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In light of the coronavirus pandemic, many NAU students are scrambling for answers to a multitude of university-related questions. However, for students who take part in NAU’s international education and study abroad programs, these problems may be much more dire.

Megan MacMillan Maartens, an international exchange student in her third year of college, traveled to Flagstaff from the Netherlands for the fall 2019 semester. From her personal experience as an exchange student, Maartens said she believes the pandemic will severely decrease the amount of international students traveling to NAU for upcoming semesters.

“The application processes, such as applying for a visa, are very difficult at the moment because exchange students are, of course, not the priority of [American] embassies during these times of turmoil,” Maartens said.

Additionally, Maartens said it is unlikely that international students will continue to pay large sums of money to participate in exchange programs if they are unable to experience them to the fullest extent. Along with educational fees, Maartens added that America’s expensive health care system is another reason international students will most likely deem a semester abroad in the United States not worth the risk of infection.

Despite predicting a significant decrease in international enrollment, Maartens said she does not expect this change to last forever.

“I think the decrease is only temporary, dependent upon the length of the COVID-19 crisis,” Maartens said.

Maartens divulged that many students from other countries hold concerns and criticisms for how the U.S. has handled the pandemic, specifically fearing that the country is ineffective in controlling the spread of coronavirus.

Daniel Palm, associate vice president for NAU's Center for International Education, explained that digital or virtual-based education will be an important factor for international students in the coming months.

“We anticipate that there will be students in person on the mountain campus this fall, but there will also be a larger number of students in online modalities and digital modalities,” Palm said.

In terms of potential obstacles for international students, Palm said that everyone learns differently, regardless of their nationality. He explained that international students will likely face similar — if not the same — challenges as domestic students in regard to their digital educations.

Sami Abou Fakhr, an NAU international student in his second year of graduate studies, moved to Flagstaff from Lebanon and has been a part of the university's international education program for 11 months.

Abou Fakhr was planning on returning home to Lebanon for the summer, but the outbreak of COVID-19 promptly interrupted his plans. He was told by university officials that if he was unable to return to the Flagstaff campus in time for the start of the fall 2020 semester, he would be forced to withdraw from coursework.

“I had no choice but to remain in the U.S., which meant I couldn’t see my family for another year,” Abou Fakhr said.

As COVID-19 spread globally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released guidelines detailing how it advises institutes of higher education, such as NAU, to proceed in terms of international students. More specifically, the CDC proposed that universities weigh postponing or canceling all international education programs.

These guidelines also recommended that universities consider asking the foreign exchange students within these programs to return to their home countries for the time being. In this respect, the CDC cited potential dilemmas and unpredictable circumstances for international students regarding travel restrictions and health care coverage if they were to remain in the U.S.

Despite strong warnings for institutes of higher education, the CDC also added that COVID-19 is a unique and fluid situation, and that proactive measures will prove to be the most significant for educational environments.

As of June 18, Palm said no concrete decisions have been made regarding international education and study abroad programs. Despite an ongoing dialogue between NAU’s Center for International Education and the Office of the President, any potential changes to the international programs are still in discussion. Due to the ever-changing circumstances that currently govern the global climate, Palm said it is important for any discussions concerning international education at NAU to extend into an ongoing conversation among university leadership.

“While it is a very sad time and a very challenging time for all involved, it is something that we view not as a setback but as an opportunity for international education to grow and to meet the students’ needs, whether they’re abroad or on the Flagstaff campus,” Palm said. “It’s definitely a time to innovate ... [to] consider exactly what students need and how we can best serve students internationally and here domestically.”

Certain aspects of NAU's international programs cannot be determined until classes begin, although Palm said virtual-based education will be a valuable option for foreign exchange participants this fall. For students who wish to travel back home and be with their families before the semester starts, a digital learning platform will perhaps be their best option, allowing them to stay healthy and continue their education.