Global Again: How ISSS Showed Up for International Dragons During the Pandemic

The staff of Drexel University’s Office of International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS) supported international Dragons through a laundry list of ever-changing circumstances with the blend of practicality and hope needed in pandemic times.

Kea Glenn, associate director of Drexel University’s Office of International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS), said it’s the nature of working in international education to remain optimistic while also always expecting the worst. There was no greater time she and her team employed this mentality than during the pandemic.

Whether rushing to provide travel signatures in its early days to ensure international students on F-1 or J-1 visas could return to their home countries if desired, and subsequently return, or communicating over the summer constantly changing guidance from the federal government which threatened the deportation of these students if they were partaking in online classes for fall 2020, the ISSS team balanced hope and practicality while supporting Dragons uprooted by the pandemic. It meant showing up, every day — sometimes in person, even when no one else was.

For instance, Glenn and her colleague, Administrative Coordinator David Johnson, were deemed essential workers for the University in March 2020 in order for them to continue processing physical immigration documents along with other requirements associated with their office’s role at the University. On the Monday after the shutdown, they reported to their Main Building office as usual, even though the world was anything but.

“It was very odd to see campus with just nobody. It was almost a scene out of one of those zombie shows where there's absolutely nobody around, and it's so quiet and there was no traffic,” Glenn remembered of that time. “It was very odd for Dave and I to continue coming to campus as if nothing was happening and essentially be the only people walking around not only on our campus, but in University City as a whole. And I think that goes to show our dedication to our student population. … We knew the government wasn't going to release flexibility for certain populations within the international student community requiring physical documentation. They needed those blue ink signatures. They needed those hard copy originals mailed to them, and we did what we had to do.”

In normal times, ISSS offers a vast array of programs and services to the more than 3,000 international students, scholars and faculty at Drexel, most of whom live near campus in Philadelphia. In pandemic times, that programming became remote, and had to be flexible to students and scholars joining from a variety of different locations and time zones. Maintaining those services meant navigating changing guidance, closures of essential services, and for staff, reporting to work in summer heat to an empty building where the HVAC and air conditioning were turned off.

Through all of this, their No. 1 priority, Glenn said, was providing transparency and support to Drexel’s international community — to meet their needs and ensure they hadn’t been forgotten.

“I think ISSS offices nationwide were kind of prepared to deal with the uncertainty and to deal with chaos,” said Executive Director Mladenka Tomasevic. “At some point after you spend some time in the field, especially if you work with immigration, one thing that kind of naturally happens to us is depending on the climate around you— you adjust.”

Tomasevic started in this role at Drexel in April 2020, but was well-equipped to guide the international population through this uncertainty with more than 15 years of experience in international education and as a former international student herself.

One of the most chaotic periods came in July 2020 when the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Student Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) issued temporary procedural guidance that would require international students participating in academic programs delivered exclusively online for the fall to depart the U.S. or lose their legal status.

“That period [was] extremely difficult for students, but it was similarly difficult for us to provide them with any advice because the decisions they were making in Washington, D.C. were completely beyond our control,” Tomasevic said.

Higher education leaders, including Drexel University President John Fry, denounced the DHS decision, which was ultimately modified. However, it still made for a tumultuous time for students like Amin Zooyousefin, a fourth-year civil and structural engineering BS/MS student from Iran. When the University shut down in March 2020, Zooyousefin did not see returning home (to Turkey at the time, where he and his parents moved when he was 17) as an option because he knew the visa situation could be tricky. Therefore, he went to live with an uncle — his only stateside relative — in Texas for six months.

Amin Zooyousefin, a fourth-year civil and structural engineering BS/MS student from Iran, poses in Covert Park at Mount Bonnell in Austin, Texas, where he lived with his uncle for six months after the Drexel University shut down in March 2020.
Amin Zooyousefin, a fourth-year civil and structural engineering BS/MS student from Iran, poses in Covert Park at Mount Bonnell in Austin, Texas, where he lived with his uncle for six months after the Drexel University shut down in March 2020.

“I was fortunate, because other international students, they had very huge trouble. But I got lucky,” Zooyousefin said. “To be honest, I really liked it. I think one of the reasons why I liked it was because I wasn't on my own and I was speaking my own language. It's been a very long time. I haven't even seen my own people. So it's kind of really nice.”

But while he was there, these creature comforts were once again threatened due to the DHS guidance. Zooyousefin said it was stressful because, if he was forced to leave, he questioned his ability to come back any time soon.

“It would have ruined a lot of my years,” he said. “But ISSS, they communicated a lot. They sent a lot of emails saying that they were working on it, not to worry, that they would send updates soon. … They even had an event that they explained what we can do and what we cannot do, if we can remain in America or not, if it's going to impact our future in America or not. So it was actually very good.”

Including this support, there was a lot undertaken by ISSS staff during the pandemic out of necessity. But other events and offerings were created simply out of desire. Glenn said that, despite Zoom fatigue and virtual burnout, her colleague Anyi Ye, an international student advisor who started at Drexel in March 2020, brought forth creative, effective ideas for virtual programming.

“She partnered with folks across campus, including the Politics Department and the Counseling Center,” Glenn remembered. “There were a lot of cool events that touched upon kind of a stigma behind mental health across cultures around the world. There was an event talking about the protests and freedom of speech since again, something that's not necessarily shared in other cultures. … These folks came in not only during a global pandemic, but it was the height of the U.S. election season. So, just a lot of American stuff being thrown at them all at once.”

For Nada Ali, a Fulbright scholar from Egypt pursing a master’s degree in health management and policy through the Dornsife School of Public Health, being able to engage in such programming last spring and summer helped ease her transition of preparing to study in a foreign country during a pandemic.

“They were the hub to connect me with different offices. And I'm someone, I like being social. I like to be part of my community. I like to feel like I'm connected in some way,” she said. “This was extremely difficult during COVID when you feel alone. It is one of the loneliest times I think I've experienced in my life. And at the end, it turned out okay. … Having people around me from these communities was really helpful, and it brought me joy.”

When the University announced the return of in-person graduate courses for fall 2020, then some undergraduate courses and on-campus living for first-year students this past winter, and all of it leading up to our full return to campus this September, it triggered a chain reaction of new issues for ISSS to help international students navigate. From vaccine requirements and deadlines to continued international travel restrictions, embassy and consulate closures as well as other ever-changing circumstances, Glenn said the last year-and-a-half feels like the dog-year equivalent when considering the amount of experience she and her team have gained.

“I think we have a really unique job. It's fun. It's stressful. It's interesting every single day, and we all learn something new,” she said. “… I suppose if I had to compare it to something, it would be drinking from a fire hose.”

ISSS welcomed international students back to campus in fall 2021 with a Welcome Week lunch at the Gateway Garden.
ISSS welcomed international students back to campus in fall 2021 with a Welcome Week lunch at the Gateway Garden.

But that effort allowed for more than 1,800 international students to return for majority face-to-face instruction this term, though more than 200 not in online programs are also still taking advantage of mostly remote offerings. And that was effort well-spent, Tomasevic said, given all the diverse benefits the international population provides to Drexel, from fostering a diverse campus environment to further enriching classroom experiences for all.

“I hope this period has taught us to be more mindful of others and their challenges, because there are so many things that we took for granted before the pandemic, especially travel,” she said. “With the pandemic, we all experienced this … so hopefully something that we take away from this is there are people who will continue having these challenges due to other reasons, even after the pandemic is over. Even right now, because right now many people can travel, but there are still people who cannot. So just to be more mindful of everyone else.”

Even though he couldn’t return to the comfort of immediate family during this trying time, Zooyousefin is still appreciative of everything ISSS and the University did to make him still feel at home.

“I'm really appreciative of what I have right now because I know 85 million people in my country cannot even think about this,” he said. “So that's why I'm so happy. I know I'm going to have a great future, and whatever I get is because Drexel opened the door for me. Because of that, I'll be thanking Drexel for the rest of my life.”

Ali also chose not to return home over this summer given that her family in Egypt have not yet had the opportunity to be vaccinated. But she has enjoyed becoming a part of the hardworking culture at Drexel exemplified by ISSS as well as several other areas throughout the University during the pandemic and otherwise.

“This is what is the reputation for Drexel,” she said. “There's a lot to work on in the University, but you definitely see that people are responsible, accountable and hardworking. And they are trying to make the best out of everything and the resources that they have. This is something that’s true. This reputation is true and not only for the students. I think it's for the staff as well. I'm happy with all the resources and the opportunities that I have here. Drexel has been very accommodating to me as an international student to the best they can.”