Morgan State’s international enrollment declines in wake of COVID-19

International students grapple with concern for the future after a semester of remote learning outside of the U.S.

Oyin Adedoyin, Editor in Chief

The sound of nighttime-crickets chirping signals the beginning of class for Jennifer Umezinwa. She quietly slips out of bed, careful not to wake her 19-year-old sister as she settles outside, logs into Zoom and greets her classmates and professor. Her dark screen is a contrast to the sunset glow illuminating from the windows of her peers. But she’s grown used to this.

After all, it’s 4:30 p.m. in the United States where most of her classmates are, but it’s after 10 p.m. in Abuja, Nigeria where she’s studying remotely.

“It’s not exactly what I expected,” said the 27-year-old, Ph.D. student.

Umezinwa, an English language and creative writing major, is one of 21 TED Fund recipients from Nigeria who enrolled in Morgan State University in the fall to pursue a doctoral degree. But when the coronavirus pandemic hit and the university went fully remote, international students were unable to travel to America.

It’s been more than 10 months since Umenzinwa requested her Form I-20, a document that all international students need to fill to prove legal enrollment in a program of study in the U.S. She needs the form in order to apply for a student visa, but officials from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) told her that she could not receive a form until the university declares a hybrid mode of learning.

“I’m literally frustrated,” she said. “I didn’t expect that I’d be here at this time, I was supposed to leave in September.”

Now, as the semester comes to a close, she’s spent several months facing the struggles of online learning from another country.

Umezinwa is not alone, around 100 international students were recruited to attend Morgan this fall, 21 of them, like her, are studying remotely from Nigeria while 75 of the students have deferred enrollment until the spring, according to Yacob Astake, assistant vice president for the Division of International Affairs.

Astake said that because of this, the international students currently enrolled at Morgan are in difficult positions.

“If they had come to the U.S., it would’ve been easy for them to adapt to the schedule,” he said.

COVID-19 is just the latest wrench in Morgan’s international student population, a number that was steadily increasing until recent years.

The university committed to growing its international student population in 2014 with the establishment of the Division of International Affairs. At the time, there were more than 200 international students on campus, mainly from Nigeria and other African countries. However, in the same year, the Saudi Arabian government sent hundreds of thousands of international students on full scholarships to study in the U.S.

Representatives from Morgan’s Division of International Affairs recruited 50 Saudi Arabian students, most of whom attended the School of Engineering. Within two and a half years, the number of Saudi and Kuwaiti students grew to around 600, according to Astake.

“It was really unexpected because most of them transferred in,” he said.

By 2017, the university saw a boom in the international student population, with 900 international students studying at Morgan. But, according to Astake, the number is declining. About 80 percent of those students have graduated in the last three years and since the Trump administration took over in 2016, international student enrollment has reduced. Over the summer, international students experienced uncertainty when the administration said they wouldn’t be allowed to stay in the U.S. if universities went fully remote. The administration later rescinded that decision.

This phenomenon follows a national trend in colleges and universities all over the country. New international student enrollment in the U.S. and online outside the U.S. has decreased by 43 percent in fall 2020, according to a report conducted by the Institute of International Education and nine other partners of higher education institutions.

Students like Yosabet Tibebu, a construction management graduate student who is currently taking her online classes at her aunt’s home in Texas, knew her grades would suffer if she had to return to Ethiopia.

“I was pretty scared because personally,” she said. “With everything going on I wouldn’t be able to attend classes properly.” She cited the time difference and insecure internet connection as potential barriers to her education.

These are among the issues that students like Umezinwa are battling currently.

At the beginning of the semester, she struggled to get some of the textbooks required for her classes delivered to her.

“I don’t have a problem studying but what do I study when I don’t have my readings, my books?” she said.

And though she’s been able to get some of her professors to change her readings, she feels alienated in class discussions where the majority of the class is talking about a book that she wasn’t able to read.

Astake believes that once President-elect Joe Biden takes over, his administration will ease restrictions on international students.

“On Jan. 21 when the new president takes over, he will change the immigration rules, he’s going to make it easier for international students to join us again,” he said.

But Tibebu is worried that she still may not be able to find work after the pandemic and change in political office.

“Yea, COVID-19 might go away with the whole vaccine and everything, but I don’t know how…the need for international students will be moving on from now,” she said.