study abroad: ‘Focus on learning fundamentals and mastery of high-tech fields’

COVID-19 has impacted all university students in the US, including local and international, as it is a disruption in the normal educational planning. “However, the impact on the international students, including Indian students, has been particularly severe, where the students are being forced in some cases to choose between their family and their higher education,” says Snehasis Mukhopadhyay, associate director, STEM Education Innovation and Research Institute (SEIRI) and professor, Computer and Information Science, Indiana University Purdue University, USA. He adds that if they visit home to see an ailing and, in some cases, a dying close relative, they cannot come back due to visa and other restrictions. If they are staying back, they may have to take financial costs in finding a place to stay, as the low-cost residential facilities offered by universities are becoming irregular at best, due to COVID-19 social distancing regulations.

“Universities are doing their best and trying to prioritise the housing needs of international students. But they are also limited by financial constraints and local evolving regulations,” he says.


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Stipend only for on-campus students

There are only a few international students who are taking lessons remotely from their home countries. “Firstly, no financial support or stipend can be provided by a university to an international student unless the student is on campus. Secondly, time differences, poor local internet accessibility, and internet security concerns become significant practical limitations in doing a class remotely from another country. No new student visas are being issued by the US, so plans for many of these students continue to be uncertain,” Mukhopadhyay says.

Pandemic has not severely affected his research since as tenured university professor in the field of computer and information science, he can still supervise his students and conduct research collaborations through videoconferencing tools such as Zoom. But it is his teaching, also conducted via Zoom, that has been more seriously impacted. Mukhopadhyay, like faculty elsewhere, does not find it to be as effective as in-person teaching in terms of student engagement and academic integrity.

Are international students a valuable resource

The Jadavpur University, Kolkata and IISc, Bangalore, alumnus who did his PhD from Yale University feels it all depends on who one asks. “The universities and the academic circle think international students are essential for the continued growth and vitality of US educational institutions.

Others believe that supporting international students through financial aid is expensive, and they potentially take away opportunities and jobs of the local people. A few well publicised cases of visa frauds and/or espionage by international scholars do not help in the cause of the international students, either,” he says.

Post-pandemic prospects

Emphasising that the pandemic will not have a significant long-term impact on US economy, as it is very resilient and have overcome many serious challenges before, Mukhopadhyay stresses that college admissions as well as career opportunities are going to be more competitive post COVID-19. “Medicine, information technology, biotechnology, in general STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) will be in high demand as skilled workers in these fields will always be necessary no matter the nature and health of the economy.”

Students should think carefully to ensure their choice of courses fit into their long-term career goals, particularly if they are paying their own expenses. “The days of label-oriented academic credentials are on their way out. Everyone wants to know and verify what a candidate really knows. The focus should be on learning fundamentals and mastery of high-tech fields, wherever that may come from,” Mukhopadhyay affirms.

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