When the pandemic took hold, U of M international students faced a difficult choice—remain on campus or return home. Incoming students also needed to decide if they wanted to begin their college student experience online or postpone for a year. But as the U of M reopens, these students are quickly returning to campus.
On a morning in the middle of June,
Giovanna Takano Natti, who hopes to
graduate with a B.A.S. in 2024, was
finally able to breathe a sigh of relief.
After a year of studying engineering
from her bedroom in Londrina, Brazil,
and several agonizing months of waiting for word on when the United States
would allow international students to
enter the country, her student visa
arrived in the mail. Eighteen months after accepting admission to the
U of M’s College of Science and Engineering, Takano Natti learned she
would finally be able to study in person this fall at the Twin Cities campus.
Over a Zoom call earlier this summer, Takano Natti grinned as she
explained her plans to arrive in Minnesota in August, and to move
into Pioneer Hall for her sophomore year. She was looking forward to
in-person classes and experiencing life on a campus bursting with the
energy of young people making their way in the world.
“It was pretty frustrating not knowing what would happen each
semester,” she says of her freshman year and the constantly changing
news about the virus. “It was just one day at a time.”
While Takano Natti did begin her U of M studies online, others in her
position chose to delay their start at the school because of the online format. According to associate director of International Admissions Jenny Mealey (M.A. ’03), in 2020
an estimated 68 international students decided to
delay their freshman year until 2021 or take a gap year.
Even though she was in Brazil in her bedroom,
Takano Natti did her best to meet fellow Gophers
online. She joined the U of M’s Brazilian Students
Association (BRASA) and the International Student
Ambassadors to socialize with peers, something
difficult to do in her online classes because many
students turned their video cameras off. She hopes
the relationships she formed will continue after her
arrival on campus.
Of all the U of M communities impacted by the
Covid-19 pandemic, perhaps none experienced
the displacement and uncertainty as keenly as the
approximately 6,000 international students who
arrive on campus each fall. (For comparison, the
entering fall 2021-22 freshmen class numbers 7,500.)
And according to the Institute of International
Education, the U of M has ranked in the top 25
among colleges and universities in the number of
international students it attracts for four of the past
six academic years.
In a normal year, these international students
contend not just with the bureaucracy of visa applications and international travel, but also culture shock,
varying levels of English proficiency, and sometimes,
a sense of displacement that comes from feeling like
Those challenges only intensified in March 2020,
when the U of M switched to remote learning. While
the University allowed international students to remain
in their dorms—and an estimated 130 chose to do
so (55 of them were freshmen)—others returned to
their home countries and switched to online classes,
complicated in a number of cases by being in a different time zone.
A survey study commissioned by the U of M’s
International Student and Scholar Services and
the Minnesota English Language Program found
that international undergraduate students said
they were satisfied with their online experience—
recorded and closed captioned-lectures turned out
to be an unexpected bonus for non-native English speakers because they could review the lectures
and also rely on written prompts, as opposed to
deciphering accents they may not have understood.
But students also struggled to feel connected to their
classmates. Some who returned to their home countries reported sleep challenges and trouble keeping
track of class schedules and deadlines because their
classes occurred in the middle of the night to match
Minnesota’s Central Time Zone. Still others said it
was hard to stay academically focused and motivated
when they weren’t able to be in a physical classroom.
Today, hopes are high that in-person classes and the on-campus experience will alleviate those problems
Growing up in Beijing, Fran Liu (B.A. ’12, left) remembers her
mother returning home from a business trip to America
and telling her about hosting a training program at the
University of Minnesota. “As a 12-year-old girl, I knew
about New York and San Francisco, but Minnesota
was a unique pronunciation [challenge],” she recalls
with a laugh. “She told me a lot of names, like
Minnehaha, Minnetonka, Minneapolis—[and] I
thought, Someday, I’m going to go there.” When
it came time for college, Liu started at St. Cloud
State University and then transferred to the U of M
to study journalism.
Today, Liu is the director of the University’s China
Office, based in Beijing. She hosts information sessions
and meets with high school students across China and
also works on alumni engagement and development.
Last year, the China Center hosted 70 Chinese U of M
students, allowing them to study and live together as a
cohort at a Beijing facility that is normally used to house
American students during their study abroad programs.
In mid-summer, Liu remained hopeful all of the Chinese
students interested in the U of M-Twin Cities campus
would be able to return this fall; China started processing student visas this past May for August travel. But,
she added, she had also been fielding calls from some
Chinese parents asking if their children could put off
travel to the United States for another semester until a
higher percentage of the American population is vaccinated. Parents were also concerned about headlines
detailing crime rates in Minnesota following the murder
of George Floyd and rising incidences of anti-Asian hate
crimes across the country in the wake of the pandemic.
In early August, the University was remaining flexible for
fall semester, monitoring coronavirus variants and offering a gap semester or year for students having challenges
with their paperwork. For students who couldn’t make it
to Minnesota but still wanted to begin their studies, the
U of M offers asynchronous and online courses. And every
international student will be able to get a U.S. approved
vaccine when they arrive if they choose.
“These students are so resilient,” says Beth Isensee
(M.A. ’07), assistant director of student engagement
and intercultural initiatives at International Student
and Scholar Services. “They are traveling across the
world during a pandemic because they feel so strongly
about their academic goals and to have this intercultural
Administrators say that having a strong international student community benefits the University in many ways. “International students coming to campus bring a little bit of the world to us,” says Jenny Mealey (M.A. ‘03), the associate director of international admissions. “They are part of that diverse community of perspectives and viewpoints that we value because we are an educational institution.”
Visa Challenges Delay Returns for Some
Although Minnesota had largely
reopened by early August as the
state’s vaccination rate hovered
close to 70 percent of residents
16 and over who had received at
least one shot, many countries
throughout the world remain
mired in crisis because of Covid-19.
In addition, future developments
remain unknown as deeply
concerning variants, such as delta,
bring new challenges.
International students had to
navigate that tricky path this summer as they tried to secure visas
from their governments in order to
travel to the U.S. and Minnesota.
While U of M administrators
were optimistic that most sending
countries would be able to process
student visas in time for fall semester, the situation remained fluid.
“It’s changing every moment so it’s sort of like this big puzzle, especially because we have a double cohort now of students who didn’t get their visas last year, and the students that want to get their visas for this year,” says Aimee Thostenson (M.A. ’06), director of international student recruitment. “So, [you're getting] this huge bottleneck at the embassies.”
Healthy Overall Enrollment After a Difficult Year
According to the University, not
only international students are
flocking back to campus.
In mid-June, the U of M
Board of Regents was told that
overall, systemwide confirmations for students coming
directly from high school to
the U of M jumped roughly 12
percent from the same time
last year and were up about 7
percent over the University’s
At the campus level, Duluth
and Morris both saw notable
increases, while the Twin Cities’
total was an all-time high.
However, long-term trends
may affect future enrollment
numbers. Among these is
the anticipated decline in the
number of Minnesota high
school graduates beginning
in approximately six years and
Projections show that most
regions of the United States
will experience a decline in
high school graduates over the
coming decade, including a
projected 5 percent decline in
A History of International U of M Students
The University of Minnesota has been welcoming international students to campus almost since its founding
in 1851. The first students were typically from Norway,
and students from China have studied at the University
for more than a century, starting in 1914 when three
Chinese students enrolled and played on the school’s
championship soccer club.
Today, the most popular sending country for
international students to the University remains China,
followed by India and South Korea.
According to Aimee Thostenson, director
of international student recruitment at the U of M, the
top colleges at the
U of M for international students are the College of
Science and Engineering and the Carlson School of
Further, in the College of Liberal Arts, which attracts roughly 1,800 international students in an average year, the most-chosen majors are psychology, economics, and communications, according to Thostenson.