When I hugged my parents goodbye and boarded a plane from Lagos, Nigeria to Chicago, USA, I couldn’t have imagined the freshman year that was ahead of me. In fact, if you had asked me 10 months ago what I thought my greatest challenge would be studying abroad, I would have probably said adjusting to the brutal Michigan winters. Having survived my first winter thanks to my extra-large parka, my empty college campus and I welcome the blossoming flowers of spring as the world faces the spread of COVID-19. It’s a reality none of us could have foretold, though it is one we must now deal with.
As an international student, this virus affects me in particular ways. Being over 6,000 miles away from home, my family and I cannot share live updates, hugs, home cooked meals or anything that might offer some sort of comfort in these uncertain times. Rather, we maintain contact via email and try to Skype every three to four days in order to make sure everyone is doing okay. The sense of loneliness that accompanies this way of living is outstanding as I am now also far away from the college friends and professors who make up a great deal of what life abroad means. In the wake of COVID-19, the meals and conversations I would share with friends in the dining hall have turned to styrofoam take-out containers which I eat out of in my tiny dorm room–alone. In fact, my dorm room now embodies the college experience I once looked forward to. Starting with my beautiful commute from my bed to my desk to the state-of-the-art classrooms on Zoom and Google Meets to the great meals that are now eaten alone on my bed. This is truly not what I had in mind for my first year in the United States.
This perspective is, however, not the only side to the international student dilemma in light of COVID-19. For my international friends who were able to make it to their respective home countries, the struggle now is attending classes over a 13-hour time difference. A lack of conducive study spaces and wobbly internet access makes this shift to remote learning absurdly hard for those of us who found the courage to cross national borders for our education. One friend from Malaysia, Fara Ling, has had to join her online classes at 1:30 a.m. while maneuvering stealthily around her home in order not to wake up her entire household. As a Dance major, a major challenge for Fara is that COVID-19 has forced her to not have any community to dance with, not even virtually. Because of the time difference, she has to watch recordings of class and then film herself dancing, meaning all the discipline has to come from herself. These challenges and others cannot really be blamed on any one person. Rather, they require the colleges, friends and host countries of international students to understand that COVID-19 presents a somewhat more complex struggle for those of us who even during normal times face a different kind of college adjustment because we are thousands of miles away from home and are living in cultures we do not fully understand. Colleges should respond to this with both deep empathy and visible action as these are the qualities that will guarantee that the international student perspective on COVID-19 is heard, understood and addressed. Below, I have recommended some steps that colleges should adopt in order to create the physical and virtual spaces that international students need to thrive in this crisis. These are steps that can provide some semblance of home for those of us who have never been further away from certainty.
- The COVID-19 situation has clouded the world with uncertainty. For international students, there are multiple possibilities to be considered and each one presents permutations that must be calculated. If the governor issues a stay at home order, what are the implications for my movement on campus? If my country shuts down its international borders, will I be able to make it home? If my flight back home gets cancelled, how will I navigate being stuck in a foreign airport where I do not speak the language of the country? With the death rate rising, will my immunocompromised mother get infected and will I have the opportunity to say a proper goodbye if the worst happens? These questions and more are the ones international students are struggling with during this pandemic. Colleges need to be aware of these stressors and these institutions must act by providing the campus’ mental health officials with the resources and data they need to check up on the well-being of international students. The argument might be made that students should know these mental health resources are available and foreign students should be the ones to reach out if they need anything. We should, however, empathetically consider that the cultures of these international students are varied and many of us are not used to openly speaking up about our problems. These colleges therefore have a part to play to ensure that their foreign student population is finding ways to stay afloat with this pandemic.
- Institutions need to make provisions for academic extensions and accommodations that international students could use if they are not able to turn in their homework on time due to unforeseen challenges. We know that some students might take advantage of this grace that extensions provide by delaying their work to the last minute, but for the countless others who are diligent and hardworking, these academic provisions need to be made for when family dynamics, emotional health, physical wellbeing and other unforeseen elements interfere with academic work.
- For those students who have remained on campus, colleges should make adequate provisions for accommodation and food. Hope College has shown great leadership in this aspect by allowing students who are unable to make it to their home countries to continue to live on campus. Lunch and dinner are also being provided by Hope’s amazing and safety-conscious dining staff. It is important that other colleges should follow suit as this helps to guarantee the nutrition of those who might otherwise be stranded.
- In respect to the future that none of us are able to predict, I suggest that colleges plan with the worst-case scenario in mind. For many students, this semester will end in less than a month and this is a timeframe international students must keep in mind. With things being hard to predict with respect to COVID-19, many international students will probably not be able to return to their respective homes even over the summer because their plans have been disrupted. This ushers in a new number of worries for international students as colleges are technically not obligated to provide housing and food for them during the summer. The challenge then becomes how will we afford to house, feed and sustain ourselves during this period. I, for example, was caught in the dilemma over my summer plans and looked up possible flights back home. The cost of the flights ranged from $1500 to $12,000.
These are figures I could not even think of being able to afford and my situation is shared by many international students. It would therefore be extremely helpful if colleges could guarantee their international students who are not graduating in this academic year a place to stay during the summer. This would not only reduce the nagging anxieties that many students and their parents have, but would also allow us to focus more intently on the academic work that brought us halfway across the world in the first place.
The challenges of COVID-19 are not easy ones to discuss or reflect on. The world is facing a situation it was not in any way prepared for and there are no specific guidelines on how to approach the rapidly developing issue. We must, however, stay true to the values of empathy, perseverance and open mindedness that have strengthened the ties in our highly interconnected world. Now, maybe more than ever, we must put ourselves in the shoes of international students who are so far from away from home and whose major identity is sometimes the fact that they are somewhat outsiders in their host country. Now, more than ever, we must remind these students that they can find some peace in this rumbling uncertainty. And that peace will come because we will demonstrate that this country and college, though away from what we might call home, can be our home while we are studying here.
Marvellous Ogudoro is a published author and freshman at Hope College where he represents the International Student Community on Student Congress. He is interested in the intersections between philosophy, political science, economics and communication. You can learn more about him at marvellousogudoro.com
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