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Colleges Closing Quickly as COVID-19 Cases Rise

FILE - University of Utah student Abigail Shull waits in line before taking a rapid COVID-19 test at the University of Utah student testing site in Salt Lake City, Nov. 18, 2020.
FILE - University of Utah student Abigail Shull waits in line before taking a rapid COVID-19 test at the University of Utah student testing site in Salt Lake City, Nov. 18, 2020.

As the Thanksgiving holiday looms, more colleges and universities in the United States continue to abruptly shut down their campuses for the remainder of the fall semester because of increased COVID-19 cases across the country.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 shutdown last spring, colleges and universities scrambled to respond to the pandemic and keep students safe. A George Mason University (GMU) study found that three-quarters of 575 colleges with more than 5,000 students had moved courses online, discouraged campus housing, canceled travel, closed campuses, and worked remotely.

That study, published October 16, analyzed actions colleges had made between February 25 and March 31.

"Spring break was this wonderful opportunity that just happened to be occurring at the right time that gave universities the bandwidth to be able to transition relatively smoothly for the spring," said Michael von Fricken, an assistant professor at GMU who worked on the study published in Plos One.

"We've reached this point where universities are only able to be shut down for so long," said von Fricken. "It's becoming more and more about balancing finances and student safety."

FILE - A passer-by departs a gate to the campus of Brown University, in Providence, R.I., Oct. 12, 2020. Brown has suspended in-person instruction due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
FILE - A passer-by departs a gate to the campus of Brown University, in Providence, R.I., Oct. 12, 2020. Brown has suspended in-person instruction due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Universities have had to adjust again for the fall semester and rising numbers of COVID-19 cases.

In the past few weeks, many universities have quickly suspended in-person classes because of the surge. Brown University in Rhode Island, Northern Michigan University, the University of Maryland, and Syracuse University in New York are among 41 schools that most recently have suspended in-person instruction.

"In recent weeks, we have seen an increase in positive tests among students, faculty and staff," wrote Brown University President Christina H. Paxson in a letter to students on November 17.

"Although infection rates at Brown are still quite low, and we have ample space for quarantine and isolation, these increases are nevertheless concerning," Paxson wrote.

Since the pandemic began, there have been more than 321,000 COVID-19 cases on college campuses and at least 80 deaths, according to New York Times data from more than 1,900 U.S. colleges and universities.

"What's been happening in this fall, and what's going to happen in the spring, is universities are getting a feel for, 'Are they able to have a safe return to campus?'" asked von Fricken. "They're going to look at the schools that have been successful and try and emulate those programs."

The University of Pennsylvania, the University of Arizona, the University of California in Los Angeles and Berkeley, Syracuse University and the University of Michigan are among schools ending all in-person classes for the semester after Thanksgiving.

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Paper: International students faced extra pandemic challenges

FILE - Jackson State University student Kendra Daye reacts as Tameiki Lee, a nurse with the Jackson-Hinds Comprehensive Health Center, injects her with the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, in Jackson, Miss., Sept. 21, 2021.
FILE - Jackson State University student Kendra Daye reacts as Tameiki Lee, a nurse with the Jackson-Hinds Comprehensive Health Center, injects her with the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, in Jackson, Miss., Sept. 21, 2021.

Astrobites, which describes itself as "a daily astrophysical literature journal written by graduate students in astronomy since 2010," focuses on the challenges international students faced during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It examines a paper published in the Journal of Comparative & International Higher Education entitled The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on International Students in a Public University in the United States: Academic and Non-academic Challenges.

Read the Astrobites article here. (April 2024)

15 cheapest US universities for international students

FILE - A cyclist crosses an intersection on the campus of Arizona State University on Sept. 1, 2020, in Tempe, Ariz.
FILE - A cyclist crosses an intersection on the campus of Arizona State University on Sept. 1, 2020, in Tempe, Ariz.

Yahoo!Finance has compiled a list of the 15 cheapest U.S. universities for international students.

Among them: Arizona State University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Michigan State University.

Read the list here. (March 2024)

Studying STEM? International students have funding options

FILE - Founder & CEO Uma Valeti peers into one of the cultivation tanks at the Upside Foods plant, where lab-grown meat is cultivated, in Emeryville, California, Jan. 11, 2023.
FILE - Founder & CEO Uma Valeti peers into one of the cultivation tanks at the Upside Foods plant, where lab-grown meat is cultivated, in Emeryville, California, Jan. 11, 2023.

US News & World Report takes a look at funding options for international students pursuing STEM degrees in the U.S.

The article explains the different kinds of scholarships and grants and offers tips on getting part-time jobs and private student loans. Read the full story here. (March 2024)

US campuses are battlegrounds in free speech debate

Students hold up a photo of University of Southern California 2024 valedictorian Asna Tabassum in protest to her canceled commencement speech on the campus of University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, April 18, 2024.
Students hold up a photo of University of Southern California 2024 valedictorian Asna Tabassum in protest to her canceled commencement speech on the campus of University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, April 18, 2024.

This week the University of Southern California canceled the graduation speech of its senior class valedictorian at a time when there is a growing debate over the limits of free speech on American college campuses.

USC’s Asna Tabas­sum, a Muslim biomedical engineer major, was selected from among 100 outstanding students to address the graduating class of 2024 this May. However, the school withdrew the invitation for her to speak at the graduation ceremony citing safety concerns.

Tabassum denounced the decision, which she attributed to her public support for Palestinian human rights. She said it is part of “a campaign of hate meant to silence my voice.”

Students carrying signs protest a canceled commencement speech by its 2024 valedictorian who has publicly supported Palestinians on the campus of University of Southern California, April 18, 2024.
Students carrying signs protest a canceled commencement speech by its 2024 valedictorian who has publicly supported Palestinians on the campus of University of Southern California, April 18, 2024.

The school maintains it is a safety issue, not about free speech. School officials say they received an alarming number of violent threats after selecting her as speaker.

USC is one of many American universities that have struggled with policies over free speech and campus protest since October’s Hamas terrorist attack on Israel and the continuing fighting in Gaza. After weeks or months of on-campus protests and rallies, schools have been taking more forceful action to punish protesters who administrators say have become disruptive.

On Thursday at Columbia University in New York, police arrested more than 100 students who had gathered on campus for pro-Palestinian protests. The school’s dean wrote that the protesters had been told several times that they were violating university policies and would be suspended. The students say they were exercising their free speech rights.

At Washington’s American University, protests in all campus buildings have been banned by the school’s president since January. Under the new policy, students may not hold rallies, engage in silent protests or place posters in any campus building.

Protests and safety

University students have a long history of engaging in political activism. From the Vietnam War to abortion rights, universities have played a key role in American political debates.

However, students now say that schools like AU with a long-standing protest culture are silencing protesters with new rules.

Arusa Islam, American University student body president-elect and current vice president, says the policies are preventing an open discussion about U.S. foreign policy.

“Indoor protesting was never a problem, it was never an issue before October 7th,” Islam said. “Students were allowed to put up posters in buildings and students were allowed to have a silent protest.”

“And now we don’t have that right anymore,” she added. “We have been silenced and it is affecting us greatly.”

American University’s president, Sylvia Burwell, says the school’s new policies are intended to ensure that protests do not disrupt university activity.

Burwell also referred to recent events on campus that “made Jewish students feel unsafe and unwelcome.” She added, antisemitism is abhorrent, wrong, and will not be tolerated at American University.

While administrators insist that they are making narrow restrictions in the interests of providing an education, critics say the policies have a far-reaching effect.

At Cornell University, where new rules took effect in January, Claire Ting, the executive vice president of the Cornell Student Assembly, said the policies have had an unsettling effect on campus.

“The campus climate at Cornell has been tense surrounding free speech in recent times,” Ting emailed VOA.

Ting said that both students and faculty feel the policy has had chilling effects on free expression.

“Students report facing arbitrary, escalating punishment for violating the policy, with the policy itself lacking clear outlines for the consequences of civil disobedience,” she added.

In its new policy Cornell warns students that disciplinary action may be taken if protests impede people or traffic, damage school property or interfere with the school’s operations in any way.

In its campus-wide notice explaining the new guidelines, the school wrote that the new policy would ensure that expressive activity is allowed but must remain nonviolent.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, also known as FIRE, has tracked free speech issues on American campuses.

FIRE and College Pulse have produced an annual survey, since 2022, ranking colleges based on their policies and what students say about the free speech climate on campus.

This year the group reported that “alarming” numbers of students say they self-censor or “find their administrations unclear” on free speech issues.

“College campuses have always been places where students have been unafraid to express themselves and with the recent Gaza conflict after the 10/7 attacks, it’s been very heated on both sides of this issue,” said Zach Greenberg, the senior program officer of FIRE.

Harvard ranked last in this year’s survey. FIRE said the school punished some professors and researchers over what they had said or written, and students reported a poor climate for free speech on campus.

The controversy came to Congress late last year, when Harvard’s president testified over complaints of widespread antisemitism.

Israel-Hamas War Brings Controversy to US Campuses  
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“I don’t think you’d find many students on campus right now that would say we are the model for flourishing free speech and ideas exchange in the country,” said J. Sellers Hill, president of Harvard’s school newspaper The Harvard Crimson.

“But I think you’ve really seen that be acknowledged by administrators and it seems to be something they are dedicated to taking on.”

As the head of The Harvard Crimson, Hill manages the paper’s 350 editors and 90 reporters, who’ve covered, in detail, the ongoing free speech/protests controversy and the resignation of former President Claudine Gay following her testimony to Congress.

“I think no one would dispute Harvard has work to do and progress to make,” Hill said. “I think it’s a tough sell, for me, that Harvard is uniquely in its own league in terms of intolerance of speech. That doesn’t square with what I have seen on our college campus or on other college campuses around the country. I think Harvard is held to a higher standard.”

Proposed settlement offered over financial aid allegations

FILE - The Yale University campus is in New Haven, Connecticut, on Dec. 4, 2023. A group of colleges and universities - including Yale - have agreed to settle allegations of deceptive deceptive financial aid tactics, according to a report published in The Hill.
FILE - The Yale University campus is in New Haven, Connecticut, on Dec. 4, 2023. A group of colleges and universities - including Yale - have agreed to settle allegations of deceptive deceptive financial aid tactics, according to a report published in The Hill.

A group of U.S. colleges and universities have agreed to settle a lawsuit alleging deceptive financial aid tactics, according to a report published in The Hill.

The schools would pay $284 million to plaintiffs who were enrolled full-time and received financial aid between 2003 and 2024.

The schools have denied the allegations. (April 2024)

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