Between trying to acquire a full vaccination status and exercising and defending their right not to be vaccinated, for WSU’s international students, the return to in-person classes is beyond stressful.
WSU’s Office of International Programs and Cougar Health Services should be working together to make sure we all have a safe and robust opening to campus life this fall semester.
In accordance with the statement from President Kirk Schulz, WSU’s six campuses will require proof of the COVID-19 vaccination for the 2021–2022 academic year for all students engaging in activities at a WSU campus or location, with exemptions for medical, religious or personal reasons.
In all cases of exemptions, students are expected to wear a mask when they are on campus for in-person classes.
According to the Office of International Programs, much of Asia, Africa and South America — where a majority of WSU’s international students come from — still do not have access to emergency COVID-19 vaccines approved by the World Health Organization.
In addition, there are also international students who do not want to be vaccinated for religious and personal reasons.
International Programs is specifically highlighting opportunities for all international students and scholars who do not have access to the vaccine in their home country to become vaccinated — either to book an appointment or to go to a walk-in clinic — upon arrival. They are also working to raise awareness within the faculty groups to accommodate these students in the meantime.
Kate Hellmann, International Programs scholarly assistant professor, said they are working to ensure access and equity for individuals who have not yet received the vaccine.
“Obviously, we’ll be continuing to message that to ensure students know what the policy is and that they have the support of both International Programs and Cougar Health Services to comply with either a vaccination or an exemption,” she said.
With that said, International Programs and CHS are only able to encourage students to get the vaccine upon arrival. However, if they plan to apply for an exemption, they will have to do this prior to returning to campus, as each application will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.
This means international students have to wait in a long line to return to classes.
“For exemptions, if we have the opportunity to be flexible and it’s going to benefit the student, we’re going to try to advocate for that type of flexibility,” Hellmann said. “If we don’t, we’re certainly going to do everything humanly possible to benefit every individual student.”
However, a few international students who are starting new at WSU for the fall semester are facing issues getting their exemptions approved because of the documentation requests that are causing delays in approval.
Muhammad Rizvi, first-year computer science graduate student, said she is not vaccinated for personal reasons. She is working with CHS and International Programs to apply for an exemption.
“I submitted this request at the end of June, and I am waiting for approval,” Rizvi said. “I will not be booking my flight tickets until this is confirmed as I can’t be attending in-person classes without this requirement.”
The university should respect student’s choice of not being vaccinated for personal reasons and that students have the right not to disclose any reasons via documentation when applying for non-medical exemptions. The amount of time it is taking for these exemptions to be processed also needs to be cut down if WSU wants to provide equal access to classes.
With the Delta variant spreading, regulations are subject to change, and the university policies for accepting a particular WHO-approved vaccine might also change.
“This is a very dynamic situation, and my guess is as good as yours on what the next stage of the pandemic will look like. But we certainly hope we’re moving toward a more of a new normal,” said Daniel Saud, International Programs director.
I believe the university’s priority should be ensuring students get their degree and have a safe campus experience no matter what happens this academic year by providing them adequate guidance and support.
“As students do have questions or concerns, we really want to encourage them to voice those to us, as well as to the Graduate and Professional Student Association and International Students’ Counsel for undergraduate students. We don’t want concerns or worries to exist in a vacuum,” Hellmann said.
Even with such a dynamic situation, I believe every student still has the choice to exercise their right to be or not to be vaccinated.
It is important that WSU provides immense support and clear guidance for international students to continue their degrees in person at the university, wherever their decision lies in terms of being vaccinated.