Student Voices
Jul. 23 2020

Education Beyond Borders

In response to the ICE guidance that once put the education of thousands of students in jeopardy, student Vanessa Sandra describes the shockwaves that were sent through the international student community and why we all benefit from a globally diverse campus

The July 6 guidance from the current White House administration and ICE targeting the ability of international students to remain in the United States for our studies is one that has brought deep frustration and anxiety to me and to my fellow international students.

When I was 18, I moved away from Indonesia to pursue an American education in Boston, Massachusetts. Like many international students have experienced, this was a difficult decision to make because, for us, home can be as far as a 24-hour flight and worlds away from familiarity. However, the appeal of education based on cultural diversity and curiosity was a strong motivator, one that promised invaluable experiences and opportunities.

So when the Trump administration suddenly announced their new policy directive that would have restricted international students’ visas, I was horrified. Their revised policy announced on July 6 stipulated that international students holding F-1 or M-1 visas would be forced to leave the country if their respective universities opted to provide an online-only curriculum this coming Fall semester due to the COVID-19 pandemic. If enforced, this policy change would have impacted more than 1,000,000 international students currently enrolled in American universities. After it was announced, students like myself saw it as a political ploy by the Trump administration to pressure university re-openings against public health recommendations.

From a social perspective, this was a discriminatory policy that undermined and discredited the profound efforts of international students. Like domestic students, we have invested significant time into both our academics and building relationships with peers and our surrounding communities as we work to achieve our goals here. From a public health perspective, this was blatantly at odds with the protective measures and recommendations made to protect students, faculty, and surrounding communities from COVID-19. As per the CDC's guidelines for academic institutions, the path of lowest risk is to engage in virtual-only learning and activities – as disappointing as it may be to students. Additionally, forcing international students currently in the U.S. to go back to their home countries takes away their decision to protect themselves and their families from possible exposure during long periods of air travel

Sandra vanessa, Student Voices, International students, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health

New York Attorney General Letitia James put it poignantly when she said that “international students should never be used as political fodder to force colleges to reopen their doors, but the president’s inability to remove politics from public health decisions endangers us all.” The targeting of international students amidst a pandemic is needlessly careless and it echoes the administration’s misguided attitude towards COVID-19 and immigration. While these two arguments have been cited frequently to make our case, another equally valid but often overlooked perspective is one that acknowledges the work that international students do for both the U.S. and our respective home countries. Our response to the COVID-19 pandemic is a timely case in point.

During New York’s infection peak in April, 1,596 students across the Columbia University Irving Medical Center campus (including over 600 Mailman students) volunteered with the Columbia Student Service Corps (CSSC), an initiative addressing issues from telemedicine to patient information awareness in the face of the pandemic. Much of the international student community, myself included, and many who were in the midst of scrambling to find a place to stay after campus residences closed wholeheartedly joined CSSC alongside our American peers to support NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and the Washington Heights community in fighting COVID-19. Still, despite such difficulties, we were dedicated to protecting and serving a country that is not our own, but one that we have grown to love.

One of the wonderful aspects about receiving an international education is that, as students, we get to use the skills that we learn here not only to benefit the U.S., but to also utilize this experience in helping our home countries. Thus, in the months following the coronavirus public health crisis in New York, my focus shifted to my home country of Indonesia, which was clearly struggling to contain the spread of COVID-19. As a developing country with existing public health issues and a lack of equitable healthcare access, it deeply concerned me when I saw the news about testing shortages, low social-distancing compliance, and an overall sense of confusion due to the lack of transparency.

To understand the situation beyond anecdotes and news headlines, I began my own investigation into the spread of COVID-19 in Indonesia from my apartment in New York. By interviewing a range of people from Ministry of Health officials, to academic researchers in health policy, to those spearheading private testing, I grasped that the fractured response was due to a number of interrelated factors: economic insecurities, stigma stemming from low education levels, lack of testing, and a delay in a coordinated response.

I am confident that the education and mentorships I have received at Mailman will further equip and empower me to be a strong voice of public health in Indonesia.

In my interview with Dr. Hasbullah Thabrany, Chair of the Centre for Health Economics and Policy Studies at Universities Indonesia, who played a major role in implementing universal healthcare in Indonesia, he told me that “you can serve and support your home country from wherever you are in the world.” As with many international students, applying the breadth of knowledge I am fortunate enough to gain in the U.S. to create positive public health impacts in my home country is one of the goals that drove me to come here in the first place.

The applications of our American education and our experiences extend far beyond our efforts back home and beyond our work and impact here in the U.S., such as our contributions to CSSC. The presence of international students cultivates a culture of acceptance, fosters collaboration between people of all backgrounds, and informs public health initiatives on a global scale. International students enrich an environment of innovation, facilitating the exchange of ideas.

Although the July 14 rescindment of the policy that would have threatened deportation for countless international students has provided relief for us, there is unquestionably a lingering sentiment of anxiety and uncertainty amongst the international student community. There is something to be said about having the threat of deportation unexpectedly thrown at us after all the investments we have made in this country. We begin to think that perhaps the culture of acceptance we treasure so much in studying here isn’t as strong as we hoped. But even this demotivating thought starts to fade knowing that we didn’t have to face the recent policy scare alone. I was incredibly moved to see overwhelming support for the international student community that came from our American peers and university faculty. The voices that unified to advocate for us embody the kind of solidarity the world needs more of today, especially if we want to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic.


Vanessa Sandra is a 2021 MPH candidate in the Department of Epidemiology. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Cell, Molecular Biology & Genetics from Boston University.