Meghana Puri looks forward to starting her MBA journey this fall at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School — if she can get there.
Coronavirus has cast doubt on travel plans for Puri, a social impact consultant in Mumbai, India, and thousands of others in the MBA Class of 2023. India is reeling under the weight of a massive wave of cases and deaths from the disease, which has forced the closure of consulates and prompted world governments to announce broad restrictions on travel from South Asia. International aid — including several fundraisers by business school students — is flowing, but the healthcare infrastructure in the world’s second-most-populous country is straining mightily, and the situation is expected to worsen before it improves.
On April 30, U.S. President Joe Biden announced new restrictions on travel from India to the United States. While the restrictions include a big carve-out for students on F-1 visas, Puri and others have concerns.
“The situation is dystopian in a way that is hard to imagine from the outside,” Puri tells Poets&Quants from Mumbai. “While all other countries are returning to normal, we’re stuck here in a reality where every single person knows someone who’s been seriously affected by the disease. Literally, if you ask anyone, they will know of someone who is ill/has been affected by Covid.
“It makes it really hard to engage with lots of what we’d normally be doing — chatting with classmates, getting excited about the MBA experience — and it makes me feel like I’m missing out as lots of vaccinated admits in the U.S. are meeting in person. It’s also hard as all my pre-MBA plans have been affected by the situation here.”
B-SCHOOL ADMITS, STUDENTS, GRADS PITCHING IN TO HELP
India reported 360,000 new cases on Monday (May 10), according to its health ministry, while more than 3,700 people died. India’s case tally has now climbed above 22.6 million and more than 246,000 fatalities, second only to the U.S., though many say that India’s numbers are undercounted. Experts estimate that only about 2.5% of India’s 1.3 billion population has been fully vaccinated.
In India’s hour of need, business school students and admits in the U.S. have been pitching in. One group of Class of 2023 admits started a fundraiser by offering their counseling skills to grad school candidates who make donations; another group of current MBA students launched their own effort. A pair of 2009 MBAs — Sayali Karanjkar from Northwestern Kellogg School of Management and Shriya Sethi from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business — are promoting a separate effort, raising money for oxygen concentrators and other much-needed medical equipment.
“We really appreciate how the global community has stepped forward to support India,” Shriya tells P&Q.
In Mumbai, seven management students at Universal Business School have launched a Covid task force to share verified and crucial leads on resources like plasma and oxygen tanks and availability of hospital beds in 13 pandemic-hit states across India. Meghana Puri, who is also in Mumbai, describes the situation and her concerns about reaching Philadelphia to start MBA classes this fall. Her first classes are scheduled for late August.
“Social media is inundated with desperate requests for help from family and friends, and people are dying every day (in far higher numbers than reported) due to a lack of medical treatment/oxygen,” she says. “Doctors are worked off their feet, and mental health is at a low. I’m spending much of my time volunteering to help people in need find resources (e.g., hospital beds, medicine), or in helping with fundraisers, to feel like I’m at least doing something.”
With everything going on, she says, it’s hard to see friends and peers in other countries returning to normal and meeting up. “I don’t blame them at all, but it’s impossible for me to engage with them when it feels like we’re in such a crisis.”
‘MORE UNCERTAINTY TO AN ALREADY STRESSFUL SITUATION’
Even though students are excepted from the newly announced restrictions on travel to the U.S., Puri has concerns.
“The situation is incredibly uncertain, as with the recent travel ban, all U.S. embassies in India are mostly closed,” she says. “So even though students are exempt from the travel restrictions, we may not be able to get a visa appointment in time. While emergency visa appointments are available, the embassy is so overloaded they’re only allowing those 30 days before the start of the course.
“But if we only get our visas that late, we might not be able to reach the U.S. in time to quarantine/vaccinate before the start of our programs. I can’t book flights because I have no idea when I might fly, which will only make my flight more expensive.
“The travel ban has only added more uncertainty to an already stressful situation. I understand banning tourist travel, but students with courses beginning before August 1, 2021 do not seem to be exempt (and therefore cannot travel), and highly skilled workers (H-1B visas) are also stuck in India – where’s the sense in that?”
CONSULATES HAVE SHUT DOWN, INCREASING UNCERTAINTY
Harshita Bidasaria, admitted to this fall’s incoming MBA cohort at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, says because the travel ban from the U.S. excludes students with F-1 visas at schools with a program start date later than August 1, and Darden starts August 2, she should qualify for a National Interest Exception. But Bidasaria, a product manager for a women’s health and wellness company in Bangalore, says there is no guarantee she will be able to obtain a visa in time.
“All consulates in India have shut normal operations indefinitely,” she tells P&Q. “I am hoping that our visa requests will be accommodated for under the expedited route. I don’t have flights planned given the visa uncertainty but would ideally like to fly out mid-July.
“The country is going through a huge crisis with an overburdened health infrastructure. Poor decision making on the part of the system has further worsened the case. However, I’m hopeful that with vaccination now opening up to everyone above the age of 18, we will be able to bring the graph down rather quickly. What’s also heartwarming amidst this chaos is how people are coming together to help one another. I’m amazed by some citizen led initiatives and it has given me hope for the future.”
Darden’s International Studies Office has been in regular touch with all internationals, she says. “We heard from them only yesterday — they’ve explained that as it stands today, students should be eligible to apply for an emergency appointment, and that they are happy to provide a letter of support addressed to the U.S. consulate on our behalf.”
Bidasaria, a deferred admit, has closely witnessed the support her school extended last year to admits to make it possible for them to reach school. “They included a J-term (which is unlikely this year though) to accommodate students who couldn’t start in fall and that speaks volume to me about how students are at the center of decision-making at Darden.”
As of today, she adds, Darden is planning for an in-person start this fall.
A PLAN ‘IF THINGS GO SOUTH’
Ayush Bhatnagar, an admit to the University of Michigan Ross School of Business MBA Class of 2023, is currently in New Delhi. Like the others, he is deeply worried about getting to campus for the start of fall classes.
“Due to the current circumstances there has been us facing issues getting MBA funding documents verified and also visa slots with the embassy,” Bhatnagar tells P&Q. “But while currently travel to the States is banned, since students on the F-1 visa come under the NIE (National Interest Exceptions) we still might be able to reach the school eventually.”
He adds that he hasn’t heard much from the Ross School except that Indian admits may have the option to attend virtual classes in the first semester “if things go south.”