Awad Abdelhalim knows that not everyone gets an audience with top-level government leadership.

So, when the student seeking a Ph.D. in civil  and environmental engineering was invited to speak to United States Sen. Tim Kaine, he decided to use that time to highlight how international students at Virginia Tech had been affected during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I know quite a few people that have been hit really hard [by the circumstances] and it was good to share those real-life experiences with someone in federal administration,” said Abdelhalim, who traveled from Sudan to become a Hokie. “I wanted to give a voice to the people who did not have the opportunity to talk to a senator. And I really hope he will take those voices and amplify them.”

Abdelhalim, who is also the vice president and director of legislative affairs of the university’s Graduate Student Assembly, was invited to be the student voice during the senator’s visit with university administration at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute to cover a variety of COVID-19-related topics, last week.

“Over the next few weeks, the United States Senate will consider COVID-19 related legislation that could directly impact students and higher education here at Virginia Tech and across America,” said Virginia Tech President Tim Sands. “As a member of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, Senator Kaine has a key voice in this discussion and we are grateful for the opportunity to brief him on the impact that the virus has had on our community.”

Sands, who joined from Alexandria, Virginia, and Executive Vice President and Provost Cyril Clarke shared the most recent updates from campus. Interim Vice President for Research and Innovation Don Taylor, Vice President for Health Sciences and Technology Mike Friedlander, and a team of researchers updated Kaine on the collaborative efforts of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC and the Virginia Department of Health to produce successful virus testing.

David Clubb, director of the Cranwell International Center, and Karen Depauw, dean of the Graduate School, joined Abdelhalim in sharing the pandemic's impacts on international students. They also highlighted the many assets this population of students brings to the entire university and the surrounding communities.

Though not surprised by it, Abdelhalim said he very pleased the university dedicated so much time to issues related to international students.

“I think it was just a testament to the commitment of the university to improve the conditions for international Hokies and I really appreciate that from them,” he said.

Person speaking at podim
Awad Abdelhalim, Ph.D. student and graduate research assistant, speaks during a visit from U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine to the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.

Abdelhalim spoke to the unique situation the pandemic has created for many international students. He highlighted the students’ lack of eligibility for COVID-19-related relief, the strict limitations on their employment, and the critical value of the Optional Practical Training program, which can provide 12 months of post-degree completion employment in the U.S. for some international students. Students in the STEM fields can qualify for an extension of an additional 24 months before needing to pursue an H1B visa.

Abdelhalim said he felt it was important to share the impact those issues have on international students’ experiences and decision-making process with someone involved in that level of policy making.

“People have a great experience at the university and in the community in the New River Valley, so that’s not an issue, but for the international students' community, the recent changes and speculations of more upcoming changes to those rules are giving people second thoughts,” Abdelhalim said. “The university and the administration are doing what they can do, but a lot of those things are federal laws and regulations and have to be tackled at a higher level.”

-- Written by Travis Williams