International Students Risk Losing Visa If City College Closes

International Students Risk Losing Visa If City College Closes

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SAN FRANCISCO - Antonino Musco never planned on settling in San Francisco. The Sicily native, who studies digital media at City College of San Francisco, says he just “stumbled into the city.”

Now, with the college facing possible closure, he and the other 1,100 or so international students there may have to find an alternative school. Or leave the country.

“Rumors among the students range from the apocalyptic and above,” says Musco, who is now in his third year at CCSF. “‘The school is gonna close, we’re gonna lose accreditation, all those years of study’ … those are the rumors you hear.”

Students Weigh In
International and immigrant students at CCSF's Mission Campus speak to the importance of the school in their lives and community.

It’s good to study in a country different than your own ... you meet a lot of people that are not of your own background; they come from different countries and different cultures. This school has a little bit of everything. Let’s hope they don’t close it.
--Sergio, 28, Mexico

The immigrant community from the Mission district needs this school to stay open. We all need it. Us mothers, we work, we study and this is a safe place to have our children. I’m 38 years old but I think we are never too old to learn and to come to school. To me, a school is like a sanctuary; like a church, a very sacred place. It needs to be respected and needs to continue to remain open and accessible for everyone.
--Bianca Diaz, 38, San Francisco

A big majority of the students at City College are immigrants. Our income doesn’t allow us to pay for higher education but this place gives us all the help we need. I want to support this place, I don’t want them to close it or for them to cut the services they offer us. For me it would be disastrous because I can't pay for all of this. I’ve learned a lot here and they’re giving me the opportunities I didn’t have in my own country.
--Carmen Chavez, 53, El Salvador
Reporting by Edith Romo

Friday marks the “show cause” deadline for the school to demonstrate to the California Accreditation Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) that it has addressed some 14 outstanding deficiencies first raised in a commission report in July. Failing that, the college could lose its accreditation, forcing it to close its doors.

Still, despite the potential calamity, faculty and administrators remain confident the school - one of the largest community colleges in the country with an enrollment of some 90,000 students - will avoid the worst.

“Everyone at the college is working very, very hard to maintain our accreditation,” says Dr. Minh Hoa Ta, dean of CCSF’s Chinatown/North Beach campus and a faculty member with the school’s International Education and ESL departments.

She stresses that CCSF has already taken many steps, including reduced staff and course offerings, as well as campus closures and other measures meant to bring it into compliance with the ACCJC recommendations.

For the students, though, the future appears less certain. A recent article in the school’s paper, The Guardsman, declared that students were “largely in the dark about the facts surrounding the school’s precarious accreditation status.” Meanwhile, a stream of headlines in recent months seems to all but guarantee a bad ending for CCSF.

For international students, whose status in the country is contingent upon their enrollment in the school, these mixed messages can be vexing.

“This could be my first and last semester at City College,” says Carla Prates, who came to the Bay Area from Brazil three months ago. Like Mosca, she is enrolled in the school’s digital media program and says she doesn’t have a plan B should CCSF be forced to shut its doors.

“I planned to be here for a year and a half,” she explains, noting that would give her the flexibility to complete her program while exploring other course options. “I need to figure out what to do” if the school loses its accreditation, she says.

International students in the United States typically apply for what’s known as an F-1 Visa, which allows them to enter and remain in the country as long as they are enrolled full time in an accredited institution. To receive an F-1, students must first apply to and be accepted by a school, which then issues an I-20 form valid for as long as the student is enrolled.

Anoop Prasad is an immigration attorney with the Bay Area's Asian Law Caucus. Students can, he says, switch their I-20 to another school if need be. Though he notes that if they fail to enroll prior to leaving City College, they lose their immigration status. "If they're around for a semester and they fail to enroll, once they decide to leave [the country] they could find themselves with a lengthy bar" on returning.

According to CCSF’s closure plan, which spells out contingency measures in the case its accreditation is revoked, students at the school should be able to transfer to other community colleges in the area.

Ta says that switching schools for F-1 students is fairly easy, adding that even if City College does receive the order to close, it "wouldn't happen overnight."

Still, both Prates and Musco say they've gotten little in the way of help from counselors as far as preparing for the worst and are unclear about what their options are. “I had a meeting with my counselor,” says Prates, “and told him I wanted to take all my requisites as soon as possible” in order to complete her program before the school might have to close. She says he urged her instead to enroll in Latin dance. “It’s crazy.”

As for re-enrolling in another school, Prates predicts "a lot of students will probably take the first school they see, just to keep their visa." Musco is even less certain. "I have no idea," he admits.

Ta notes the school is working to inform students of the accreditation issue via emails, the school’s website and through the student union. But, she says, given the busy nature of most students’ daily schedules, many often either ignore administrative emails or simply don’t visit the site. “They have to study, they have to work … they don’t have the time to pay attention to this.”

As for international students, she says the “number one concern is that we don’t jeopardize their status” by overlooking basic issues like credit and attendance requirements.

And with a reduced number of counselors, Ta says there’s little time to go into issues beyond students’ immediate needs, such as lining up coursework, ensuring academic requirements are being met and that students are on track. “Every day so many students come in for information … we don’t have the time to even think about the school closing.”

Lindy McKnight, dean of Student Support Services at CCSF and head of the Continuing Student Counseling Department, admits that it will be more complicated for international students if the school closes. But, she adds, “We’re not at that step yet.”

“As an administrator, we really haven’t encouraged our counselors, whether they’re dealing with international or domestic students, to spend a lot of time formulating what-if plans.” Confident the school will remain open, she adds that planning for closure at this point would be “wasted energy.”

Still, if the school does receive the order to close - a process that could take anywhere up to a year or more - McKnight says her office will set up sessions to help students on an individual basis plan for their next moves.

For Musco, that’s an unsettling prospect.

Like many of his peers, he sees CCSF as both an entry point and an anchor to life in the city. “I am loving my time at City College,” he says. Pointing to the economic instability in Italy, and particularly the country’s volatile media industry, he adds that going home at this point “isn’t a very attractive option.”