Adam Mathavan is one of thousands of international students at University of Colorado Boulder whose life was upended Monday when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced students must take an in-person class this fall or have their visas revoked.
CU Boulder is moving forward with some in-person classes in the fall, but what format they’re in is still being developed. Mathavan, who is from Kuala Lampur, Malaysia, doesn’t know which of his classes will be in-person, online or a mix. He doesn’t know if any of them will have an in-person component.
“I’d already purchased my plane tickets and everything and saw that policy and thought, ‘Oh my god, what should I do?’” he said. “I was terrified and overwhelmed. I don’t know what to do, especially because I’m in Malaysia right now and I thought I’d be going back to the states easily.”
There were 2,923 international students at CU Boulder in 2019. The university doesn’t know how many international students will enroll in the fall because most graduate students do not enroll until close to or after the start of the semester and incoming undergraduate students haven’t registered for classes yet, said spokesperson Deborah Mendez Wilson.
“In addition, we are still developing class modalities, our course catalog and other fall semester details,” Mendez said in an email. “We are committed to providing international students who return to campus with an opportunity for some of their coursework to be in person. Some international students may choose to continue their education online from their home countries.”
Mathavan is now worried about what to do if he gets to U.S. and customs officers won’t let him in the country. All of his belongings are in Boulder, and he’s wondering what will happen if he can’t come back or pay rent. He’s worried his belongings may just be thrown away.
Mathavan attends CU Boulder on scholarship funded by Malaysia’s government, which covers $60,000 a year for him to get his chemical engineering degree. He’s a senior and took online courses over the summer to get a jump start on the semester. Because of the time difference, his 3 p.m. lectures have been taking place at 5 a.m. local time. There are about two hours a week when he can easily communicate with his professors, and he says that’s not enough. Online classes are challenging, and online classes as a senior engineering major are even more difficult.
“It’s not viable for me to do that next semester,” he said. “I’ve been struggling being here and that’s why I want to go back to the states and continue my classes. Even if it is online, I still need to be in the states to be in the same time zone as my lectures.”
Mathavan’s ray of hope is faculty members like Roger Pielke, Jr., an environmental studies professor who put out a call on Twitter that he would help international students who needed an in-person class. Pielke is setting up one-credit, in-person independent study courses with dozens of students so they can come back to Boulder in the fall.
Mathavan enrolled in an independent study with Pielke this week, though he still needs to make sure that qualifies him to return to the United States.
“This is my job as a professor,” Pielke said. “I care about these students being here. They’re our students. The policy put in place is unusually vindictive and cruel, and because I am a policy professor I should be able to figure out work around policies, because that’s what we do.”
Pielke said he knows of dozens of other CU Boulder professors who are doing the same thing. Fourteen people in his department alone have volunteered to take on at least one student for an independent study so they can remain on campus.
“It’s heartening to see my colleagues stepping up in support of the students, and it’s also a shame that we have to be doing this,” he said.
Matt Vondrasek, president of CU Boulder’s United Government of Graduate Students, sent a letter to the system’s Board of Regents this week asking them to sue the Department of Homeland Security because the abrupt policy change violates federal law — specifically, that the Administrative Procedure Act requires public notice and comment on rule changes.
“They clearly made a decision that has no reasonable basis and they failed to consider the massive implications it has for students,” he said. “It’s definitely put the lives of many students into chaos.”
Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed a lawsuit in federal court on Wednesday to block the order, and dozens of universities and higher education organizations have joined onto the lawsuit. The University of Colorado is not currently among them.
“I would expect the CU Board of Regents to stand up and advocate for the students in the CU system because students deserve to be protected from arbitrary government rules. That’s the job of the regents,” Vondrasek said.
System spokesperson Ken McConnellogue said CU is looking into the situation.
“Our legal team is examining the issue and we are also in conversations with our Colorado colleagues and national association partners about it,” McConnellogue said.