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Administration Response to International Students’ Demands

July 20 2020

Written By: 
James O’Hara

Sent to:
Qian (Joss) Liao
Yuqing Liu
Yiwei Chen
Victoria Lang
Mindy Kang
Grace Chen
Aurelia Liu
Rosanne Somerson
David Proulx
Trustee Office
Kent Kleinman
Daniel Cavicchi
Sarah Cunningham
Matthew Shenoda
Scheri Fultineer
Brooks Hagan
Joanne Stryker
Damian White
Patricia Barbeito
Margot Nishimura
OISS (Int’l Services)
RISD Career Services
RISD Global Partners & Programs
I am responding at the request of the President and Provost since my area oversees International Students. Thank you for taking the time for your thoughtful letter, outlining steps RISD can take to support international students. We realize that the global pandemic and resulting campus closure last spring produced undue hardships for our international students.  The subsequent uncertainty students have faced with rapidly changing immigration guidance and navigating curricular plans for departments adds to that burden.  In this letter, we hope that we can outline some action steps, in response to your concerns, and also point to some measures we have already implemented which we will sustain and grow over the next academic year.  We also hope that your letter will become the basis for ongoing dialogue, raising awareness about the challenges our international students face, and identifying ways the RISD administration can provide broader and ongoing support.

In an effort to both update and extend our commitment to the international community, we want to respond to the following points that you outlined: 

Denounce the ICE Executive Order restricting F-1 and M-1 student visas

As an institution RISD immediately spoke out about our opposition to how the initial directions were written by ICE.  We responded through advocacy and communication:


RISD reached out in the following ways:
  • President Somerson signed two Amicus Briefs with the President’s Alliance stating that ICE’s guidance ignored both the interests of higher education institutions and their international students.
  • RISD united with other area colleges and universities to publicly voice our collective opposition of the direction from ICE.
  • The OISS Director serves on committees of the NAFSA: Association of International Educators and engaged in continuous advocacy efforts, including calling for clarification on emerging ICE guidance. 
  • RISD worked with Rhode Island federal representatives in tandem with the American Council on Education (ACE) to strongly support revisions by ICE immediately. 

Communication to International Students and the Community

Throughout the week of July 7, 2020, we were focused on communicating relevant educational and policy information to enrolled international students and RISD academic departments.  This communication effort included how we could best protect our international community if these ICE directives were finalized and implemented and ways that the community could advocate on behalf of students.   

Moving Forward

We were relieved on July 15 to learn that the Trump administration agreed to rescind the ICE directive.  Please know that RISD will continue to advocate for international students and their rights to study safely on our campus.  We will use every outlet we have to speak on behalf of our international students and proudly share how important your presence is as part of our learning community. 

Announce Detailed and Concrete Course Plans

We fully understand that it may not be possible for some students to return to campus, in many cases because of issues beyond their control.  As a result, last week we announced that international students can request to attend RISD remotely.  Several students have already requested this option and we expect 350 or more international students will be participating remotely for the fall term. Students interested in requesting a remote semester should email remote@risd.edu.

While RISD is unable to facilitate in-person support systems/partnerships in off-campus locations, we are confident we can offer a robust and substantive online experience, coupled with an in person Wintersession.

As indicated by the reversal of ICE directive, international students will be permitted to study completely by distance in their home country and if they are on campus for the fall semester and plan to stay for Wintersession.  While logistics beyond the Fall semester are still in flux,  we will request departments to have the calendar for Wintersession and Spring completed and shared with all students as soon as possible. 

Provide financial aid, travel funds, and emergency funds for international students in need with financial transparency.

Last year we made emergency funds available for international students that helped support travel, storage, and personal expenses.  Over the past three years international students have been eligible and received support from the materials funds.

We know that we need to offer more financial support for international students.   This year we are expecting to spend over $3.5m on funding for international students in FY21.  This includes fellowships, assistantships, student employment, emergency fund, and materials fund. We also plan to take the following steps:

  • For the 2020-21 academic year, financial aid has been made available to assist returning international students who have had their finances impacted by COVID-19.  Students concerned about their ability to pay their student account should email sfs@risd.edu.
  • In addition to emergency COVID-19 funding made available this year, we will enhance support for external funding sources and maximize our scholarship search engine to include third-party resources for international students.
  • For Fall 2021 RISD will offer 10 half-tuition scholarships to talented international students that demonstrate financial need.
  • As part of the Strategic Plan, we will  expand fundraising for international student scholarship support so we can offer more half and full tuition scholarships in the future.  

Prioritize International Students’ Access to On-Campus Housing

We understand that the March departure presented several challenges for international students.  Our goal was to expedite a quick and safe return home for the majority of our students both domestic and international.  We are committed to offering as much support as we can for the coming academic year, including the following:
  • The Office of Residence Life will ensure that international students will have access to on-campus housing and will work with them on arrival dates.
  • We will make every effort to provide “bridge” housing if students need temporary housing while they secure off-campus housing.
  • In the event we face another campus closure, we will allow international students to stay on campus while they arrange travel home for as long as their visas will permit.

Compile resources for financial, psychological, and administrative support specifically for international students

As follow-up to the concerns outlined regarding counseling and psychological service support:

  • We acknowledge the wellness needs of international students and the importance of access to culturally competent clinical care.
  • We commit to maintaining our current staff position in CAPS held by a clinician fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese.
  • We commit to further cross-cultural training for current staff, and when there are openings will prioritize clinicians with experience working with international and BIPOC communities.

Include International Students into SEI’s agenda

The Office of Social Equity and Inclusion will continue to include programming and support that deepens the community's understanding of the needs and contributions of RISD’s international students.  In acknowledgement of this important outreach we commit to the following: 

  • SEI will continue to expand programming representing international artists and speakers.
  • SEI and ISE will create opportunities for international students to join student-led work in relation to future shaping of RISD’s SEI initiatives.
  • ISE will work with international students to create specific and relevant resources for the international student population.

Increase Funding for OISS

Last year the Office of International Students and Scholars (OISS) experienced staff transitions.  As an institution we review staffing and conduct benchmark evaluations to assure that we are adequately providing enough resources for our students.  Based on these assessments, we are appropriately staffed and would share with you the following information:
  • OISS is fully staffed, and added a new position last year (continuing this year) to assist in supporting STEM/OPT.
  • OISS will be migrating to electronic processes, and we will ensure that the operating budget is supported in terms of the material and technological needs necessary to make this transition.
  • There are eight Designated School Officials (DSOs) on campus (four in Admissions and four in OISS) who participate in training surrounding immigration regulations and policy guidance changes.

Maintain a Sanctuary Campus

It is important to clarify that declaring RISD as a "sanctuary campus" provides no legal protection that isn't already available for all campuses.  That said, there already are some protections in place -- most notably FERPA, which prohibits us from sharing information about our students in most circumstances. 

We remain committed to the following:
  • We will not voluntarily cooperate with immigration agents or disclose information about our students to them beyond the bare minimum requirements.
  • Federal agents seeking information about undocumented students would, for the most part, have to get a subpoena.
  • Additional information regarding our policy regarding any visits from ICE is detailed here.

We hope that this letter conveys the measures we have taken and will continue to pursue to support our international students.  The new academic year ahead of us will present challenges, but please know that we stand committed to expanding our support for all of our international students. 

We look forward to an ongoing dialogue so that these concerns can remain at the forefront of our efforts.

James O’Hara
Vice President, Enrollment Management & Student Affairs
Rhode Island School of Design