In early May, President Joe Biden lifted the national mask mandate because of the increasing number of American citizens being vaccinated. With Covid-19 vaccines proven safe and effective, a majority of U.S. colleges and universities have required vaccination to return to campus this upcoming fall semester, unless one has a medical or religious exemption. While this prompts optimism and excitement for in-person classes, events, and a more traditional college experience, this requirement may serve as an obstacle for international students.
On July 1, 2021, Dr. Douglas Comeau, Director of University Health Services, announced that the Boston College community must be fully vaccinated by an FDA-approved vaccine or WHO-EUL approved vaccine by the time they step on campus in order to participate in any on-campus activity. This notice gave students 53 days to get access to a vaccine and for the vaccine to be considered fully effective. United States citizens over the age of 12 have access to any of the three FDA-approved vaccines: Pfizer-BioNTech, Johnson & Johnson, and Moderna. However, a WHO-EUL and FDA-approved vaccine may not be accessible to everyone overseas.
Jane Huang, MCAS ’24, spent the last academic year learning remotely in Shanghai, China. China currently offers seven different vaccines to its general population, but not all seven are approved by the World Health Organization. Fortunately, Huang had received a vaccine that has been approved, but those who have received the INBCAMS or Zhifei Longcom vaccines don’t fit BC’s vaccine requirements. However, the administration has yet to announce whether these students need to quarantine, partake in a different COVID-19 testing schedule, need to be re-vaccinated by a specific vaccine if deemed safe, or even have to struggle with another year of remote learning.
In addition to the uncertainty that international students may face in regards to this requirement, many international vaccines are less effective than FDA-approved vaccines, especially Pfizer and Moderna.
“I might get Pfizer in the United States if it is available because the vaccine I received is not as effective as Pfizer,” Huang said.
Dami Kim, a student at Georgetown University’s College of Arts and Sciences, was unsure about how she was going to attain an approved vaccine prior to her Summer Hilltop Immersion Program (SHIP). Kim, who is a Korean citizen, also spent the last academic year in Saudi Arabia as a family-attached visitor on a visitor's visa. In Saudi Arabia, only residents and nationals were able to receive a vaccine, a criterion under which Kim was ineligible.
“For 18-24 residents and nationals of Saudi, first doses were available in Saudi Arabia in May, but I had to get vaccinated in May. So, even if I were a resident or citizen, I wouldn’t have been fully vaccinated because I wouldn’t have been able to get the second dose in time,” Kim said.
Just this past June, the Saudi Arabian kingdom had announced that citizens and residents above the age of 50 could receive their second dose—still, Kim cannot receive a vaccine under these requirements.
While the SHIP program did not require vaccinations, a student who was not fully vaccinated by a FDA or WHO-Eul approved vaccine had to quarantine for the first few days and even miss class until receiving a negative test result, resulting in these students missing out on the beginning of their on-campus college experience.
Similar to Saudi Arabia, Korea’s vaccine rollout has been on a later timeline than the United States and hasn’t even reached the 18-24 age group. So, how does a Korean national receive an approved vaccine that is fully effective prior to their move-in date?
The only way they can get access to a vaccine is by coming to the United States a few weeks prior to their move-in date and getting the single-dose vaccine. However, it’s a little more complicated than that. In Kim’s community of international students, there’s a lot of uncertainty in regards to getting their visa in time, traveling early enough, and finding a place to stay. These complications are piled on top of the other hurdles that international students may face like getting documentation to study and stay in the United States.
“I know someone who lives in Russia who is not a U.S. citizen who can get the Sputnik vaccine but doesn’t want to. She doesn’t know if she will be able to return to the U.S. in time to get the vaccine before the school starts. This means another year of remote learning which is honestly terrible,” Kim said.
Additionally, the Sputnik vaccine is not currently WHO-Eul approved. Kim said she is glad that there is a vaccination requirement, but that there are unique circumstances for international students.
Boston College is home to 1,725 international students who may be facing this exact obstacle, and it’s currently unclear what the university has in mind in regards to this difficulty. Clearer instructions and availability of vaccines for international students upon arrival to campus could help assuage some of the nervousness these students may be feeling as they prepare to return to campus this semester.