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How the University of Utah is creating a safe environment for international students and faculty

President Ruth V. Watkins and senior vice president Daniel A. Reed on how the U. is supporting international students through a time of uncertainty.

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The University of Utah in Salt Lake City is pictured on Tuesday, July 28, 2020.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The University of Utah attracts thousands of international students each academic year. Approximately 2,500 students — 1,333 undergraduates and 1,205 graduates from about 100 countries — attended the university in fall 2019. We have a mutually beneficial relationship with these students.

By attending the U., international students receive a world-class education at a leading research university that prepares them for success in today’s globally connected workplace. In turn, our international students add experiential, cultural and academic diversity to our campus that benefits faculty, staff and other students — enabling them to develop skills and insights necessary to thrive in a global workforce. These students also enrich the culture of our communities and our state.

In addition, more than 140 scholars from other countries serve on our faculty, offering global perspectives in their specialized fields to their students and their academic colleagues.

The value of such cross-cultural exchange is well understood by the many Utahns who have completed international service missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. More broadly, this is a state whose residents value diversity as shown by the consistently warm welcome they give immigrants and refugees.

Our appreciation of the extraordinary value our international students contribute to our institution is the primary reason we joined numerous colleges and universities across the country in challenging a U.S. Department of Homeland Security rule that would have revoked or barred issuance of visas for international students whose classes will be fully online this fall.

We applaud the department’s decision to rescind this rule for international students who will resume their studies at U.S. universities in the fall. It is disappointing that it is now planning to apply that rule to new international students who want to study in our country.

These misguided machinations have generated uncertainty and angst for our current international students, adding to their confusion and worry over the coronavirus pandemic. Like all of our students, they had to shift rapidly to online coursework in the spring. Some of our international students were able to return home in the midst of this disruption but many now face uncertainty about their ability to return to Utah due to travel restrictions.

Other international students were unable to return home this spring due to those travel restrictions and remain in Utah, some continuing to live on campus. As is the case for all our students, they are prepared to engage in the hybrid approach to instruction we are preparing for fall semester that will undoubtedly include some — and, depending on courses selected, potentially all — online classes.

We have reassured our actively enrolled international students that, however fall semester may unfold, we will be able to support their academic ambitions. Now, we are working with our newly enrolled international students who hope to come to the U. for the first time. Some already face obstacles in obtaining visas due to U.S. consulate closures. We are working to help them create course schedules that include at least one in-person or hybrid class so they are able to enter the U.S. and to reassure them they’ll be able to remain here even if the pandemic requires a return to all online classes.

Our university is focused on discoveries and innovations that will solve the grand challenges that confront not just our state and our country, but also the world — a necessity made more apparent by the coronavirus pandemic.

This focus is consistently reinforced in our discussions with business leaders, who tell us the employees they seek must understand and be able to succeed in a globally connected workplace. Both our domestic and our international students develop some of that capability through opportunities to learn in shared spaces, whether in a physical or online classroom.

On Aug. 24, we will begin a new academic year in a time of unprecedented uncertainty that is requiring extraordinary flexibility and nimbleness by all members of our campus community. Across the U., we are working diligently to reduce stress on our students, staff and faculty and to provide a safe environment in which to explore, learn, teach, research and work.

We want our international students — those who are new to the U. as well as those who are returning to our campus — to know they are vital participants in the invigorating process that encompasses the pursuit of knowledge.

Ruth V. Watkins is president of the University of Utah. Daniel A. Reed is the university’s senior vice president for academic affairs.