Seattle international students caught between Trump and COVID-19

A Seattle Central College professor argues that the pandemic and an America First presidency threaten a great American institution.

Gift Homsaen

First year Seattle Central College student Gift Homsaen on Aug. 11, 2020. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

At 7 a.m. July 7, Korean Standard Time, Jung Ha Yoo’s phone blew up. Friends from Seattle were messaging the recent Seattle Central College grad to say he may be barred from reentering the United States. “At first, I didn't believe it,” said Yoo, who’s currently sheltering-in-place in South Korea and plans to attend Columbia University in the fall. “The announcement conflicted with what schools told students about fall 2020.”

But it was true. On July 6, the federal Student Exchange and Visitor Program announced that it would discontinue an emergency waiver allowing international students to stay in the United States on their F-1 visas while attending online-only classes. Because of the ongoing threat of COVID-19, half of American colleges and universities planned all online curriculums for the fall, while schools like the University of Washington planned a hybrid model, with most classes online. The waiver’s termination meant U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) could deport many of the nation’s million-plus international students. Meanwhile, scholars like Yoo would be prohibited from returning.

Jung Ha Yoo
Jung Ha Yoo, a Korean national who studied at Seattle Central Community College and is transferring to Columbia University in the fall. (Jung Ha Yoo)

Back in Washington state, Seattle Central student Tanakan Homsaen, a Thai national who prefers to go by Gift, was studying when she heard the news. “I was petrified,” she said. “I wanted to push it away from my head and focus on homework but I couldn’t. I had to ask my instructor to postpone some homework because I knew if I didn't ask for help, I could literally go insane. I believe other international students had the same fear. It was the worst pain.”

For Seattle Central, this pain arrived at the worst time. Since March, when the coronavirus drove all instruction online, forcing most employees to work from home, the school has been tasked with delivering one disagreeable message after another. In the same week that the Student Exchange and Visitor Program announced its new rule, the school announced mandatory furloughs for staff. Consequently, for more than a week after the program announced its rule change, Seattle Central did not release a statement in response. Seattle Central’s public information officer, Roberto Bonaccorso, said the college reached out to its congressional delegation “for action” while simultaneously waiting for the state Attorney General’s Office to file suit against the federal government, which it did on July 10. Complicating matters further, Seattle Central belongs to Seattle Colleges, a district made up of three colleges and five specialty training centers. Bonaccorso said he couldn’t issue a statement until the district issued one. “Our intention was to share information with our students as soon as possible,” he said. “They were placed in an unfair, unreasonable and frightening situation, and I regret that we could not do that sooner.”

Seattle Central College campus. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

While international students waited to hear from the school, the staff of the Seattle Collegian, Central’s student-run news organization, which I help oversee, discussed the situation in a videoconference. Staff writer Lena Mercer noted that international students “brought perspective and vision to class discussions.” They helped her “confront internalized stereotypes,” she said, broadening her “understanding of the United States and its history.” Editor-in-chief Astro Pittman agreed, saying that for him “exposure to diverse cultures and backgrounds is an integral component of learning.”

As a teacher at Seattle Central, I agree with Mercer and Pittman. International students bring diverse backgrounds and knowledge on a personal level that neither I nor my American students would be exposed to otherwise. From Vietnamese students, for example, I’ve learned that the Viet Cong studied George Washington’s tactics against the British to help them oust the United States from their country, a complicated fact that manages to flatter my homeland while simultaneously criticizing its foreign policy. From Chinese students, I’ve heard how the Chinese government still suppresses information about Tiananmen Square. One Chinese student feared for her parents, whom she said the government had jailed without a trial due to their membership in Falun Gong, a religious movement founded three decades ago by a messianic trumpet player. Another student, who sought asylum in the United States, came from the Muslim minority in China, a persecuted group forced into concentration camps by the Chinese government. According to former national security adviser John Bolton, President Donald Trump failed to condemn China’s actions in recent trade talks. In fact, Bolton claimed, the president told China’s president, Xi Jinping, that he “should go ahead with building the camps, which Trump thought was exactly the right thing to do.”

International students sometimes highlight human rights abuses, as well as U.S. foreign policy errors, but more often than not, they remind me of the better angels of American culture. A student from Bangladesh landed in my class because bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam drew him to Seattle. A student from Beijing, who came to Seattle to study business, showed me a live video feed on his iPhone of his father’s American-style burger joint, where customers sipped milkshakes at a soda counter. A foreign policy expert might call this soft power. If you encourage international students to study here, they take a love of America home with them. In this way, international students become de facto ambassadors of the United States.

First year Seattle Central College student Gift Homsaen on Aug. 11, 2020. 

As for Americans in the age of coronavirus and the protest uprisings resulting from George Floyd’s killing, many of us are confronting racism and our federal government’s inability to handle the coronavirus pandemic. The right to speak openly and honestly about these problems might be our greatest cultural asset. Jung Ha Yoo says he feels free to express himself in the U.S. “People really care about being fair and just to each other, even though some people are not treated equally,” he said. Gift also says she’s able to freely express herself here, and that the openness to diversity she finds in Seattle has helped her grow as a student. “It teaches me to be self-reliant, resilient, more compassionate and kind,” she says. “It also trains me to work hard for what I want, collaborate with others and give back to society. I could not have any of these valuable experiences if I didn't come here.”

Gift is speaking of the value of travel, of getting out of your comfort zone. Education should be that. Education should force you out of your own perspective in a safe setting where you can learn to see the world from different angles. Besides teaching at Central, I’ve spent many summers teaching creative writing in a University of Washington program in Rome. Students in that program hone their writing skills while navigating the complicated history of Western culture in a city that’s as different as you can get from Seattle without leaving the Western Hemisphere. For many of them, it’s the first time they’ve visited a non-English speaking country. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Mark Twain claimed that traveling abroad makes a fool out of you. And I think anyone who tries to feed themselves in a country where they don’t speak or read the language can relate. The first time I ordered dinner in Italian, a Roman waiter pointed at a mastiff on the street and asked me, in English, if that one would do, because I had accidentally ordered cane, dog, instead of carne, beef. But I had no beef with the waiter because I realized that being made to play the fool forces you to check yourself, to reevaluate what you take to be true. To paraphrase Twain, the humility we learn when we travel abroad kills our bigotry. If it doesn’t kill bigotry, Maya Angelou adds, it does give us an opportunity to “understand one another.”

International students in America get the chance to understand Americans, but international students also give Americans the chance to understand the world from many points of view. At a school like Seattle Central, where most students have neither the time nor the funds to travel abroad, coming to class becomes something like taking a trip around the world. This fosters understanding. This fosters empathy. This puts American students in a position to develop their problem-solving skills, creating the kind of thinkers we need to face complex problems like racism and pandemics.

But international students provide more than educational opportunities for American college students. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that international students have injected anywhere from $39 billion to $57 billion into the U.S. economy in the past decade, helping colleges and universities survive budget cuts at the state and federal levels. At Seattle Central, international students pay nearly three times the tuition of Washington state residents, meaning that the 850 international students enrolled in the spring quarter of 2020 brought in the tuition dollars of more than 2,000 in-state students. For Central, that extra money is especially vital now, when the school faces low enrollment and a 10% to 15% budget reduction because of  the coronavirus pandemic. Given how much international students pay to be here, said student journalist Mercer, the school’s silence in the face of the Trump administration’s threat to deport them felt “all the more heinous.”

“I somehow felt like I was facing this thing alone,” said Gift, “especially in [a] time of self- isolation where each student was dealing with their own problems and barely knew one another.” Gift did receive an email from an administrator in the school’s International Programs on July 7, but they couldn’t offer guidance because they didn’t have enough information. In response, Gift contacted her academic adviser for details. “I was told that I would know more by the following week,” she said. Not knowing what to expect, she spent much of the week seeking out classes for fall quarter that would meet in person. Unfortunately, because of the safety concerns associated with the virus, most of the classes in her program planned to meet online. The Student Exchange and Visitor Program’s rule change would force her to take classes outside of her area of study, adding more tuition cost. “I felt so angry and desperate,” she said.

And then, on July 14, just as a federal court in Massachusetts was to hear a suit brought against the program’s rule by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Trump administration rescinded the rule. The sudden turnaround left many students wondering why the administration bothered making the new rule in the first place. Gift thinks the federal government “spotted a gap in the pandemic situation and took advantage of it” without considering the personal impact on students. “They blindly regulated [the new rule] despite how much the economy depends on us international students. It seems obvious and safe to say that they want to get rid of immigrants in any way they can.”

The campus of Seattle Central College, along Broadway E. in Capitol Hill. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

But Jung Ha Yoo doesn’t blame Trump’s desire to rid America of immigrants for his administration’s most recent failure. He blames the coronavirus. “People traveling from one country to another are the biggest threat in terms of managing the COVID-19 pandemic,” he points out, adding that “the U.S. is the hub of COVID-19 now.” Seattle Central English teacher Stacey Levine agrees, though she also blames our president’s failure to manage the virus. “Parents overseas will think twice before letting their kids travel to the pestilent U.S. under Trump. Wouldn’t you?”

And yet the abiding desire of international students to study and stay in the United States, despite the pandemic and the current administration, shines a hopeful light on the future of higher education in America. As of now, the Student Exchange and Visitor Program’s revised guidelines will allow Yoo to attend Columbia University in the fall. One of many Seattle Central students who transfer to Ivy League schools, he plans to finish his degree in New York and then move on to Europe for a graduate degree in philosophy. Gift, on the other hand, says Seattle feels like home. “The environment, infrastructure, culture and society is more supportive and makes me feel more inspired than what I experienced in my home country,” she says. “When I work hard, it pays off.”

Meanwhile, on July 24, ICE confirmed that new international students to the United States — those who weren’t already enrolled in classes as of March 2020 — will be prohibited from entering the country. That will have a direct impact on instructors at Seattle Central, where enrollment correlates with job security. As an instructor, I can confirm that there has already been an impact. In a year without COVID-19 and the contingent online classes, my fall classes fill to capacity during spring registration. By July, my writing classes, which are capped at 25 students, carry waiting lists of 10 to 15 students. By this July, one of my classes finally hit its cap while the other topped out at seven students, a number that mirrors the ratio of attendees to expected attendees at President Trump’s rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in June. In a normal year, college administration cuts classes with low enrollment. Because I have tenure, if my class were cut, the school’s administration would be required to bump an adjunct instructor from their class and give it to me, potentially putting that instructor out of work.

While the English Department may lose adjunct instructors, the hardest hit department may be the Seattle Central Intensive English program, which teaches English as a second language to many first-year international students. Five years ago, at its height, that program employed 70 full- and part-time instructors. Since then, a downward trend in new international students has reduced its faculty to 20, divided equally between full and part time. The pandemic has cut that faculty by half. “We’ve already lost all of our part-time faculty,” confirms program instructor Emily Hudon. If the number of incoming students for fall doesn’t increase, they’ll be forced to lay off full-time instructors, too. Hudon says enrollment numbers for fall don’t look good. Bradley Lane, Seattle Central vice president of instruction, said in a July 17 budget forum that due to the pandemic and other geopolitical factors, the administration expects a drop in international student enrollment between 50% and 80%. To make up for the contingent budget loss, Lane says some programs may be cut entirely. Hudon’s fellow intensive English program instructor, Heather Anderson, worries that the program might be eradicated, calling the virus “the final nail in the coffin.”

Speaking of coffins feels appropriate in the home of the nation’s first coronavirus epicenter. Since January, when we marked our first confirmed case, we’ve seen 16,849 additional cases of COVID-19 and sustained 698 deaths. The unemployment rate hovers just above 9%, with more than 100,000 people out of work. The number of new claims from Seattle Colleges this fall has yet to be determined, but the pandemic, along with the federal government’s mishandling of it, will mean more jobs lost in Seattle.

As for Trump, he’s been promoting a doctor on Twitter who says scientists make medicine with alien DNA. He’s also returned to near-daily briefings, where he calls COVID-19 the China virus. Maybe this illustrates Trump’s racism and maybe he wants to blame China for the pandemic to downplay his responsibility. But with more than 5 million confirmed cases in the United States and more than 160,000 fatalities, the coronavirus has become as naturalized as any American citizen. As a student of language, I can tell you the virus derives its name from Latin. Corona means crown. And that’s just what this virus is. No matter how Trump spins his handling of the pandemic as a success, his failure to keep it contained has become his crowning achievement.

Lee Jun-fan, better known as Bruce Lee, graduated from Seattle’s Edison Technical School, the place of learning that would later become Seattle Central College. He once said, “Truth cannot be structured or confined.” At this stage of the pandemic, we can only hope that COVID-19, unlike truth, will one day be confined. But we must also hope that the arrest of the virus does not cost us our openness as a people. The community college system in America, based on the idea that anyone from anywhere can build a better life for themselves, reflects our openness. Our openness makes us truly great, and this greatness draws more international students to the United States than to any other nation in the world.

First year Seattle Central College student Gift Homsaen on Aug. 11, 2020. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

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About the Authors & Contributors

Johnny Horton

Johnny Horton

Johnny Horton, a National Poetry Series finalist, teaches English at Seattle Central College.