Incorporating International Students into IHE Emergency Management and Planning
Each year, approximately 800,000 international students and scholars come to the United States to study at our colleges and universities. While here, these students and their family members become members of campus communities, participating in activities in and outside of the classroom. As members of a campus community, international students are affected, as all students are, during crises. They also present a set of unique needs for IHEs to consider in planning for and responding to crises. IHE and community preparedness can be enhanced by IHEs incorporating these unique needs into their emergency management plans. When a crisis occurs, IHE officials must be able to quickly communicate with international students and help manage their individual situations.
IHEs must also have procedures in place to ensure proper reporting with federal authorities. All international students who come to the United States in F, M, or J visa classes are monitored by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security through its online database, SEVIS. Colleges and universities certified by the ICE Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) to enroll international students must have Designated School Officials on campus. Designated School Officials maintain responsibility for advising international students and inputting data into SEVIS regarding student programs, location, and status to assist the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in monitoring compliance with immigration law. During emergencies, IHEs maintain the responsibility of making timely updates to SEVIS to reflect the status and location of international students. Likewise, international students need to know how to maintain their immigration status and other timely information about their options, such as transferring, if they are unable to continue their studies at their current IHEs.
To aid in appropriate and timely handling of international student issues during emergencies, prior to any emergency, it is important that IHEs consider the following actions:
- Understand the key issues related to international students in emergency management scenarios outlined above;
- Incorporate the Principal Designated School Official (PDSO), the IHE’s international student office, and appropriate law enforcement points of contact into its EOP;
- Define IHE policies for staff and international students to support continuity of operations during crises;
- Establish processes for international students to communicate to the IHE their location, safety concerns, and short- and long-term plans;
- Incorporate the PDSO and/or other key international student contacts into the crisis response process;
- Develop the ability to access SEVIS from alternate facilities or remote locations; and
- Support the PDSO and/or other key international student contacts in understanding the principles of emergency management and their role(s) in the IHE’s emergency management plans.
There may be instances in which an international student is a victim of an event or an alleged perpetrator. In this scenario, IHEs may have to coordinate with local, state, and federal law enforcement officials on administrative or criminal matters. Understanding the IHE’s role and accompanying rules for communication can lead to swifter and more efficient resolution by the appropriate authorities.
Examples such as Hurricane Katrina and the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombing illustrate the need to incorporate international students into higher ed EOPs. During Hurricane Katrina, many IHEs in the Gulf Coast region suffered damage and were forced to close in its aftermath. This left thousands of international students displaced, requiring timely communication to address immediate safety concerns and coordination between IHEs and DHS to resolve immigration status issues. One of three victims killed in the Boston Marathon bombing was a Chinese graduate student, requiring notification to SEVP and the U.S. Department of State. Each situation required action by an IHE and coordination with local, state, and federal authorities.