This summer saw students across the world adjust their living arrangements, academic goals and general expectations to fit a new normal. On top of the pandemic, Boston University’s community of international students has also fought federal policies that threatened their stay in the states.
BU Housing’s decision in May to ship belongings back to students within the continental U.S. left many international students without important travel documents, medications and other necessities.
Ariane Vigna, a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences and College of Communication, and CAS junior Daiki Tsumagari are both international students. Together, they created a petition to demand international students receive worldwide shipping for their belongings left on campus.
As of Wednesday, it has nearly met its goal of 1,500 signatures.
Meanwhile, when CAS junior Jessica Zheng checked Facebook for pages supporting BU’s international population, she couldn’t find any. The trio thus formed the Official Boston University International Students Group on May 13 as a space for international students to share their questions, concerns and opinions.
Zheng said she hoped ISG would provide a continuous line of communication between international students at BU during a time of uncertainty.
“I wanted it to be a place where international students, specifically at Boston University, can talk among themselves, can share their experiences, ask for help,” Zheng said, “because help is not readily available to us.”
The International Students and Scholars Office, which guides international students at BU in matters related to immigration and employment, has come under scrutiny this summer as students have been overwhelmed with new and changing rules.
Zheng said the department is slow to respond or sometimes doesn’t at all, which she said proved the need for a student-based social media platform centered on international student issues.
Motivation behind ISG’s foundation also partly stemmed from anti-Asian sentiments surrounding COVID-19 that Zheng and Tsumagari said they observed pervading their on-campus experience.
Zheng said she saw racist sentiments on BU-related social media platforms, where she said people spread hateful messages against international students in general.
“As an international student, I’ve seen on BU Reddit, on BU Facebook, people making comments like, ‘International students shouldn’t be able to come back to campus, because they’re bringing all these new cases with them because they’re traveling,’” Zheng said.
The Facebook group was met with enthusiasm — Tsumagari said around 350 people joined during the page’s first week, which he said revealed there was a true need for such a resource.
“That explosion in membership and the explosion in post activity inside that group, I feel like that’s a pretty good indicator of the fact that some international students may have been feeling really left in the dark and without that space,” Tsumagari said. “Having been able to provide that space is something that we can take pride in.”
When the U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement issued a directive on July 6 that barred international students learning remotely from staying in the country, ISG created a second petition asking for the housing deposit deadline to be moved to Aug. 1.
A third petition called on BU to join Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology in a lawsuit against ICE. BU extended the deposit deadline a week after the first petition, and announced its participation in the lawsuit two days after the latter.
Vigna, Zheng and Tsumagari created a 30-page Campus Survival Guide in August for international students, offering practical tips to freshmen and transfer students navigating a peculiar semester. Vigna said she hopes the guide will help these students navigate social and professional opportunities on campus and help “put themselves out there and be confident and empowered.”
Anica Abaquin, a junior in CAS from the Philippines, said ISG is a good informal platform to freely express her feelings as well as get questions answered.
“Just having people who are also on the same boat with you but have extra knowledge or extra resources that they could provide and be connected has been really helpful,” Abaquin said.
Faisal Halabeya, a junior in CAS from Finland and Palestine, said international students have a lot of information to process and that it can be difficult to find specific pieces of information. For him, the Facebook group has been a source for “just-in-time information,” providing guidance not all at once — but as and when students need it.
“It becomes this collaborative forum where people are able to really pull together everything that’s out there,” Halabeya said. “Not only is it good for information, but it’s also good for a sense of community with the international students.”
But the most important goal that a group like the International Students Group accomplishes, Halabeya said, is that it puts pressure on BU to listen to the students.
“We’re no longer the one person calling the office and saying, ‘this is not right,’” Halebeya said. “Now, we are a group.”
Seeing the group’s current momentum, Tsumagari, Vigna and Zheng are now looking at ways to transform the group into an ongoing support system at the administrative level by creating a permanent international students committee within student government.
In August, Zheng pitched to the Boston Intercollegiate Government — an organization designed to represent a diverse range of students — about a possible international students committee within BIG. The group has also asked for collaborations with organizations like ISSO to streamline guidance.
Zheng said she believes that along with providing guidance on filing taxes and procuring employment, ISSO should work on making its information accessible to students with language barriers.
“I’d like to see more advisors within the ISSO who can speak multiple languages,” Zheng said. “But it’s very hard. It’s very confusing to try to convey the laws of the Department of Homeland Security here within the U.S. to someone who, English isn’t their first language.”
In the wake of challenges such as time zone difficulties for remote courses and general tribulations arising from the pandemic, Vigna said she believes coping with those obstacles could begin and end with an accessible support system that represents international voices, like ISG.
“We really hope that it makes a difference in their experience this semester,” Vigna said. “And we really hope that it makes people feel less alone in this.”