, I think one of the greatest challenges I'm facing right now is my emotions, since I haven't had economic instability for a while because my parents had to shut down the restaurant back home. So they can't really support me anymore. So it's been a roller coaster for me. So I was wondering if someone was giving like mental help or economical help for international students to benefit. I'm pretty sure many more people are in the same situation, because I've talked to many of my friends and they're all like, Oh, yeah. It's rough.

  • 12:08:58

    NNAMDIThe stress, Kelly Yang, that Yohan is expressing I'm pretty sure is mirrored in a lot of the international students with whom you are in contact. And as Yohan pointed out he is essentially looking for some mental health services to get some kind of therapy. Are you hearing a lot of that?

  • 12:09:15

    YANGYeah. There definitely -- mental health is a major issue and not only among international students, but all students right now going through, you know, being all alone doing distance learning, not knowing what jobs are waiting for them on the other side, not knowing if they can afford their universities. I think that another thing that adds to this whole situation is the racism.

  • 12:09:38

    YANGYou know, we have posts coming out of Notre Dame or Columbia, you know, there are people emailing international students and putting it up on social media, "You are milking this country." You know, "The virus is your fault." "You are 1,000-million times to blame." And I mean, when you're dealing with all of your anxiety over your current situation, over your personal situation, your family's finances and the virus and on top of that you're hit with racism. It's overwhelming.

  • 12:10:10

    NNAMDIWe got a tweet from Ann who says, "One of my favorite authors," meaning of course, you Kelly Yang, "from a school librarian. We have quite a few international students at our schools. Thanks for writing this book and representing these voices. Also loved "Front Desk."" We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation with Kelly Yang. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:10:47

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Kelly Yang. Her most recent novel is called "Parachutes." She's a New York Times best-selling author, winner of the 2019 Asian Pacific American Award for Literature. Kelly Yang, how are travel restrictions and limited flight availabilities affecting international students?

  • 12:11:04

    YANGIt's affecting them so much, because we just literally can't go back. China has very limited flights. In fact, there was a stretch of time when there were no flights available. You could not get back from America. You might be able to go through Japan. But then whenever you land in a country in Asia you have to be quarantined, because you're coming U.S. and, you know, we have so many cases here. And you have to be COVID tested like sometimes twice or three times. It's very very difficult to go back and forth. And that's made it very hard. I think there were people who made that initial decision to stay here because they thought potentially schools could open up. This was back in maybe March or April.

  • 12:11:46

    YANGAnd once they made that decision then it became too late to go back. And it became just increasingly hard. Hong Kong today announced that if you're coming back from the U.S. even if you are a Hong Kong resident you will have to quarantine in a hotel. You have to be tested before you get on the flight. You have to be tested the minute you land. And you have to be tested again in order to get out of the hotel. So it's pretty serious.

  • 12:12:10

    NNAMDIFor students who did travel home and are now unable to come back for school, what hurdles must they now navigate with remote learning, often in another time zone completely?

  • 12:12:21

    YANGI've had -- I mean, I know students who are getting up in the middle of the night, you know, just becoming nocturnal because their school is here in the U.S. and they live in Asia because they went back. And if you go back, you know, what do you? You still have to keep going with your studies. You can't just quit school. And so they get up in the middle of the night and they go on Zoom and it's a mess. You know, it's hard. It's really hard on their families who are now -- the whole family has to become nocturnal. It's pretty horrible.

  • 12:12:51

    YANGThey're also facing a lot of pressure from everybody else in Asia, because now Asia has basically, you know, they have actually basically gotten over the virus and things are opening up. There's very few cases now. And everybody is looking at the people who have come back from the U.S. going, oh, my gosh, you know, what if you're bringing it back. What are you doing coming back? And are you actually COVID free? So there's just -- it's mind boggling for them.

  • 12:13:18

    NNAMDIWell, the counterpoint these students may be hearing is, why not just go to school in their home country? I'm wondering how you would respond?

  • 12:13:25

    YANGThat's a really good point. I think that there definitely are cases where students have that choice. They can go to school in Asia. They can go to school in the U.S., in the UK, and Australia. I think that for a lot of people the main thing it comes down is that there are absolutes in the U.S. that are not absolutes in Asia. You know, like for example, academic freedom. The ability to critic freely. You know, if you're studying something like political science, you know, you want to be able to study that in a country where you can kind of say whatever you want.

  • 12:13:57

    YANGThat's not always the case in Asia. And so there are lots of things that go into this consideration besides just the desire to want to be here. You know, they're not choosing it because they like L.A. or they like Washington. They want to learn. They want to grow as a person. They want to have that whole, you know, free horizon to be able to read and learn and say whatever you want.

  • 12:14:19

    NNAMDIHere's Natalie in Maryland. Natalie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:14:24

    NATALIEHi, Kojo. Thank you so much for your great reporting as always. I have a question. So U.S. Customs and Immigration Services, which is the agency that processes student visas is going to furlough 70 percent of its workforce on August 3rd if Congress does not pass emergency funding. And I'm just curious, what impact will that furlough have on student visas?

  • 12:14:53

    NNAMDII have absolutely no idea, but I'm sure it will have an impact. Is this something you looked at Kelly Yang?

  • 12:14:59

    YANGI think that didn't happen until recently. So I didn't look at it from my book. But I think that generally when that happens that means that you're going to have a huge backlog. You know, visas are not going to get approved. You might not be able to come to the country when you want to. I know that right now the Hong Kong Consulate has closed. It's been closed since March. It's been closed to visas unless you have an emergency reason to come to the U.S. as a foreigner you can't. So that has a direct impact on who gets to come to study.

  • 12:15:33

    NNAMDIThank you very much for you call, Natalie. Here is Shama in Washington D.C. Shama, you're turn. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:15:39

    SHAMAHello, hi. I'm an international student here in D.C. And I just want to say thank you so much for bringing all these issues to light, because most times it's really hard to talk to people about my experience as an international student. So thank you.

  • 12:15:56

    NNAMDIAnd thank you, Kelly Yang for addressing it in the novel "Parachutes." Kelly, you spoke with the New York Times about the racism that Asian Americans are facing during the coronavirus. How have you seen xenophobia increase in 2020?

  • 12:16:11

    YANGOh, my gosh. It's heartbreaking how much it's increased. I mean, I was personally called a Chinese virus. I was doing a class online and it was a free class. And a student called -- decided to say that to me and he thought it was funny. And I was told to get out of a park where I live. I live in San Francisco, which is a pretty progressive area. But I was told to go back to where I come from and, you know, get out of the park with my dog and my kids.

  • 12:16:41

    YANGSo it was pretty awful in terms of all these waves of racism. You hear the reports of people being spit at, being knifed, being assaulted. I mean, the list is tremendous and it's unacceptable. It's not okay. Like it's not okay just to be able to just say the words and to carry on these actions thinking it won't actually hurt people. Of course, it hurts us. It hurts us and makes us feel small and it makes us feel like we're not welcomed here.

  • 12:17:13

    NNAMDIWell, the intention in my view is generally to hurt. In "Parachutes" you say, "Your voice is your armor." How did you carry this lesson with you as you considered how to respond to these racist and xenophobic comments?

  • 12:17:24

    YANGSo when I started receiving a lot of these racism, of course, your first instinct is to let go, because maybe, you know, when I was growing up I was taught not to make a big deal out of it, because it was embarrassing. But I have reached a point in my life where I think it's important to draw attention to it so that everybody else out there, who's experiencing it doesn't feel alone. So I immediately put it up on Twitter. And I told everybody what happened.

  • 12:17:54

    YANGYou know, a lot of people when they hear that, you know, Asians are being assaulted like this they don't believe it because they think, well, that's not -- well, how could that happen in the Bay area? How could that happen in San Francisco in this day and age? But it's happening. It's absolutely happening and we all need to talk about it because our voice is our armor.

  • 12:18:12

    NNAMDIWell, of course, it took eight minutes and 49 seconds of a video with a policeman with his knee on a Black man's neck for a lot of people to believe that this kind of thing actually happens. So one does understand.

  • 12:18:23


  • 12:18:24

    NNAMDIYou write novels for young adults. What advice would you give to Asian young people in particular who are facing down acts of racism in the midst of a global pandemic?

  • 12:18:34

    YANGI would say, first of all, you're not alone, and to talk about it. It is okay to talk about it. It's not embarrassing. I mean, I remember when something like this happened to me my kids were embarrassed and ashamed. And I said, you don't have to be ashamed. The person who did this should be ashamed. We're the victim. We shouldn't have to feel ashamed. But that's the natural way to respond. And what we need to all get over is the shame and be able to talk about it so that we can actually tell everyone how we feel and that it is not okay. And then you'll discover that a lot of people stand with you in saying that this is not okay and condemning racism.

  • 12:19:13

    YANGSo I would tell young people to first of all go and speak up. You know, stand up for your friends if they're going through something like this. You know, use your voice, because that's what we have in this country. We have a voice. We need to be able to use it, and we need to not be afraid.

  • 12:19:29

    NNAMDIHere is Teke in Ashburn, Virginia. Even though, we only have about a minute left. So Teke you'll have to be brief. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:19:37

    TEKEYeah. Hi. Actually Kelly was referring Asian. But I think she was quoting Chinese examples. So I was curious why is she using the word Asian for Chinese. Like Asia is pretty large.

  • 12:19:56

    NNAMDIKelly Yang, you only have about 30 seconds to respond. Thank you, Teke.

  • 12:19:58

    YANGYeah. So I was saying that, you know, because the president was calling it the Chinese virus and so a lot of people have been targeting East Asians. But you're right, they've been targeting all Asians not just Asians, people of color. We've seen so many attacks against, you know, Black and brown brothers and sisters. It's just unacceptable, the xenophobia, the discrimination and the racism.

  • 12:20:22

    NNAMDIKelly Yang is a New York Times best-selling author and winner of the 2019 Asian Pacific American Award for Literature. Her most recent novel is "Parachutes." Kelly Yang, thank you so much for joining us. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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