The return home from college this semester is complicated for any student — testing requirements, the transition to all-online classes and quarantine periods. For international students, these challenges are compounded by travel advisories, cancelled flights and a fear that they will not be able to make it back in the spring.
Hephzibah Rajan, a sophomore at Quinnipiac University, hasn’t seen her family in Oman since August 2019. In mid-March when COVID-19 hit the U.S. and everyone left campus, she tried to leave, too.
“Oman shut down their airport two days before I had to take my flight,” Rajan said. “Because of that, I just ended up staying here the entire summer.”
Quinnipiac provided Rajan with housing and she landed a summer internship. Between working and Zoom calls with her sister in India, she managed to mask how much she missed home.
“There were Zoom calls (with my sister) and they would be going over the span of two weeks, the same Zoom call,” Rajan said. “We would never cut that call. We would watch each other sleep.”
With a rise in cases at Quinnipiac and all students expected to move out before Thanksgiving, Rajan is hoping that this is the break when she will finally make it home.
“There’s been a lot of changes with my flight — the timing has changed multiple times,” Rajan said. “Those multinational companies are going through so much right now. I was supposed to fly out on the 20th and arrive on the 21st Oman time. Now it has been moved ahead by eight hours. This has happened quite a few times.”
Rajan is not alone in her struggle to return home. Genesis Iscoa, also a sophomore at Quinnipiac, has spent the semester living with her sister in Atlanta, Georgia. Iscoa has been in Georgia since she traveled there in March to spend spring break with her sister, but her home is in Honduras.
“My parents didn’t want me to take a plane in the midst of that,” Iscoa said. “I stayed here.”
When the fall semester rolled around, unlike Rajan, Iscoa attended classes remotely because she has asthma and didn’t want to risk contracting the virus on campus or in a residence hall. Everything was settled until July when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) decided that all international students who were not attending in-person classes would have to leave the country.
“Quinnipiac shouldn’t be a problem for international students because they had a hybrid model,” Iscoa said. “But I didn’t want to go back to campus. The government was saying I couldn’t do it online.”
The ruling was reversed later that month after petitions and lawsuits, but that period was distressing for students like Iscoa who could not return to campus for health reasons.
Mahlet Sugebo, a senior at Quinnipiac, hasn’t been able to return to her family in Kenya since January 2019. When COVID-19 hit, she left campus and headed to Colorado where her uncle lives. While she did return to Quinnipiac for classes on-campus this semester, she will not return home for winter break.
“I was trying to look and see if I would be able to come back in terms of my visa,” Sugebo said. “The earliest date they had for a visa appointment … was May. There was no way I would be able to go back and get a visa in time for spring semester.”
Unlike Sugebo, Iscoa and Raja, John Ahn, a sophomore at UConn, will return home to Korea this winter break. But he will not be coming back to Storrs in the spring.
“My sister is having a wedding in March and if I stayed here for the next semester, I would have to go back anyway,” Ahn said. “But also the food kind of sucks. And I don’t really want to continue this lifestyle anymore.”
Before Ahn leaves, he will be tested along with all other residential students, according to Stephanie Reitz, a spokeswoman for UConn.
“All residential students are required to be exit-tested prior to checking out of the residence halls and returning home,” Reitz said. “ISSS (International Student & Scholar Services) works with our partners at SHaW (Student Health and Wellness) to identify testing resources for students, whether those tests are on-campus or through community health providers.”
Being away from home without a definite date for return takes a toll.
“If I want to leave, I need to guarantee for myself that I am going to be able to get a visa to come back,” Sugebo said. “A week before I came (to Colorado) I emailed my international student coordinator and I asked her if it would be a risk if I went back home. She replied that there was a ‘very considerable risk’ that if I left I wouldn’t be able to come back.”
While Sugebo said she’s been keeping up with her family via texts and phone calls, she tries to distract herself from how much she misses home.
“Every day I wake up and I am like, ‘I hope they are having a great day,’” Sugebo said. “Every time they go out for hikes and stuff they send me pictures in the family group chat and ugh I wish I was there. It puts me in a weird situation.”
Sugebo said she has considered taking a year or a semester off, but has ultimately decided to finish her education now.
“Some days are harder than others,” Sugebo said. “Some days it’s easier because I’m busy with school or with friends, but days where I don’t have things to do, it is easy to get in my head about missing family and missing home.”
Travel isn’t the only difficulty that international students face as a result of COVID-19. Ahn is in the process of trying to figure out where to store all of his belongings while he returns home for the next semester.
“The storage thing is kind of expensive,” Ahn said. “It makes sense because I would be storing my things until next year basically.”
When Ahn returns home to Korea, he will be taking classes online in the spring and facing a huge time zone difference.
Reitz said that UConn professors will be accommodating to students like Ahn.
“Students are able to choose the course modality that works best for them, be it courses taught synchronously or asynchronously,” Reitz said. “Faculty are also encouraged to record synchronously taught lectures and make those available for students to watch at an alternate time, or provide options for students to take tests/exams during times that work better for their time zones.”
Despite these modifications, Ahn said his class schedule still includes inconveniences.
“I try to pick the online classes that aren’t synchronous, but there weren’t many,” Ahn said. “I try to pick all of the morning and really late classes, but Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday I have class at 1 a.m. And then on Wednesday I have lab at 7 a.m.”
For Sugebo, testing posed yet another difficulty. While all domestic students at Quinnipiac were able to get a COVID-19 saliva test mailed to their house before the semester started, international students were not.
“I don’t remember what day they said they were going to send it to us, but the day came and I never got anything,” said Sugebo, who was spending the summer in Colorado. She learned that international students were not being included in the testing.
“We were responsible for finding our own separate testing, which was difficult because we had to do it within a week before,” Sugebo said. “No one told me I wasn’t going to get the test. I found that out after asking myself.”