Wesleyan’s decision to transition to remote learning and suspend on-campus activities on March 11, due to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19), forced much of the student body off campus, in order to ensure that social distancing measures could effectively mitigate the spread of the virus.
For many international students, this meant that they needed to quickly make difficult choices about how and where they would complete the rest of the spring semester. Students were forced to make challenging decisions about whether to return home, stay on campus, or seek out other alternatives.
Annie Ning ’20, a U.S. Citizen who lives in Suzhou, China, was unable to return home because of the COVID-19 situation in China and because of travel restrictions that prevented her returning home.
“It wasn’t really a decision,” Ning said. “I live in China, and at the time that everything was happening, by the time that there was a thought that I needed to leave campus, China was not in the best position health-wise…. I’m a U.S. Citizen, my parents are too, but we just live there, so right now I’m still not able to go back to China because of visa stuff. They’ve suspended re-entry into the country.”
One of the reasons Naomi Okada ’20 remained on campus is because, as an international student from Tokyo, Japan, she knew that the University would likely accept her petition to stay.
“Because I am an international student I knew that petitioning for housing wasn’t going to be as much of a difficulty for me, especially with the reason of going back to a high-risk country and everything, I knew that if I petitioned I would able to stay, which is just like a big privilege that international students have in a weird way.” Okada said.
Like Okada, Philippe Bungabong ’22, who is from Manila, Philippines, told The Argus that his petition process was fairly straightforward.
“It was actually quite smooth for me,” he said. “I just wrote a quick essay on why I wanted to stay and…I was approved right away.”
According to Director of International Student Services Chia-Ying Pan, approximately 200 international students are currently staying on campus, and all self-identified international students who applied to stay were approved to do so.
Others remain on campus because of the travel restrictions in place, not only in their home countries, but in the Unites States. For instance, President Donald Trump has banned the entry of non-U.S. citizens who have visited the following countries in the past 14 days: China, Iran, the 26 European countries in the Schengen Area, the United Kingdom, and Ireland.
Bungabong decided not to travel back home because of concerns that he might not be able to re-enter the United States in order to complete his summer internship with a blockchain infrastructure company in New York City. In July, he will also participate in Dartmouth College Tuck School of Business’ Business Bridge Program.
“I am not an American citizen, and I have stuff lined up for the summer, starting in May,” Bungabong said. “And if I go home and this pandemic hasn’t receded yet, I might not be allowed back into the U.S., and I just wanted to help maximize my chances of pushing through with my summer plans, and staying on campus is the solution to that.”
At present, Bungabong plans to stay on campus over the summer to complete both his internship and the Dartmouth program remotely.
One reason Kate Liu ’22 decided to stay on campus instead of returning to Changsha, China, was because of her family’s worries over the dangers of traveling during the pandemic.
“For my family, they’re from China, so they kind of just experienced the whole coronavirus outbreak, and they’re really worried that if I choose to go home, I might have more exposure than staying on campus ‘cause they really don’t trust me spending 16 hours on the airplane wearing a face mask,” Liu said. “And honestly, I don’t think going home right now is the best thing for my family also…. I was not supposed to be home until May. I think me going home at this time after they just experienced what happened, it’s going to be a burden to them.”
Others opted to go home, such as Lucie Plasse ’20, who is a dual U.S.-French citizen. Plasse returned to Lille, France, after deciding against staying with family members in the United States out of concerns that her travels could jeopardize their health.
“My mom’s family is from the U.S., and her family lives in Alabama, but the thing is that all my family members that are in Alabama are about the age of 15, and I didn’t want to be with them especially because I would be traveling and everything,” Plasse said. “And then also I have my grandfather in New York, which was going to be the other option, but his wife has stage four cancer, and again, I don’t want to be the one who’s going to bring any kind of virus into the apartment. And both my parents here are in really good health, they don’t have any issues or anything, and my brother’s here as well and it just made sense for me to come home here.”
Leon Ristov ’21 also decided to return home to Skopje, Macedonia, for a number of reasons.
“I guess the most important thing in my decision was I want it to be with my family, I wouldn’t say I was scared of the coronavirus, I just thought I should just be with my mom,” he said. “But then, the other aspect was it worked better to go back home just because of the refund. Financially, it’s more than I pay actually to the University at least per semester.”
In addition to receiving the Residential Comprehensive Fee (RCF) refund, the University also covered the costs of Ristov’s flight home and paid for his storage.
“I’m very satisfied with the way financially, at least in my situation, the University managed to refund basically everything, and I really didn’t expect them to do that,” Ristov said.
However, he noted that the University has taken longer than expected to reimburse him for his flight and storage costs. While he has received the money for his flight, at the time of publication he had not received any money to cover the costs of his storage, despite arriving home in mid-March.
“And right now, family-wise it’s getting harder because they are pay cuts, very significant ones,” Ristov said. “So I really need it and it’s not here.”
Instead of returning home to Hong Kong or staying on campus, Shirmai Chung ’22 decided that her best option would be to stay with a friend in New Jersey. This way, she could receive the RCF refund, which was given to all students who did not remain on campus, but would not have to return to Hong Kong.
“So I’m actually an international student on financial aid,” Chung said. “And so when I was told that the RCF refund would be available to me if I moved off campus—that’s a very attractive option for me to be off-campus—I’m also immunocompromised…. Although the school is willing to pay for my flight, back to Hong Kong if I wish, it is also not exactly the ideal situation for me given the problems I have back at home. So this to me is the best option, and I’m fortunate enough to have the option, but I know a lot of international students on financial aid did not have this choice.”
For international students who decided to return home, the time difference for classes has been a major change they need to deal with.
“In order for me to stay fully awake for my classes, I need to basically go to sleep at 3 a.m, and then I wake up at noon or 1 p.m., and then I have to do my homework, and then I have class and I have dinner and then I go to bed again super late,” Plasse said. “And that’s fine on a weekend—but when you’re doing that every single day of the week, on top of being in front of your computer for every single one of your classes, it’s so exhausting.”
Having to take classes from France, which is six hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time, has been a difficult transition for Plasse.
“It kinda sucks, to be completely honest, because I understand why they told professors to not change the time because I can understand how it would fuck up the whole schedule, but also, there are international students who deserve the same kind of education as everyone else,” Plasse said. “And I feel like we’re kind of not being taken into consideration. There wasn’t even an email sent out about how to help you adjust to these things. Nothing. It was literally just, ‘These are your times, deal with it.’”
While Plasse feels the University’s administration could have done more for international students, she said her professors have also been understanding of her situation.
“I understand that the Wesleyan administration has been overwhelmed with everything, but I feel like there hasn’t been a lot of help given, in terms of the academics for international students, you know, that was kind of lacking,” Plasse said. “But, I mean, the other professors are being accommodating in terms of workload and everything…. My professors were just like, ‘We’re just trying to get through the semester, and then we’ll deal with everything else.’ So yeah, I feel like they’re also very overwhelmed.”
Like Plasse, Ristov is also six hours ahead of EST. He told The Argus that all of his professors have been flexible and accommodating.
“So far every professor I’ve asked to accommodate me in any way, they’ve been very understanding about it,” he said. “And I feel very comfortable also asking for any sort of extension or just if I miss something.”
Similarly, Liu cited the 12-hour time difference between Changsha and Connecticut as another reason she decided not to return home.
“For me, when I first heard the news, I didn’t even really think about going home ‘cause I think one of my most—the biggest concern for me is that the GPA this semester for me is really important,” Liu said. “So if I go home, the time difference is something that I am not sure if I can deal with.”
Sarah Ardhani ’23, who decided to remain on campus instead of returning to Malang, Indonesia, has found being on campus to be helpful in keeping up with her classes.
“I think I have it less tough than other people have it, because I’m still at school—it’s not as comfy,” Ardhani said. “If I was back home in Indonesia, I would have zero motivation because it’s comfortable, there’s family there. But since I’m here on campus, I think there’s a certain advantage that I can feel like I’m still studying, sort of.”
Liu sees the issue of the time difference as an obstacle for international students that other students at the University may not have had to consider.
“I definitely feel like for international students, the decision whether to go home or not is bigger than most domestic students,” Liu said. “This is a big thing they need to consider, because home for them is far…so it’s not as easy as to say, if I go home, I’ll have a three hour difference.’ Sometimes it could be a 12 hour difference or, or 11 hour difference…. I feel like everyone made the decision for their own personal reasons, and I think they all were being respected.”
COVID-19 also raises many uncertainties for international students’ summer plans, and for the coming fall semester.
“It’s freaky for some students who really just want to go home at this time, which I completely understand—it’s so stressful, you want to go home, there’s parents who are worrying—who have language barriers—waiting for you ‘cause they’re so nervous about what’s going on in the United States,” Liu said. “So that’s tricky. I hope I can go home in May, but I don’t know the situation right now. I can’t really book a flight ticket now. So all I can do is just wait and see.”
Ardhani currently has a flight booked for May 16 to fly back to Indonesia from JFK Airport in New York City.
“I do have a flight, but I have to check if they’re still gonna be flying because it might be canceled and everything,” Adhani said. “I still didn’t get the notification that it might be canceled, so I don’t know.”
Okada plans to return to Tokyo for the summer but plans to come back to the United States in August to begin her MFA in Acting.
“I will be flying back unless we still have no idea if classes starting in the fall are going to be in-person or if they’re going to be online,” she said. “We still don’t know about that yet. In any case, I will be starting in August wherever I am.”
After Anna Nguyen ’22 learned that her summer internship with an NGO based in Cambodia and Vietnam was changed to a remote position, she decided to stay on campus until the fall semester rather than return to her family in Vietnam. Nguyen will also be a Community Advisor for Residential Life over the summer. However, she emphasized the varied experiences of international students and the exacerbated challenges with employment she believes international students will face due to the pandemic.
“Since this whole thing started, I’ve been telling people to try to take a day at a time, but then you can’t just take a day at a time, you know, because there are so many things at stake, especially for students who are international students—so many more things at stake,” Nguyen said. “Things like internships or their OPT [Optical Practical Training] application. A CPT [Curricular Practical Training] application is already difficult for international students to find a job in the U.S.—now this whole thing happened and the economy is crashing everywhere, this is going to be extra difficult on a lot of international students. It’s going to be so much more stressful than just the normal time.”
As U.S. travel restrictions and immigration policies continue to change over the course of the pandemic, the University’s Office of International Student Affairs (OISA) will continue to provide guidance for international students.
“Wesleyan University is not able to overwrite the travel restrictions put in place by countries around the world, including the Department of Homeland Security in the U.S.,” Pan wrote in an email to The Argus. “However, OISA will have the most up-to-date immigration information and will provide guidance in regard to students’ re-entry experiences. Students should feel free to reach out if they have any questions or concerns.”
Claire Isenegger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @claireisenegger.
Jiyu Shin can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @jiyu_shin.