The Korea Herald


[Feature] Pandemic brings study-abroad students back to already struggling home front

By Ko Jun-tae

Published : July 5, 2020 - 14:13

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As coronavirus continues to rage across the US, affecting education and the job market, young Koreans who have spent years in the country studying are pivoting back to their homeland for a safer future.

But many find that the grass on this side of the Pacific is not much greener. In-person classes are limited here too, as universities try to cope with the persistent threat of the virus, while the influx of students returning from abroad adds to the already fierce competition for jobs and research positions.

Hwang, a 27-year-old living in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, is one of many international students who have given up on their plans to continue in the US. Having returned early last month after earning a master’s degree in East Asian art history at a US university, he is planning to apply for a doctorate program in Korea.

“I decided to return because I thought applying for a doctorate in the United States seemed pointless,” Hwang told The Korea Herald. “The pandemic is really out of control in the US, so there is no chance of in-person classes returning anytime soon, which absolutely doesn’t help with me getting assimilated into a new program if I did apply and got accepted.”

The prospect of securing a tenure track position after getting a Ph.D. in the US has become more unlikely for him, he continued, as budget cuts and layoffs at American higher education institutions will be “all too common” in the near future.

“To the best of my knowledge, a lot of colleges in America were already struggling financially before the pandemic, as too many of them heavily relied on international students like me paying full tuition,” he added. “Now that’s gone, budget cuts and layoffs will be mainstream, and that also means that securing a tenure track position as an immigrant will become near impossible.”

According to a survey from the US Association of International Educators in April, US higher education overall could have lost nearly $1 billion and will go on to lose an aggregate of at least $3 billion from the expected decline in international student enrollment for the upcoming academic year starting in August and September.

Huh Jae-yeon, 18, won admission to the University of California, Berkeley, for this fall, but she won’t be flying to the States anytime soon. Classes will be conducted online and her parents worry about the virus situation there, she explained.

While committed to pursuing a US education, Huh feels anxious about uncertainties in the US job market for foreign students. The US appears to be shutting its doors to non-US nationals in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, she said.

“I’m feeling that it’s going to be much more difficult than is now to find a job in the states after graduating college there,” she said.

The US has been the leading destination for international students around the world, with Korea the third-largest source of international students to the country following India and China.

According to the US Department of State last year, more than 60,000 Korean students study in the US each year, accounting for around 6.5 percent of all foreign enrollment at US universities. While the number of Korean students in the US has steadily fallen over the years, Korea has continued to be one of the key senders of international students to the country.

The US continues to lead in coronavirus cases, with well over 2.8 million confirmed cases so far and consecutive daily jumps of over 50,000 in recent days, exceeding numbers anywhere else.

As interest from students and parents in US education falls sharply, local study abroad agencies and institutions are suffering. Exhibitions, fairs and seminars intended to promote and provide information about US education opportunities have had to be postponed due to lack of interest as well as the risk of virus transmissions. 

Huh, who currently works as a teaching assistant at a private institute for students preparing for US college admissions, says the number of students attending her academy has sharply fallen since the pandemic.

“The idea itself of studying in the US seems to be still popular, but it is evident that the number of students at my academy isn’t as many as before,” she said.

A public petition posted on the website of the presidential office in April claims that revenues for study-abroad institutes has been close to zero for several months.

The return of study-abroad students could impact competition for jobs or research positions here, experts said. 

While it may not be so different for graduates with a bachelor’s degree, those with master’s and doctorate degrees from local universities could feel the heat from the increase of rivals from renowned foreign institutions.

“A large number of international students in the United States have been failing in getting jobs outside Korea, so I don’t know if anything will particularly change in that competition,” said Kim So-young, an economics professor at Seoul National University.

“But the story is different for jobs requiring higher-level degrees. Companies and institutions alike prefer those with degrees from prestigious foreign universities, and we know a lot of them are already returning to Korea.”

To help well-educated and highly trained job seekers ride out the pandemic, Kim suggested the government and universities provide more post-doctorate fellowships and temporary research positions. 

Meanwhile, there are some who are sticking to their US education plans, hoping to turn the crisis into an opportunity. They believe that the exodus of international students and job seekers could mean less competition and better chances for them to earn work visas or admission to highly competitive programs.

“Even before the COVID-19 crisis, I was thinking of either applying for a H-1B visa again next year or start applying for MBA programs in the United States,” said Lee, a 27-year-old financial analyst in Chicago who graduated from a nearby college in 2018.

“I am actually hoping for my MBA competition with other international students to be easier next year because people won’t be applying to US schools as much as before due to the pandemic.”

Lee added that he is leaning more toward applying for MBA programs in hopes that the US returns to normal and again welcomes international students by the time he completes the program.

By Ko Jun-tae (