As coronavirus cases continue to rise alarmingly from mid-March, the government imposed an apparently loose nationwide lockdown for one week from April 5 as part of its move to contain its spread. Later a stricter lockdown was declared from April 14 to 21 and then April 22 to 28, and as a result, thousands of students who earned their admission and scholarship at different universities abroad, especially in the United States, are counting days in anxiety.
From April 5, the US embassy in Dhaka cancelled previously scheduled visa interviews and also stopped providing any new visa appointments for the near future, saying this would be the scenario until the lockdown and travel restrictions get lifted - and many students fear that they will lose funding opportunities and will ultimately have to cancel their admission to desired universities.
As the lockdown got extended due to the ongoing massive spike in the daily infection and mortality rate related to COVID-19, and also considering the devastating scenario in India, the uncertainty rather increased among the visa aspirant students.
One of the top countries in the world for the quality education system, the United States contains most of the prolific and top-ranked universities which offer full scholarships, fellowships and fundings to the most meritorious students around the world. So, the visa aspirants have already proven themselves as scholars with higher degrees from top universities of the country and aspiring advanced research-based knowledge on the evolution of technology, health sectors, economics and other fields, only to face the same extreme frustration and anxiety regarding the visa dilemma - once again this year, after suffering in 2020.
Statistics says that every year, more than 3,000 students from Bangladesh go to the United States of America which is considered as the hotspot of advanced education and cutting edge research, to study in different universities with honorary scholarships and fellowships. They compete against the graduates from the best and most advanced universities around the world and are playing a significant role in the advancement of science, arts and engineering.
Through the dedication and efforts of these talented students, the reputation of Bangladesh is spreading beyond the borders, and past honoraries with these higher study opportunities are already playing significant roles by utilising their immense potentials for the further development and progress of Bangladesh.
In American universities, students are usually admitted into three sessions each year - Spring (January), Summer (May) and Fall (July-August). While most students usually prefer the Fall semester, most of the Fall 2020 students were not able to join their scheduled sessions due to the non-availability of visa because of the pandemic.
The problem is, if a student fails to attend the university before the start of class, then the admission including scholarship offers will be cancelled - according to the university admission policy in America. Considering the situation, some lucky students were able to defer their admission to the Spring session and attend their universities in January 2021 and some were also able to hold their admission and scholarships for the Summer 2021 and Fall 2021 sessions, based on individual university policies.
As a result, the visa demand for the Summer 2021 and Fall 2021 session was already more than regular, but unfortunately, the US embassy in Bangladesh has cancelled all the scheduled visa interviews starting from April 5, 2021, after the decision of lockdown was announced. Although the embassy has scheduled an emergency interview date on May 11, that is only for the immediate Summer aspirants while the visa schedule is urgent for the Fall aspirants as well.
Though emergency services, industries, banks, markets and inter-city public transport were allowed to continue operating upon following the government rules and law-enforcement regulations, the US embassy is not accepting any new applications and said that the resuming of the process depends on when the government instructs them based on the improvement of the current pandemic scenario - but when the neighbouring countries like Sri Lanka and even China have given high priority to student visa, the US embassy in Bangladesh is yet to undertake any such specialised process.
As there is no option of delaying the admission offers for the same person and the same reason in two consecutive years, all of the US higher education aspiring students are now on the verge of losing their hard-earned admission and prestigious scholarships, fellowships and assistantship offers. Many US universities are already acting reluctant to offer scholarships to Bangladeshi students.
Additionally, there is a possibility that students from other Asian and South Asian countries can override the achievement of Bangladeshi students in advanced studies and research sectors by grabbing the opportunity of their absence. If the situation continues, the reputation of Bangladesh in the advanced education and research sector will also be damaged alongside the personal loss of these students.
Jyotirmoy Saha, a student VISA aspirant who graduated from Chittagong University of Engineering and Technology (CUET) said, "I had my funding in Fall 2020. Due to this coronavirus pandemic, the university deferred me twice, first in Spring 2021, then Fall 2021. My fund is in PhD, and I can't be enrolled in such a program with self-funding. My professor considered my situation, he was kind enough to me but for how long? If not in Fall 2021, I am going to lose it. This is a devastating situation for me right now."
Another deferred candidate Roushney Fatima Mukti, shared: "I got accepted for a PhD programme in the Medical University of South Carolina, with a Doctoral Fellowship and Dean's Scholarship, for the Fall 2020 session. I was supposed to work on Cancer Biology with a large group of international researchers but I was the only one who couldn't join the lab due to visa complications."
These stories depict the situation of thousands of students, and the same stories of anxiety and frustration will continue if proper steps are not being taken.
Assuming a student applies for five to six universities on average for every session, the whole admission procedure to a US university costs more than BDT 300,000 including application fee and score submission fee, standardized exam fees like GRE, TOEFL, and IELTS (costing Tk 17,000 each which remain valid only for a limited time). Apart from the aeroplane ticket, the SEVIS fee and VISA scheduling fee together cost around Tk 45,000.
Md Mohsin, a Dhaka University graduate shared his struggling story: "My family was never in a position to manage the expenses of the entire US admission process. So, every month I saved some amount from what I earned from private tutoring. In Fall-2020, after completing all the procedures, I managed full funding in a PhD program from a US university and also secured a visa interview slot."
"However, it got cancelled several times during May-June last year. My fund was given to another international student. I had to defer my admission to Fall-2021 with no guarantee for funding. With enormous frustrations, I decided to not apply anymore - but then, luckily, in Fall-2021, I got full funding from the same department. This year, the same scenario is snatching away my opportunity once again. Being already denied once and losing the job due to COVID-19, life has already become a bottomless pit."
Similarly, the students who got admission to MIT, Stanford University and Harvard University, considered three of the elite educational institutions in the world, are now suffering this undeserving despair. As per the situation, several US universities have requested the US Department of State to consider taking online interviews due to the ongoing global pandemic.
The general students expressed, "We understand the lockdown is important to stop the spread of the COVID-19. However, if the Bangladesh government doesn't keep the US embassy student visa appointments out of the lockdown protocol - the present and future of thousands of brilliant students will end in smoke."
Even before the lockdown, only very limited interview slots were available, and now it is totally closed. "Only the Bangladesh Government can save us from this situation. We seek the attention of the Honorable Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Education and the US Embassy in this matter."
With desperate measures, a delegation of the higher education aspiring students contacted the Ministry of Foreign Affairs personnel to push the US Embassy for swift actions and although they were assured that the issue would be looked at, any meaningful actions are yet to be seen.
In these bizarre and unfortunate circumstances, only the concerned government departments and the US embassy need to take swift, well-thought and collaborative steps that can save the dreams of all these talented young scholars, who are the future of the nation.