Managing Sponsored Students during a Pandemic

AMIDEAST has partnered with governmental and nongovernmental organizations for nearly seven decades to implement scholarship and exchange programs that expand opportunity for youth from the MENA region, giving them opportunities to study and live in the United States that are life-changing. Little did anyone expect in 2020 that those opportunities would have ever have the life-altering consequences posed by a pandemic.
Hope Fund scholar Mohammed Al-Asttal graduated from the University of Oregon in May 2020, as did nearly 30 other Hope Fund and DKSSF scholars despite the impact of COVID-19 on American campus life.

Our many years of experience proved invaluable when COVID-19 began spreading in communities and on university campuses across the United States, requiring our staff to shift gears quickly to meet an unprecedented challenge: how to ensure the safety, health, and well-being of international students in the face of a global pandemic. Our roster of students in the United States included some 300 Fulbrighters in graduate studies, 149 undergraduates in the Hope Fund and DKSSF programs, and 199 high school students in the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) Program. They also included 38 Egyptian undergraduates: nine in the Onsi Sawiris Scholarship Program and the rest on study abroad through the U.S.-Egypt Higher Education Initiative (HEI) Public University Scholarships Program.

All the while our staff continued to process applications and admissions for the coming school year. Early on, the YES program decided that students will not come to the United States this fall. But for students accepted into undergraduate and graduate programs, the situation had been less clear and subject to change, requiring staff to help them navigate their options.

Ensuring Student Safety and Well-Being

Just as AMIDEAST staff began teleworking in mid-March, the students for whom they were responsible were beginning to feel the effects of the pandemic, too. Our institutional partners and host families, campuses, and communities across the country played an enormous role in making them feel welcome and ensuring their safety under the trying new circumstances.

AMIDEAST staff both at our headquarters and in our field offices also played a critical role during this period. They were the liaison to the students’ parents and families, tasked with reassuring them that their sons and daughters were safe, especially for the 199 high school students in the YES program, many of whom remained with their host families for several months until their repatriations could be arranged.

Our staff also provided comfort and guidance to the 38 Egyptian students who suddenly found themselves stuck in the United States, isolated at their host universities, with the airports in Egypt closed to commercial flights, until arrangements were finalized to repatriate them. “AMIDEAST supported me a lot, checking on me and helping me to maintain my calm and not panic,” recalls Gina, an HEI exchange student at California State University in Monterey Bay, with gratitude.

And, she adds, the HEI program’s life-skills training prepared her to meet the challenge: "Even before COVID-19, I learned through my USAID scholarship to prepare for all scenarios, and I gained the skills to adapt to hard circumstances. I learned to maintain my faith and hope, and not let things like this affect my long-term goals.”

Emergency Funding

The COVID crisis has created new financial challenges for the Hope Fund and DKSSF programs. Travel costs have risen due to astronomical air fares incurred as staff were forced to arrange complicated itineraries and reroute students when legs were cancelled at the last minute.

However, for most of the 149 students in these programs, returning home wasn’t an option because it would have been too disruptive to their studies, or they faced the risk of not being able to secure a visa to return. Still others felt they could cover their housing needs and secure employment when possible.

As the crisis evolved, it became clear that some of these students would need emergency funding to cover their expenses, which AMIDEAST provided. That assistance, made when our resources already were tight, was greatly appreciated by students. “That amount truly made a huge difference and I am thankful for that and for your efforts,” Hope Fund scholar Farah Abdul-Jawad, a rising senior at Drexel University, said.

All students in the Hope Fund and DKSSF programs have remained on track in their studies. That includes our graduating seniors: 11 Hope Fund scholars and 15 DKSSF scholars who succeeded in making the transition to online learning during their final semester and were able to complete their programs and graduate — albeit without the fanfare traditionally associated with this milestone event in a young person’s life.

They also graduated into a weak economy, with fewer job prospects, posing a new challenge for our resourceful students to overcome — and most have, their way to graduate school, work opportunities under the OPT program to gain practical experience in their fields, or opportunities in their home countries.

Challenges for Fall Semester

As fall semester draws near, AMIDEAST staff are helping students navigate new uncertainties as colleges and universities weigh whether they will offer in-class, online or blended learning options — decisions that change with unsettling frequency. For STEM students whose programs require in-person classes or research, a virtual fall semester may throw a four-year learning schedule off course and interrupt scholarship or student visa requirements.

Our staff are working with these students to ensure that their scholarships extend beyond the four years covered by their awards if necessary. Incoming freshmen are advised that deferring to spring should be considered because adjusting to student life in the United States on an empty campus would be stressful.

The 108 men and women who had planned to begin their Fulbright programs this fall have also faced uncertainty, but with many universities now planning for a fully online fall semester, many will remain in their home countries, while others will come to take classes in person or in hybrid programs. Some have decided or were forced to defer until spring because of the uncertainty and other challenges in arranging travel and visas.

“This has been a critical period for AMIDEAST. We suddenly had to balance the need to ensure our students stayed safe and healthy against our ongoing concern that they continue to progress in their programs and reap the rewards of the exchange experience. Added to these twin priorities was the challenge of ensuring the safe return home for those who wished to return to their countries. It was a tall order, but our staff and students, with the support of donors, our partners, and many other stakeholders, rose to the challenge,” said Christopher Powers, AMIDEAST’s vice president for exchange programs.