International student enrollment down, experiences changing due to COVID-19

International student enrollment is down, changing the orientation experience for 2020 international freshmen.

Total international student enrollment has been between 120 and 140 students in recent years, but it is down to 76 students for fall 2020, 15 of whom are new to Augie, according to Director of International Programs and Enrollment Ben Iverson.

“The pandemic has interrupted nearly everything related to study abroad, [including] the number of new students who have chosen to join us this year and current students,” Iverson said. “Some decided to take a semester off, and some are taking classes from home because they weren’t able to get visas or find flights to return.”

Sophomore Gedion Alemayehu knows some of those students personally.

“I have one friend that is from South Africa that didn’t come back,” Alemayehu said. “I literally lost contact with her. I was talking to her over the summer, and she was not sure what she was going to do. I also know many people are still students and are just taking classes online.”

Thirteen international students are currently taking classes completely online from their respective countries, including China, Russia, Brazil, Vietnam and Ethiopia.

Iverson explained, “These students are online completely from the beginning.” 

Iverson said that many of the classes the online students are taking are offered at the same time as they would be on campus. This means that, for places like China that are 13 hours ahead, students have to adapt.

“We have a couple of students there who are living night owl lifestyles as a result,” Iverson explained.

The pandemic has also affected the international student orientation this semester.

Iverson said that in past years, international students would get the opportunity to explore various locations in the Black Hills like Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse and the Badlands.

“The orientation was different for us because we’re not just new to college life but also to the United States,” said Alemayehu, who went on the retreat last fall. “It was a fun time.”

Instead of exploring the Black Hills, Iverson said to adhere to university travel restrictions, the International Programs Office (IPO) took the students to explore Sioux Falls and the surrounding area.

“So far the experience with the IPO has been wonderful,” said Yue “Shirley” Wang, one of the nine freshman international students on campus this fall. “They brought us in a week early, and we did a lot of fun things.”

Some of their escapades included rock climbing at the Palisades with the Augie Outdoor Program and seeing a Canaries baseball game.

“It brought all of us together close,” Wang said. 

Alemayehu said the difference in attendance between the two years’ events was notable, tying back to the decreased enrollment.

“I remember that it was two full busses,” he said. “Compared to this year, it wasn’t even two vans.” 

But that may not be a bad thing.

“This year, I am grateful that there is a smaller amount of international students,” Wang explained. “I think each of us has gotten to know each other. It’s a tighter group.”

While decreased international student enrollment alone may not be a problem for those students, Alemayehu said he feels that the pandemic has been hard for many of them.

“For four or five months, we’ve been in a state of solitude,” he said. “I feel as perplexed as everybody else does, but there’s the added burden that you have a country to worry about or you have a family to worry about. For me, when I look up COVID updates, I look up South Dakota and the United States, but I also check my country and my city back home.”

And homesickness is one of the hardest things, he said.

“I know that American students feel that because they’re not in their state,” Alemayehu said. “But on a larger scale, international students feel that, especially during breaks, because we can’t go back for a weekend because that’s how long it takes to even get there.”

Moving forward, international students can expect a few changes to IPO events.

In past years, the IPO has put on an event called the Friday Rendezvous. Iverson said that it was essentially a chance for international students to present about their country and for returning study abroad students to talk about their experiences. 

To replace the Friday Rendezvous, the IPO is going to release a podcast centered around interviewing international students about their life experiences.

“Last year, we did a newsletter that we called the Window Seat,” said Iverson. “We’re not going to continue the written version, but we’re going to continue it in the form of a podcast: the IPO’s Window Seat podcast. We hope to release one every Friday.”

The organization hopes to release the first episode Sept. 25.

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