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Rutgers international graduate students face difficulties amid coronavirus pandemic

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International graduate students at Rutgers are facing a variety of legal and financial obstacles due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

Mónica Hernández, a Rutgers graduate student from Colombia in her eighth year of a doctoral program, said visa limitations only allow international graduate students to apply for certain jobs, and many of these appointments have been canceled due to the virus.

She said she planned to apply for jobs this semester while working on her dissertation but has been unable to secure anything due to hiring freezes. She said her visa is about to expire, but the airports in her home country are shut down.

"I don't know what is going to happen after June 30, when I receive my last paycheck. So right now, I'm trying to focus on my daily tasks: writing my dissertation and doing what I need for the class that I'm TAing," Hernández said. "That's it. I try to not think about the future anymore, I just can't."

Job insecurity is one of the many issues concerning international graduate students. The Daily Targum previously reported a hiring freeze was announced at Rutgers for the upcoming semester. This freeze means graduate students who were planning on becoming teaching assistants (TA) or part-time lecturers for the summer and fall semesters will likely be unable to.

International students are also expected to complete their research and studies during the pandemic. Dilara Demir, secretary of the Rutgers American Association of University Professors and American Federation of Teachers (AAUP-AFT) and a doctoral candidate from Turkey, said the pandemic has interrupted her research, which she thinks could affect her graduation date.

"My research is on hold because I can't be physically in the U.S. and my interviewees cannot talk to me because they are frontline workers," Demir said.

Demir is also working as a TA and said the transition to online classes has made balancing her studies with her work responsibilities more challenging.

"Most of us are actually overwhelmed with everything happening in terms of remote instruction, especially in terms of grading," she said.

Rutgers Global has provided a list of FAQs, but not many resources are made available to the many international graduate students otherwise, Demir said.

Demir said the AAUP-AFT felt there was a lack of information for international students concerned about what implications COVID-19 has on their futures. The union provided a survey that asked a variety of questions about topics from visa restrictions to asking about students' urgent needs and then held a webinar to address the concerns.

International graduate students do not have access to resources available to their American citizen counterparts. The Targum reported international students and students with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status do not qualify for financial aid from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

The AAUP-AFT called on Rutgers officials to provide funding for international and undocumented students facing legal consequences despite the CARES Act restrictions, the Targum reported.

Demir said since international and undocumented students are excluded from the CARES Act funding, the University should make other efforts to address the challenges they are facing and said Rutgers Global should be proactive when communicating.

"Rutgers administration can actually do things for international students very quickly, at least inform us regularly about what can be done or emergency funds can be reopened only for international and DACA students," she said.

University spokesperson Dory Devlin said there are alternative emergency funding resources available at Rutgers for international students during the COVID-19 crisis.

"Rutgers continues to support international students and their legal status during this time and provides guidance and resources on an individual basis," she said. "International students with expiring F-1 or J-1 visas can remain in the United States as long as they have legal status. International students are in legal status if they continue with the University's remote instruction plan and otherwise remain compliant with applicable regulations."

Demir said international students have always been in a vulnerable position, and COVID-19 has only highlighted these issues.

"We were insecure before as international (graduates). Now it's doubly disturbing, and that precarity became so real," Demir said.

Editor's Note: This article was updated to include new information from Dory Devlin, university spokesperson.

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