When COVID-19 forced Minnesota State University to effectively close its campus and move to an entirely online format, it was hard for all of the more than 14,000 students enrolled. But the changes were particularly hard on our 1,266 international students from 92 countries around the world, most of whom have stayed in Mankato to finish the semester and weather the pandemic.
The students who remained on campus have faced serious challenges, including severe economic hardship, due to the crisis here and in their home countries.
As university leaders, we have been working to find ways to support and encourage our international students. We know that they have unique challenges due to their immigration status. Their only opportunity for employment is on campus, for example, and they aren’t eligible for the same government-funded financial support, including the dollars made available in the CARES Act, as other students.
Within the first few weeks of the crisis, the university decided to continue paying all of its student workers — including international students — even after entering an online instructional mode in which many students no longer were able carry out their face-to-face work assignments. That includes more than 100 international graduate students, who received their full tuition waivers and stipends even if they were unable to perform their assigned duties.
Unfortunately, that didn’t apply to the students who worked for our dining services partner; all of those students, including a high percentage of international students, were furloughed. In an effort to help those students, the Memorial Library offered jobs working on a special project documenting the current pandemic crisis to the furloughed students. Keeping the students employed is one of the best ways we can help them right now.
Given the prolonged nature of the crisis and continued need for student employment, the university has also made a change in policy regarding working on campus during the summer. Usually, students must be registered for at least a one-credit class to be able to maintain student employment. That required has been waived this summer, allowing students to accept student employment during the center without registering for any credits. This means that our international students can continue to earn money without having to spend additional dollars on tuition.
Members of the campus community have demonstrated their commitment to helping students as well. In April, the University raised over $40,000 from faculty and staff to support both domestic and international students program with emergency grant dollars. Since 2018, private donors, the MSU Foundation, faculty, staff and sponsors have combined to commit hundreds of thousands of dollars in support for vulnerable students. That support is especially important now.
I’m also proud to report that university leadership came together to create the International Student Emergency Assistance Program to capture, allocate and manage financial assistance specifically designed for international students at the university. This program utilizes a well-designed, systematic process where students in need work with their immigration advisors to receive rapid assistance through the emergency grant program while at the same time planning for a sustainable financial future.
One other thing to report: Our Dining Services staff has collaborated with the university to continue providing meals to student workers, even though they aren’t able to work. Each student is provided one free meal a day. Already, more than 700 meals have been provided through that program.
We know that international students come to MSU to earn an excellent education in a welcoming atmosphere and supportive community. We are pleased that so many of them choose to attend this university, because we know that they bring so much value to the university through their academic talents and through sharing their cultures. We can go further than we thought possible because our international students have stretched our perspectives and ways of thinking.
We are more committed than ever to caring for and supporting our international students. We will continue to respond to their needs and to help in every way we can.
Anne Dahlman is the interim dean of global studies at Minnesota State University.