Visa? Check. Flight? Check. Suitcase? Check.
Every year in late August, more than 1,000 international students travel to Bethlehem. This year, however, their back-to-school checklists are drastically different. Many students from outside the U.S are unable to return to Lehigh due to COVID-19, causing a very different semester from what students envisioned.
While students from the U.S. can travel to Lehigh without documentation, international students need a visa to study here. Most U.S. consulates are closed in response to the pandemic, meaning it is impossible for students to get or renew their visa.
This closure affects all international first-year students.
Lehigh is working with partner universities around the world that are able to offer in-person instruction.
To give these students a semblance of a fall semester, the Office of International Affairs is developing the Lehigh in Residence program.
“Lehigh is working with partner universities around the world that are able to offer in-person instruction,” says Cheryl Matherly, vice president and vice provost for international affairs.
International students will be given the opportunity to enroll in a variety of schools as a visiting student, and Lehigh will recognize the credits. Universities involved in the partnership include African University in Zimbabwe, Ashoka University in India, La Sabana in Colombia, Suleyman Demirel University in Kazakhstan, Sogang University in South Korea and others.
“These are all schools we know through various networks, so we feel confident about the quality of instruction,” Matherly says.
Though Lehigh is accustomed to having students scattered around the world because of its plentiful study abroad options, this program is unlike anything the university has implemented before. While regular abroad programs only count for credits, a student’s Lehigh in Residence grades will be factored into their GPA.
Matherly said this difference is because not having a first semester GPA would put students at a disadvantage. They would be unable to apply for certain programs or qualify for scholarships when they eventually arrive in Bethlehem.
Another key difference is that study abroad students have already been integrated into the Lehigh community. While part of being a Lehigh student involves taking classes, much of the experience comes from participating in traditions.
“What's heartbreaking is these new students are so keen to get here and be a part of Lehigh,” Matherly says.
Because of this, Matherly is working with the Office of International Students and Scholars to develop creative programming to help Lehigh in Residence students feel connected to Lehigh.
Ideas include global Brown and White Fridays, dinners with international alumni and writing for The Brown and White student newspaper.
Despite these activities uniting students spread across the world, the experience from country to country will not be identical. This difference is partly a result of the number of students in each location.
For example, while Vietnam only has four admitted first-year students, China has 80. The Vietnamese students, like most Lehigh in Residence students, can enroll at a local university.
Chinese schools, on the other hand, do not want visiting students on campus, for fear of another coronavirus outbreak once reopening. As a result, Lehigh is working with IES Abroad, a longtime study abroad partner that administers programs for college students, to build a custom semester in Shanghai. Lehigh is heavily involved in the logistics, from deciding course offerings to reviewing instructors, Matherly says.
Some other U.S. universities are looking at ways to accommodate international students still overseas. These programs are China-specific because of the large number of Chinese students that enroll in American colleges. Still, these programs are unable to cover the number of students that Lehigh in Residence can.
“I don’t know of anyone else doing something quite on the scale of what we’re doing for our students,” Matherly says.
Lehigh in Residence is just one of three options available for international students. The other two are taking Lehigh classes via Zoom or deferring admission for up to a year.
Matherly said that international students will still pay full tuition whether they choose Zoom Lehigh classes or Lehigh in Residence. For students who choose Lehigh in Residence, the Financial Aid Office will offer supplemental study grants to help offset the difference in price between Lehigh’s tuition and the abroad university tuition.
The Office of International Affairs is connecting with each international first-year student and their family by Zoom to explain these options. Matherly said most families use the time to ask questions about possibilities for the fall.
“They still have some hopeful thinking, asking, ‘Well what if this happens?’” Matherly says. “But the reality is that it is so unlikely that a student will be able to get a visa that we have to be direct and say, ‘It isn’t going to happen.’”
In the meantime, Lehigh is offering a three-credit English course available for all international first-years. The course provides an introduction to studying in the U.S. and at Lehigh specifically, focusing on writing and communication skills while meeting Lehigh students and faculty.
“Lehigh is not charging students for these credits because it’s really in everyone’s best interest to allow the students to really connect with the university quickly,” Matherly says.
While Lehigh’s programming aims to provide a variety of options for all its international students, Lehigh in Residence is not available for upperclass students. This is because first semester freshmen have the most flexibility in their schedule.
“The colleges have been great in figuring out plans, but upperclassmen are way more difficult because a lot of them have specific classes that they absolutely have to take fall semester for where they are in their degree,” Matherly says.
For upperclass international students unable to return to campus, the Office of International Affairs sent out a letter gauging interest in enrolling in an abroad semester in their home country.
Lehigh in Residence is also unavailable for international graduate students. This is because other universities cannot replicate these highly specific programs, Matherly says. Lehigh is working to shift these programs online.
Amid the commotion of creating numerous opportunities for international students, Matherly cannot help but notice the silver lining in collaborating with universities worldwide
“This has given us the opportunity to create new connections and continue longtime partnerships with schools in all different parts of the world,” Matherly says. “Now that we have all these really cool universities in our network, what will we do with that going forward?”