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Winning the Fight: Justice for International Students

Belkys Torres at a podium speaking to a group of students and others

All of the hard work paid off. The University of Pittsburgh community had swung into action over the last weekend in an attempt to block a controversial Trump administration plan that would have prohibited international students from taking an entirely online course load for the fall 2020 semester.

Pitt had been advocating for a reversal of this policy, and on Monday morning, joined hundreds of other universities in filing an amicus brief in support of a July 8 lawsuit filed by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to block the policy’s implementation.

Tuesday, a U.S. District Court in Massachusetts announced a resolution of that lawsuit. The Trump administration has rescinded its July 6 rule that prohibited international students from taking an entirely online course load and reinstated the March 13 guidance that permits international students to take classes online as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In its brief, Pitt had made it clear that the hybrid educational model it will implement in the fall, Flex@Pitt, which enables classes to continue through a range of pandemic conditions with a combination of in-person and online educational activities, was compliant with the then-applicable federal guidance. Nonetheless, Pitt argued in the brief that the new rules were unjustified, burdensome and misguided.

"I felt an enormous sense of relief for our international students when I heard the news" of the rescinded order, said Belkys Torres, Pitt’s executive director of global engagement. “And also gratitude for the many legal experts, faculty, senior leaders and staff colleagues who worked tirelessly this weekend to help gather information to inform Pitt’s amicus brief.”

A major weekend effort

To prepare for the filing, Torres said a “call to action” was issued last Friday evening to “an army of people” that included deans and associate deans at every Pitt school along with many others to provide information on the vast contributions of international students at Pitt.

“We had stories coming in from all corners of Pitt, shining a light on how vital international students are to our overall mission,” she said, adding that the Pitt Global Team is always at the ready to support and advocate for Pitt’s international community.

“We never think twice about activating our networks—inside and outside of the University—to help advance our commitment to embracing the world. This weekend was a powerful example of our University’s unequivocal respect and recognition for our international students,” she said.

Data collected over the weekend was given to Pitt Immigration Law Clinic Director Sheila Velez Martinez, the clinic’s Heinz Asylum Fellows Linda Hamilton and Nahla Kamaluddin, and Pitt Associate Legal Counsel Stephen Gilson, who all worked long hours to draft and file the brief.

Among the points it made about Pitt's international community are:

  • a number of international post-doctoral fellows are working on a potential vaccine for COVID-19 in Pitt’s Center for Vaccine Research;
  • international student teams from the Schools of Medicine, Pharmacy and Public Health are analyzing data on the growing cohort of Pittsburgh COVID-19 patients in intensive care;
  • the majority of Pitt’s graduate students are international students, including 75-85% in Pitt’s Masters of Information Science program;
  • approximately 60 international student athletes are on various Pitt sports teams; and
  • international students in the city contribute more than $238 million to the Pittsburgh economy.

Delo Blough in a pink shirt
Those facts don’t include the impact these students have in a classroom setting. Each individual, said Torres, brings a diverse experience and a unique perspective. Different perspectives, she said, can make learning more interesting, more challenging and more vital.

Simply put, she said: “They share their own life experiences to help the rest of us understand what life may be like somewhere else.”

Office of International Services (OIS) Director Delo Blough and her team have been working diligently to answer students’ questions, as well as those from Pitt departments and faculty members.

Her office is continuing to update the FAQs, and a webinar for international graduate students is scheduled for this Friday, July 17, at 8 a.m.

Pitt has always worked to support its international students’ needs, but has established even more services to help during this time of the pandemic. There is an International Student Emergency Fund for students in need and OIS has posted enrollment options for the fall term. There’s also a fairly active Pitt International Community Facebook group where participants post links and videos, ask questions and voice concerns. And OIS has also been hosting weekly watch parties on Wednesdays.

I Younan An in a blue sweatshirt
“Our team has been working around the clock for months to engage with incoming and continuing students to ensure they have all of the services and support necessary to help them achieve academic success at Pitt,” said Torres. “We will continue our efforts to develop new programs, events and activities that connect international students with their Pitt family regardless of where they are in the world.”

Student reaction

One of those students who had emailed OIS with questions is I Younan An, who is in his second year of the international development program at Pitt’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. The native of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, said on Tuesday he feels relieved.

“I feel less stressful and less anxious about my status here,” he said, adding that he feels happy that international students at other universities that are holding online-only courses will be able to take any classes they want.

He noted how difficult it would be for students whose universities didn’t offer a flexible option—taking online classes from his hometown, for example, would have been difficult.

Yitian Wang in a black shirt
“My home in Cambodia does not have access to WiFi,” he said. “We would have had to use mobile data which can be unstable for a learning experience. Cambodia is also 11 hours ahead of Pittsburgh time so it would be hard for me to do well in school.”

Rising Pitt sophomore Yitian Wang says he feels “amazed and empowered” to be part of the Pitt community at this time. Majoring in both psychology and political science, the Wuhan, China, native says his goal is to someday be a diplomat between the U.S. and China—two countries he loves. He said he could feel “American people including me and protecting me.”

Said Wang: “America isn’t about the status quo. It is about a profound struggle, a continuing process of reforms and progress—the women’s movement, racial equality, and so on. This time, we, the international students, were included in the struggle.”