Staying on Mission for International Students

By Anne K.W. Richardson


I recently sent my son a birthday card that read:
have a happy birthday! go out. but stay in. go sunbathe. no, don’t. eat cake or not. stay home. or go out. but don’t. have a good birthday. actually. don’t. stay alert. but not at home. actually, yes only at home. sunbathe. go to work. have your birthday in phase 3. maybe. (
Sound familiar? A metaphor for college counseling at the moment?
It's been 100 days since lockdown in the UK and in that time the world has rocketed from one extreme to another, from lockdowns to re-openings, to re-lockdowns, and all the multiple phases in between. Amid all this, the Class of 2020 struggled to finish high school the best they could, while the Class of 2021 worried about how to present their best selves…all while trying to negotiate the shifting sands of college and university plans during a pandemic.
For international students the sands aren’t shifting, they’re heaving.
At the moment, finding a visa appointment, let alone a visa, is challenging because embassies and consulates are closed except for emergencies. Eerily reminiscent of trying to find a test center internationally, some students are traveling to other countries for appointments if they have the means—and if they don’t, they’re in visa limbo. There are also quarantine issues to consider in traveling from country to country. If they manage to obtain a visa and find a flight, do they need to quarantine when they arrive? Where? At whose expense? What about health insurance? International students holding long-dreamed-of spots at US universities for the fall may simply be unable to get there.
International offices in colleges and universities have been working overtime to support these students: Electronic I-20’s have been issued and many of institutions are offering virtual classes and social opportunities for international students until they can physically travel to campus. Colleges and universities have also been generous with deferrals, as students decide to wait it out and focus on a gap year.

However, other issues have also come to the forefront. Job losses, furloughs, and market shifts have decimated economies and exchange rates. This past spring highlighted some of the difficulties of synchronous online learning and testing when all students are not in the same time zone as the institution. As colleges and universities try to build online classes and communities in the fall, these challenges will be exacerbated. Finally, recent xenophobic incidents, protests, and rhetoric have heightened ongoing concerns about health and safety for international students, particularly for students of color.
For the Class of 2021, these issues won’t subside any time soon. The same concerns and realities of life during a pandemic will impinge on this class, as they have done for the Class of 2020. Working with this class requires some fundamental shifts in thinking, advising, and planning.
While it may be summer, college counselors are on overdrive and into overtime. The massive shift away from (?) testing requirements, the move to virtual everything (with accompanying time zone issues), and the conundrum of supporting students as they tell their stories in the absence of normal benchmarks, are our daily challenges. Issues of visas, finances, travel, health, and safety remain paramount.

Many international students come from cultures where testing is the most accepted way of demonstrating proficiency and ability. These students (and their families) are confronting a world where testing has changed beyond all imagination, and a US culture where testing is now widely optional. In a world where grades and GPA have formed the backbone of academic achievement for many, distance learning and pass/fail grades have had a profound impact. Team sports, clubs, activities, and community service opportunities have vanished. College visits, campus tours, presentations, and meetings are virtual.

Yet the mission remains the same. New thinking along sound lines is key. In the coming months I am committed to:

  • Helping our students, parents, and administration remain true to the core of what we do. Reminding everyone of our code of ethics and our values as school communities and NACAC members.
  • Educating my community—administration, faculty, students, and families—as to the landscape that students are facing. What used to be normal—the rush to test preparation, résumé building, college visits, and fairs—is no longer.
  • Providing the context for my students. In recommendations, profiles, and transcript notes, I will detail the school, country, cultural, and pandemic context for my students’ applications and give them context and language to insert into their applications where needed.
  • Continuing to support student dreams while making doubly sure there is good scaffolding below them by having alternative options close to home.
  • Reminding my students there are multiple roads to the same destination and this may be the year where a gap year and exercising caution becomes part of the route.

Is there any good news? Yes, there is.

In the absence of summer programs, internships, clubs, team sports, SAT-prep, and other past benchmarks of leadership and success, recent assurances from higher education, such as Care Counts in Crisis: College Admissions Deans Respond to COVID-19 from the Making Caring Common project, are both helpful and a reminder of what is going to count moving forward.

In this new normal, the backbone of college applications will be:

  • How students are taking care of themselves, their families, and their communities. 
  • How they deal with the setbacks, and, for some, the tragedies of these times. How they are healing.
  • The positives of their new normal. What remains important to them and what has become important to them.
  • What they have learned and how they have grown. How and where they have found success.

Perhaps, this light—in the absence of testing, essays, recommendations, and transcripts—will paint such a contextual and personal picture of struggle, growth, and resilience that, dare I hope, the admission arms race will change for the better?

Anne K.W. Richardson is the director of the Office of Student Advising at The American School in London.

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