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Florida Tech 'Will Suffer Significantly' With Student Visa Changes

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Last Monday, the Trump administration announced changes to the student visa program that would require international students at universities to take at least one in-person class this fall. That means students have to physically be on campus or leave the U.S.

The changes could jeopardize the status of hundreds of thousands of students, so we've called on Dwayne McCay for more perspective on this. He is the president of the Florida Institute of Technology, known as Florida Tech. International students make up about a third of the student body there, and he's with us now to tell us his thoughts about this.

President McCay, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

DWAYNE MCCAY: Oh, I'm very happy to, Michel. Thank you.

MARTIN: Would you just mind telling us a bit more about your student body? We said about a third are international. You know, where do they come from? And what do they study?

MCCAY: Well, you know, we're a technological school, so the bulk of them study engineering or science. And I couldn't describe where they're all from because it's close to 120 countries is the norm each year. And we have, you know, the same kind of loads from some of the major countries that supply the U.S. with students, like Saudi Arabia, India, China, et cetera. But we have students from all over the globe.

MARTIN: As I mentioned, ICE announced it's lifting the exemptions for international students and online learning. Basically, this means that they are applying pre-COVID rules to student visas in the fall, meaning they have to take at least one class on campus in order to retain their status. So do you remember what your reaction was when you heard this?

MCCAY: (Laughter) It wasn't positive, I'll tell you that. Because I had gotten to the point - you know, we've been doing planning for how we're going to handle fall now for several months. And as you probably know, Florida is a hotspot at this point for the virus. It's been growing fairly rapidly the last few weeks. And up until then, I had - almost certainly was going to open - try to have a normal opening of fall semester. We were closed for the summer. It was only online for the summer. We finished the spring only online.

But we decided that - or I had decided from listening to all the input that we could open fairly safely. And then we began to have this growth of of cases in Florida, including in our county. And it seemed prudent to me that for the safety and health of everyone - which is, of course, our No. 1 concern - that we probably should even run fall fully online.

And I - luckily for me, I had not made an announcement of that or a final decision when this ruling came out. And at that point, I re-evaluated with the senior staff, and we decided that we would have to because it's such a huge fraction of our student body that are internationals that we had very little choice but to at least have some major - some level, maybe a major level, of on-campus courses.

So it had - on our planning staff, it had a huge impact. And, you know, because we cannot survive, to be honest with you, without our international students. They...

MARTIN: Why is that? You can't...

MCCAY: Well...

MARTIN: ...Survive financially?

MCCAY: Well, you know, we will - and survive's too strong a word, but we will suffer significantly. You know, we're a small school, and we're tuition-driven, as many small private schools are. And the international students pay a significant level of tuition to attend here. And so being tuition-driven, if you take - you know, if you actually lost those - all those international students, you would lose close to half your tuition. So, you know, financially they're important.

But in addition to that, we get some of the best international students from all over the world. And so our international students raise the level of the ability for each and every class and each and every project to accomplish more than they could have. Plus, you become an international citizen of the - you know, become a citizen of the world without ever leaving your classroom. And it's - that's a big emphasis that we have, is that we graduate good global citizens.

MARTIN: And what about the faculty and staff? How do - how are they taking this?

MCCAY: You know, they're concerned. I mean, faculty are a little older than the typical college student. And the college students do not fear this disease because in general, it's not that severe for them in their age brackets. But our staff and our faculty aren't in that age bracket. So - and they're going to be trapped in a classroom. So we're putting up Plexiglas shields between them and the students or having face masks.

But I did not anticipate the level of fear that would be prevalent amongst faculty and staff. I really didn't. We're trying to make sure that we can accommodate as many of the faculty and staff that do not want to be on campus during this period as we can. But obviously, if we're going to conduct on-campus classes, some of them have to be here.

So that's a major juggling act that our academic people are doing, and I don't - I mean, I feel sorry for them because that's - I mean, that's the one job that I'm glad I'm not having to personally do at this point.

MARTIN: You know, speaking of a juggling act, one of the issues informing the decisions a lot of people are making is if the K through 12 schools are closed or are on some kind of hybrid schedule, what are people who have kids in that age group supposed to do? I don't know how much of your staff and faculty are in that position, but you're - you know, the decisions that the K through 12 schools make influence the decisions that the adults can make, right?

MCCAY: Well, yeah.

MARTIN: So how is that all getting sorted out?

MCCAY: Any of the people that had serious issues with regard to their family, with regard to homeschooling, some of the other things that everyone had to do over the end of last school year, we worked out ways for them to work remotely. So a huge fraction of our workforce has been working remotely now for several months.

And depending on what our school system does - you know, here in Brevard right now, they're planning on opening. But if they don't open, if they change that, then we're - for example, the buses are not going to be run almost - for most of the schools and maybe all of them. I'm aware of several. And so the fact that that changes the schedule of the parents fairly significantly because they have to transport their children to the school.

And we're doing everything we can to accommodate those things. But this is a difficult time. Luckily, you can work remotely into the evening if you have to. And we have - I've been amazed at the level of commitment that I've seen from so many of our key staff members that are contributing. You know, I get emails now and texts 11 o'clock, 12 o'clock at night from people that are trying to finish their work.

MARTIN: My last question, though, for today would be, do you have any insights that you can share from what you've experienced so far in trying to figure out what to do that you might be willing to share with other education leaders as they're trying to weigh decisions for their schools?

MCCAY: Well, the only advice I can give is flexibility. If you're not flexible, you're not going to survive. You know, I know - I can't remember the - who it is that they quoted, but someone changed their mind once, and they said, how could you change your mind? And he said, I got more data. When I get more data, I might change my mind. What do you do? And that's sort of what we did, where we got more information. The conditions changed. The boundary conditions changed. Then we had to be flexible and make a new decision.

MARTIN: That's Dwayne McCay. He's president of the Florida Institute of Technology, Florida Tech.

Mr. President, thank you so much for talking to us. I hope we'll talk again.

MCCAY: I'm ready when you are, ma'am. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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