The Ezekiel W. Cullen Building at the University of Houston, January 2012. (Creative Commons)

New Policies Emerge for Middle Eastern Students Abroad During Pandemic

University of Houston is implementing new policies to accommodate and protect its international student population

The University of Houston has joined many other American institutions by releasing new guidelines for international students in response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Since the onset of the pandemic, the university has made several COVID-19-related decisions that could impact its Middle Eastern student population. Beginning on March 9, all international travel was restricted for University of Houston students, faculty and staff. The policy is intended to halt the plans of those traveling for both personal and professional purposes.

International students account for 7.5% of the university’s student body, which numbers around 46,000 in total. Students from countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey represent a significant portion of the overall international community. Their presence is reflected in several on-campus organizations, such as the Iranian Community at University of Houston (ICUH).

Rayana, a first-year student from Turkey, is currently not directly impacted by the new travel policy. “I don’t actually know anyone whose plans have been affected,” she told The Media Line.

Non-travel-related restrictions, such as event cancellations, are also having a direct effect on students and student organizations.

University of Houston Chancellor Renu Khator released a statement informing the UH community that “[all] events sponsored by the university are canceled, no matter the size, through the end of April.”

ICUH’s sold-out event celebrating the Persian New Year, known as Nowruz, was one of the major cancellations to take place due to social distancing requirements. “Despite the coordination and final planning, the ceremony was canceled,” ICUH said.

The observance of religious holidays is also subject to COVID-19 restrictions. Shehroz Kayani is a UH student who will not be seeing his mother during Ramadan this year. “My mother is a physician in Saudi Arabia, and she’s been planning on visiting us here, but due to the travel restrictions, she’s unable to,” Kayani told The Media Line. With travel restrictions in place for both Kayani and his mother, neither will be able to schedule any visits until further notice.

Financial and academic policies are also of consequence during this time. All courses have been transferred to online formats for the remainder of the semester. This affords Middle Eastern students the option to return to their respective countries for the duration of the ongoing mandatory statewide stay-at-home order. If they opt to leave, international students living on campus will be eligible for refunds on university-provided services such as housing and meal plans.

When asked about the current state of the international admissions process, UH officials stated, “We are still getting applications as normal.” However, university officials did express concern for potential coronavirus-related issues during the upcoming fall 2020 semester. Prospective students from the Middle East could potentially struggle to obtain visas in the coming months due to travel restrictions.

The University of Houston has extended its international admissions deadline to June 1. Mike Rosen, the university’s vice chancellor, told The Media Line, “We will continue to monitor the situation with COVID-19 to determine if changes need to be made to this date.”

Carla Michelle Warren is a student in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program.

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