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Colleges Grapple With How to Help Students Still Left in Limbo by Trump’s Travel Ban

May 18, 2017

Jason Redmond, AFP, Getty Images
Protesters gathered in Seattle this week as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit prepared to hear arguments on President Trump’s travel ban.

President Trump announced his executive order barring travelers, including students, from a half-dozen predominantly Muslim countries shortly after he took office in late January.

But even in the dead of winter, officials at Ohio University were already thinking about summer. While students from the affected countries would be permitted, under the order, to complete their studies, if they went home to visit family and friends, they might not be able to return to the United States. So Ohio administrators began drawing up a plan to offer summer housing to students stranded by the travel ban.

The university is not alone. The academic year may be winding down, but colleges still find themselves grappling with fallout from the ban. Some, like Ohio, are providing housing, while others are scrambling to help international students, who are restricted from working off campus, find on-campus jobs or internships. Many have stepped up their summertime programming to serve unusually large populations of foreign students who have elected not to travel home between semesters.

Federal courts have temporarily blocked enactment of the executive order, as they hear cases challenging its constitutionality. Although citizens from the countries included in the ban — Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen — are once again legally allowed to enter the United States, many colleges have cautioned students from those nations about traveling abroad over the summer. The University at Buffalo, for one, sent an email earlier this month urging students to "think carefully" about foreign travel since the outcome and timing of the courts’ decision is unknown, and a reinstatement of the ban could leave them stuck overseas.

"It is sad and unprecedented that we have to discourage our students from traveling outside the country," Stephen C. Dunnett, vice provost for international education, said in an email, "but this is the nature of the situation we find ourselves in."

Buffalo is not providing summer housing, Mr. Dunnett says, because most of those affected by the executive order are graduate students who already have off-campus housing and assistantships or scholarships that provide year-round support. And many students, at Buffalo and elsewhere, had probably not planned to travel over the summer anyway — the largest group of affected students, those from Iran, are typically issued only single-entry visas, meaning they have to reapply for a visa if they leave the country. As a result, many Iranian students never return home during their studies.

Still, a number of colleges have stepped forward to provide emergency housing. Ithaca College, in Upstate New York, approved an exemption from its usual requirement that those staying on campus over the summer be enrolled in classes or be working for the college full time. Students from affected countries will have housing fees waived, while other international students can apply to stay for the summer or to return early. (The U.S. Department of State in March ordered stricter vetting of visa applicants from around the world, not just those from the countries included in the travel ban.)

‘To Help Mitigate the Fear’

At the University of California at Berkeley, the board of the International House, a nonprofit residence and program center for international students and scholars associated with the university, voted to provide up to two dozen scholarships to cover summertime room and board for those whose education or research could be interrupted by the travel ban or by civil strife in their home countries. "There are so many unknowns," says Hans C. Giesecke, the International House’s executive director. The housing aid is "designed to help mitigate the fear." Depending on financial need and duration of stay, the scholarships could cover costs up to $5,500 per person.

At Ohio University, room and board for affected students is being covered by its Parents and Family Endowment, a fund for students in need, meaning that no taxpayer or tuition money will be spent on the summer housing. Because the IRS categorizes these accommodations as a taxable benefit, the university is required to withhold taxes for each student, says Jason Pina, vice president of student affairs. But Athens Friends of International Students, a group of faculty and community members, has stepped forward to cover the taxes for the students.

So far, 14 students have requested housing or dining assistance, Mr. Pina says, although he expects that number could rise, as some students are going home with friends or staying with extended family within the United States for the first part of the summer. The university has about 100 students directly affected by the travel ban.

Housing hasn’t been an issue at American University, in Washington, but employment has been. Visa rules prohibit foreign students from working off campus, so those looking for a paycheck to help cover their living expenses must find work with the university. Competition has been high for a limited number of internships and on-campus jobs, says Fanta Aw, interim vice president for campus life.

It’s not just students from the six countries who have decided to stick close to campus over the summer, Ms. Aw says. "The reality is that the executive order has had a chilling effect on international students in general."

The University of Delaware has started an emergency fund to help international students with unexpected financial needs, and Ravi Ammigan, interim associate deputy provost for international programs, says none of the three initial applications to the fund came from students from countries directly affected by the travel ban.

The university’s international office has been reminding students who have stayed for the summer of its counseling and advising services. It’s also been trying to keep up a sense of community for those far from home. One of the next events on its calendar: an ice-cream social.

Karin Fischer writes about international education, colleges and the economy, and other issues. She’s on Twitter @karinfischer, and her email address is karin.fischer@chronicle.com.