Visa delays could bar Clemson international grad students from US, cause teaching shortage

Zoe Nicholson
Greenville News

When Marketa Marcanikova took a leave of absence from her studies at Clemson to fly to the Czech Republic to care for her dying mother, she didn't expect to be gone a year. 

She also didn't expect a pandemic would bar her from returning to the states, potentially keeping her from resuming her bioengineering graduate degree program until 2021. 

Although Clemson's International Office has kept her informed on what she needs to do to be able to return to school, there is no real timeline or clarity from the U.S. State Department on when that will be. 

"Basically there is nothing that I can do about this," she said via a Skype interview with The Greenville News and Independent Mail. 

Marketa Marcanikova, Clemson bioengineering graduate student, returned to the Czech Republic to care for her sick mother last year. Now that she is able to return to the States and resume her degree, Visa services are suspended due to the coronavirus and she has no clear timeline on when she'll be able to return to Clemson

Marcanikova is one of thousands international students at Clemson. In the graduate school alone, about 25% of students are international. 

But with the United States still enacting numerous travel advisories and the visa process stalled amidst the pandemic, many of Clemson's international students may not be able to get to campus by the start of fall classes.

It's a problem that could hinder teaching efforts, as graduate assistants teach hundreds of courses a semester.

"One of our biggest concerns would be our incoming students, and their ability to come here and support our instructional needs," Clemson graduate school dean Jason Fleming said. 

Hundreds of students awaiting visas

There are 615 international students — about half of all incoming graduate students — at Clemson set to begin their graduate degree programs this fall, Fleming said. 

This is due in large part to the university's Carnegie R-1 status, a distinction awarded to institutions with the highest levels of research funding, Fleming said. 

"So we're going to attract graduate students from all over the world to come here to work with our faculty in our labs and in our programs," he said.

And although they've paid their deposits and committed to becoming a Tiger, travel restrictions and delays could stop that. 

"They would be in the process of trying to get a student visa cleared, to be able to come here, but in most of those cases, those are clamped down right now," Fleming said. 

After her mother died in February, Marcanikova began gathering the required visa documents she'd need to return to Clemson for her third year of graduate school. 

But as March began, the U.S. suspended all visa services for non-citizens, the president enacted travel bans to high-risk countries and thousands of flights were cancelled, leaving Marcanikova stranded.

"My visa is still valid, so I didn't have to apply for completely new visa, just for another document ... but I think honestly, it was also a little bit difficult to follow the situation," Marcanikova told The News and Mail via Skype. 

Most countries had their travel bans lifted — with a notable exception of China — as cases of COVID-19 declined across the world, but U.S. Embassies and Consulates across the world have suspended "routine visa services" since March 20, and no resumption date has been provided, according the U.S. State Department's website. Requests for further information were not answered by the State Department. 

"I'm hoping and praying for fall 2020," Marcanikova said of her return to South Carolina.

Less grad students could mean teacher shortage

The uncertainty over graduate students getting to campus in the fall could spell trouble for the university's teaching capacity. 

Graduate students are considered "triple threats" at Clemson, according to university provost Bob Jones — they learn, they teach and they research. 

More than 1,000 graduate assistants teach or help teach courses at Clemson, a "valuable asset" that helps the university fill in instructional gaps in large lectures, labs or seminars for undergraduate students. And, they are cheaper than the average professor. 

"We don't have the expense of having to hire a full-time instructor or something like that, which is far more expensive than a part-time grad student who's also learning and researching," Jones said. 

At Clemson, about 300 graduate student teachers are international, Fleming said. 

Chinese travel ban could keep grad students from enrolling until 2021

Concerns over graduate students' inability to return to campus in the fall began as early as February, according to emails The News and Mail received as part of a Freedom of Information Act request. 

"Has anyone thought about what this might to do our grad student recruiting? A pretty large percentage of our grad student candidates are from China..." a Feb. 5 email from Chemistry Department chair Bill Pennington.

The FOIA request revealed about 17% of Clemson students obtaining a PhD in science are Chinese.

The first outbreak of the coronavirus took place in late 2019 in China and the U.S. enacted a travel ban, which is still in effect, earlier this year to the Asian country. 

In February, the university was bracing themselves that the incoming Chinese students — many of whom teach science labs for undergraduates — will not be able to get to campus in the fall because of the travel ban.  

"If you only admit students in the fall term, this might be a case in which you could consider spring entrance for some of your applicants from China," an email from Fleming reads. 

The graduate school is offering start date deferrals for international students, Fleming told The News and Mail. 

"We're trying to be flexible and supportive for the students that have applied, taking the time-investment to apply here and be accepted. And we're trying to support that," he said. 

But, Fleming added he suspects many continuing international students have found a way to stay in the U.S. amidst the pandemic.

"In the current state of things, the majority of them have just chosen to stay here rather than travel back home," he said.

A national survey from the Institute of International Education found that 92% of international students stayed in America rather than heading home for the summer, giving colleges a sense of relief that they'll be able to retain those students in the fall. 

At home and abroad, students stay connected to Clemson

For the students who chose to stay in Clemson amidst the pandemic, Fleming said the school is looking for ways to keep them employed and busy and is actively trying to find ways to connect with students stuck abroad.

"They are as essential as ever for us, moving forward," Fleming said of rhe graduate student body and the need to keep them engaged. 

To keep herself busy, Marcanikova signed up to help with the Clemson Covid Challenge, where she'll help South Carolina college students tackle pandemic problems over the summer. 

The ability to stay engaged with her community in Clemson, especially after the loss of her mother, is vital for Marcanikova, who has found herself restless while she waits out the pandemic in the Czech Republic. 

"Before my mom left us, I knew there was something that I'm doing that has a purpose. But right now it's been three months, I feel that I could be more productive, I could maybe help more people. I can have some directions or something to do with my life."

Zoe covers Clemson for The Greenville News and Independent Mail. Reach her at znicholson@gannett.com or Twitter @zoenicholson_