COVID-19 has interrupted the flow of international college students to the U.S. this school year. Travel restrictions and problems trying to get a student visa are the main reasons.

Some Missouri international college students are stuck learning in their native countries, but their value is not forgotten

The National Association of International Educators says about one million college students from other countries are studying in the U.S., including in Missouri. The international student population, which pays premium tuition rates, has an economic impact on our communities by those individuals living and working here. They have a roughly $40 billion impact on the nation’s economy and are responsible for creating hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Missouri State University in southwest Missouri’s Springfield had more than 1,500 international students enrolled for the fall. Brad Bodenhausen, associate vice president of International Education and Training, tells Missourinet about 800 of those students are studying from their home countries.

“In a normal year, if there is such a thing in the future I don’t know, but for the normal of the past, we would typically have about 1,200 or 1,300 students on campus at Springfield. So, our number of students here on our campus at Springfield is down about 40% from previous years,” he says. “However, our overall international student number is not down very much at all – only 100 students from the fall of 2019 to the fall of 2020.”

He expects about 30-40 new international students for the spring semester.

Missouri State has students from 74 countries.

Dr. Kevin Timlin, executive director of International Education and Services at Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau, tells Missourinet the value of international students goes beyond a dollar figure.

“Our domestic students don’t always have the opportunity to go abroad and learn more about the world. So, these international students are really bringing the world to our students and making the educational experience a better and a richer place,” he says. “No matter what moving forward, we are an incredibly interconnected world. We are an incredibly interconnected economy. And it is so important for people to have the ability and the competencies to work with people from different countries and different cultures because it really is how we are going to be successful in business, communities, relationships, all those different things. And we do feel like the university is a very important part in developing that global competency and those intercultural competencies. International students bring so much to that picture and our study abroad students bring so much to that picture because those discussions that you have in the classroom – if you have voices that have more global experience and more global perspectives – that helps everybody learn and that makes our educational environment that much better.”

SEMO currently has about 500 international students from 52 different countries – most are learning in-seat. Timlin says after COVID-19 hit, many of them chose to stay because they feared they would have trouble returning.

The University of Missouri has about 1,500 international students enrolled for the fall semester – a decline of about 500 from recent years. But, Dr. Mary Stegmaier, vice provost for International Programs at the University of Missouri, says most of the Columbia campus international students learned in-seat for the fall semester.

“They add so much to the educational experience of our domestic students, whether it is in classroom where they’re physically discussing and interacting with each other or whether this is happening virtually,” she tells Missourinet. “They live in our communities and their families will come and visit them. And so, it’s not just an opportunity for them but it’s an opportunity for us to learn from other perspectives and learn about other cultures.”

The university has students from 104 countries. The largest group of international students is from China.

Truman State University in northeast Missouri’s Kirksville has experienced a 25% fall enrollment decline of its international student population. About 300 international students are enrolled there, instead of the typical 400 students. Tim Urbonya, Truman’s executive director for international education, tells Missourinet the school also expects a decline to continue next spring and fall.

“There is no way around it,” he says. “But there is no doubt there is still a very strong interest in coming to the United States. They just can’t come here right now.”

He cites educational experts expecting a surge in international college student enrollment once the pandemic gets under control.

“I think we’ll see that at Truman State,” he says.

Many Missouri colleges and universities are also not letting U.S. students study abroad during the COVID-19 pandemic – or they are allowing very few of them. Bodenhausen says those experiences have been virtually nonexistent at Missouri State.

“So that’s a big disappointment obviously for the students,” he says. “Now there are some ways to replace that experience to some degree through virtual and remote connections.”

MSU partners with a university in Brazil and also has two branch campuses in China. A study abroad experience the school came up with was a two-week project involving the Amazon region in South America.

“The focus was on social entrepreneurship and the chance to come up with business ideas that might be sustainable from an economic and social perspective in that region. What was great about this is the perspectives are different, of course, from students as they come from different backgrounds. They were able to come up with creative and innovative ideas. It was a very good practical experience for the students through project-based learning and a team-based kind of experience. But it taught them intercultural skills in the process. It was able to be carried out fully through online platforms,” he says.

Bodenhausen says MSU usually has about 700 students each year having an international study abroad experience. A few could happen during the spring semester but not many.

Most of the school’s study abroad experiences are faculty-led short term group trips. He says the so-called “Study Away” program is growing in popularity because they are more affordable and being gone long term is not feasible for many students. All of these have been canceled through the Spring semester.

Dr. Timlin says Southeast Missouri State University is not allowing study abroad experiences the rest of the academic year.

“Those students go to several different European, South American, Asian destinations. But, we’ve been working very closely with the students and the advisors to make sure we’re finding other opportunities for them to meet any degree requirements if study abroad is a required component or to defer this opportunity or the experience until a later date,” he says.

He says the school usually has about 125 to 150 students studying abroad each year.

At the University of Missouri, Stegmaier says most study abroad programs were not allowed for the fall semester. It is reviewing whether the programs will get to happen during the spring semester.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted the way many Missouri colleges and universities are delivering education, but they have taken the bull by the horns to reach their students. Some instructors have spent an enormous amount of time finding creative ways to be more flexible for students to continue to access education.

For classes being taught online, some are being offered live through a video platform. Others are being offered in the traditional remote way or are recorded versions – an option especially helpful to international students learning from their home countries in a different time zone.

Urbonya says Truman State University had about 15% of its courses offered online for the fall semester and about 200 for the spring.

“We are not a university that had a lot of classes online before the pandemic started but we’ve shifted and pivoted very quicky and developed, in a very short period of time, a pretty good offering of online courses. Nonetheless, when the pandemic hit, it was kind of a scramble to make ends meet in the first semester. This semester, we’ve gotten a little better at it,” he says.

Stegmaier says moving to online-only last spring was a pretty smooth transition for staff at the University of Missouri.

“Here at the university, many departments have for a number of years offered online courses. Most faculty prior to the pandemic were using our online teaching resource to take materials available for students. So, most faculty were quite familiar with at least the basic technology that’s necessary to shift to online teaching,” she says. “Many faculty had experience already delivering course content online, facilitating discussion, grading online. Even if you were teaching face to face, we would use this technology. The university has a strong support structure in place to assist faculty in this transition.”

In an effort to prevent further COVID-19 infections, some Missouri colleges and universities ended the on-campus portion of classes before Thanksgiving break and then shifted the rest of the semester to online classes.

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