When the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) first appeared in the Winona community in the spring of 2020, its effects were hard to ignore, with businesses and restaurants shutting down and residents self-isolating in their homes. Less easily seen were the disproportionate effects on the university’s international student population.
WSU has long been known for cultural diversity and global impact, welcoming over 5,000 international students since 1915. During the 2019-20 academic year, the university welcomed 89 new students to campus, joining 134 global learners already in the midst of their WSU education.
“Some may not realize that international students are not allowed to work off campus unless it is a required experience for their academic program,” explains Kit Klepinger, Director of International Student Services, “or receive approval through a lengthy U.S. government application process.”
While Winona State has been able to keep many of its international student workers employed since the onset of the pandemic, other campus partners who are main employers for international students did not have the same ability.
“With no other options for employment,” says Klepinger, “many of our international students are experiencing financial difficulties.” She continues to explain that this is also compounded by restrictions being put in place, travel or otherwise, across various countries. “When considering options for returning home,” she says, “students had to think about current and potential future travel restrictions, immigration regulations, and access to banks or other financial institutions that may have shut down.”
As the pandemic progressed, the United States government took several steps to support the economy, such as stimulus checks and the CARES Act, which disburses funds to U.S. colleges and universities and their students. But international students are not eligible to receive that funding, explains Klepinger, which means they have continued to struggle with covering their expenses such as rent and food.
While the university and Winona Volunteer Services have been able to provide some support, especially in terms of food pantry access, there remains a need to provide monetary support to help students stay afloat. In an effort to help, the WSU Foundation created the International Student & Scholar Services COVID-19 Relief Fund, a donation-based fund to provide aid to international students experiencing financial hardships.
“At Winona State, we are committed to taking care of our community. Given the need for immediate relief for our international students, we were able to kickstart the fund with just over $11,000 from an existing Foundation student relief fund,” says Andrea Northam, Interim Vice President for University Advancement. “Additionally, we have received just over $10,000 from our generous donors to help in the effort. Our International Student Services and Financial Aid offices are working together to determine need and disburse the funds to those students still living in Winona.”
“They know that as international students, our budget may be tighter with this pandemic,” says now-sophomore Jose Emmanuel Ortega Sorto of El Salvador. “As the name states, it has been a relief – a really helpful one.”
Students have also expressed their gratitude for Winona State’s overall response this spring and making the difficult transition a bit easier for them while in a foreign land, away from loved ones. Students with roommates have been grateful to not be completely isolated, and while online learning may be more difficult if English is not their first language, they have shared that WSU professors went above and beyond to make it workable for them.
The International Student Services office has also been a constant source of support, offering updated information and checking in with students on their well-being. Now-senior Xander Okori of Nigeria shared that while she was very worried when all of this began, her worries quickly subsided with the support offered by WSU. It helped her focus on making her mental health a top priority, and she finished the semester strong.
Spring 2020 graduate Gregory Odhiambo Okello of Kenya added that as he’s been able to better cope with changes and uncertainty for his future in part due to the support WSU has surrounded him with.
“I appreciate Winona State for standing with us and doing all they can to keep us together,” he says of he and his fellow international classmates.
If you would like to contribute to the WSU Foundation’s International Student & Scholar Services COVID-19 Relief Fund, visit alumni.winona.edu/give, select “Other” under the designation field and enter “30376-COVID-19 Student Relief” in the text box.