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‘If only I could teleport home’: International students and COVID-19

Amid travel bans, visa uncertainties, financial barriers, many international students find themselves in limbo, craft new ways to stay connected

When news broke that the University was moving to remote learning and telling students to leave College Hill, Jessica Zhu ’20 was not surprised. 

She was expecting the announcement. In many ways, it felt as though her whole semester had been building to that moment. Zhu, a senior from Beijing, had returned to campus back in January wracked with worries about her family's safety back home in China: News reports were beginning to trickle in about a new virus sweeping parts of the country. She placed an order for masks on Amazon just in case the situation in China worsened, so that she would be able to send supplies to her parents. She spent time consoling a close friend who attends Wuhan University located in the province which would become the epicenter of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic after it was announced that the university would close indefinitely.

As the semester plowed full steam ahead, death tolls climbed in China, and then around the globe. Zhu began to comprehend that the U.S. was not immune to this crisis and to fear that those around her were not taking it seriously enough. “Do you want us to mail masks to you?” her mother asked a few weeks ago. The tables, it seemed, had turned. “If only I could teleport home,” she thought.

When the March 12 letter from President Christina Paxson P’19 circulated, telling students the semester would continue remotely, it brought a mix of relief, sadness and uncertainty. Zhu was brimming with unanswered questions: Would she be able to travel home? If she left the U.S., would she be able to return to begin work after Brown? What about her visa? 

Certain that other students would be finding themselves in a similar position, Zhu created “Brown Internationals against Coronavirus,” a Facebook group which she hoped would serve as a space for international students to build community, ask questions and find answers. “It was clear that a lot of students might be under distress,” said Zhu. “I wanted everybody to have a place to share information.”

Now, the group has grown to over 800 members and features questions about evolving international travel restrictions, tips for airport hygiene, offers to help with moving and much more.

When Paxson asked students to go home, many including those for whom going home means crossing international borders were left asking: How? For students with extenuating circumstances, Brown provided an option to petition to remain in University housing. Though Zhu, and others, spoke highly of the University’s handling of the situation, many said remaining on a suddenly empty campus presents its own difficulties. 

Zhu could not believe her luck last week when she was able to find a flight back to Beijing at the end of the month. Just two more weeks, and I’ll get to be with my family, she thought. But a couple of days ago, she received the news that her flight was canceled. She will likely be spending the remainder of the semester in her apartment. Her only roommate moved out last week.

To date, 319 undergraduate students remain on campus, 174 of whom are international students, according to Associate Vice President for Campus Life Koren Bakkegard. Many more, like Zhu, remain scattered throughout College Hill, living in their off-campus residences with any friends who also remain or sometimes, no one. 

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="576"]

A decoration for Lunar New Year which is supposed to bring good luck hangs on Zhu's bedroom wall. She brought it with her to Providence when she left home in Beijing at the end of winter break.[/caption] 

Everybody is going through something right now”

For Alberto Trovamala ’20, word came from home via hurried phone calls and instant messages in his family group chat: Italy was shutting down.

When he received notice later that week that the University was asking students to leave campus, Trovamala, who is from Milan, knew that returning home was not a realistic option. As an international student who is used to being far away from home, “I was already working on the assumption that I didn’t know when I was going to see my family,” Trovamala said, speaking hours after Brown announced their transition to remote learning. But COVID-19 had punctured all hope of seeing his family anytime soon.

While his family remains in government-mandated lockdown, Trovamala says he can do nothing but take life one day at a time. “I’m focused on trying not to fall too far behind on classes, trying to graduate on time and supporting my friends,” he said. “You know, everybody is going through something right now.”

But this doesn’t soothe the ever-present worries Trovamala has for the safety of his family, particularly for his two grandmothers, both of whom have compromised immune systems. They haven’t left their homes in weeks. “I don’t know if you’ve heard,” Trovamala said before a long pause; in Italian hospitals, buckling under the load of so many patients, it may become necessary to establish an age limit for access to intensive care, he added.

Trovamala lives on-campus in Machado House. His petition to remain on campus was approved by the University, but he is awaiting news of which residential building he will call “home” for the next few months.

“I’m worried, but I know Brown is doing their best right now,” he said last week. “And I really appreciate the way they are handling this.”

While students who remain on campus continue to take things day by day and make the most of online ways of communicating with loved ones, University faculty and staff are also coming to terms with the semester’s disruption while maintaining their commitment to students. 

“So many colleagues and peer mentors have been dedicated and diligently committed to supporting our international student communities over the last few weeks even while navigating their own health challenges, family concerns and obligations,” wrote Associate Dean for International Students Asabe Poloma in an email to The Herald. 

And though her team’s “visible initiatives and efforts have been dedicated to material concerns and challenges faced by students,” Poloma wrote, they remain “aware of the socio-emotional and psychological impact of these global health challenges as well as the unique challenges faced by international students.”

Following Brown’s announcement, Trovamala set up a meeting with Vice President for Campus Life Eric Estes and then posted on “Brown Internationals against Coronavirus,” the page Zhu created, to crowdsource questions that people wanted answered. Dozens replied.

“Not losing my visa”

Among those who felt they had unanswered questions was Anna Corradi ’20, also a senior from Italy. She felt supported by deans and advisers at the Global Brown Center for International Students, but was particularly warmed by “student-led efforts to build community.” 

Visa limitations topped many international students’ lists of concerns. U.S. government regulations typically allow international students on visas to take just one online class per semester. Students hoping to stay in Providence — or those who are unable to leave — were perplexed at how they could complete the semester with a full online course load without jeopardizing their visa status. Corradi did not even realize this was a possible problem until another student posted in “Brown Internationals against Coronavirus” that the Trump administration had adapted the policy in light of COVID-19. The Facebook page “became an important source of information,” Corradi added. 

Corradi, like Trovamala, is in the process of applying for Optional Practical Training (OPT), which allows students on F-1 visas to work in the U.S. for a 12-month period following graduation. Students are required to be in the U.S. at the time they submit their OPT application.

She’s found herself exhausted from the mental gymnastics of trying to balance and reason the conflicting positives and negatives of remaining in Providence or traveling to her parents, who currently live in Kenya. “For days, I’ve been going back and forth in my mind between choosing to be stable in Providence, in terms of not losing my visa and knowing that in the U.S. I have Brown health insurance,” Corradi said. “But also, knowing that on the other side of the coin, staying here amid closing borders means that I don’t know when I’m next going to see my family.”

Corradi couldn’t help but wonder, “What is the right choice?” to stay or to go? But what does “right” mean in such unprecedented circumstances? She isn’t sure. “It’s tricky knowing that rationally, staying here is the best choice, but right now, given there is so much uncertainty, it would be nice to be with family.”

“My version of being with family”

Maddy Noh ’22 has been thinking a lot about what constitutes “home” in recent days. She, like many others, finds herself bound to remaining in Providence. Most of her extended family, including her parents, live in South Korea and “though things are improving there,” she worries about her ability to return to the U.S. for summer job plans if she travels home now. She has a grandmother in California, but does not want to put her at risk by moving in. “Obviously I want to be home with my parents,” she said, “but logistically, I just don’t think it’s a good idea.”

Her petition to remain in University housing was approved, but she felt growing anxiety that remaining in a dorm would have other mounting health implications. She, along with three other friends who are unable to return to their home countries, began searching online for College Hill homes left vacant from the departure of other Brown students, which they could sublease for the remainder of the semester.

Though she knows the semester ahead will be tough, grounding herself with a couple others will be invaluable, she said. “Since I can’t go to my personal home, being with a few friends is my version of being with family.”

Her parents wish her family could all be together, but they find comfort in knowing there are resources in place to support their daughter some 6,900 miles away. “Since my first step on Brown’s campus, my family has been far away,” Noh said. “But in two short years, so many different people, so many different resources Residential Peer Leaders, Student Support Deans, international coordinating staff, registrar, financial aid teams have helped me.”

“If I leave, I can’t come back for senior year”

For Nazem Droubi ’21, being far away from his family has also become a fact of life: He last saw his parents in Lebanon in 2018, and has not returned to his home country of Syria since the summer of 2016. 

“I’ve kind of got used to it,” he said. “I do accept that my family isn’t really part of my life right now.”

Still, with life in flux and news updates trickling in daily, space between himself and his parents, some 5,500 miles away, has rarely felt so vast. “It really sucks,” he said. “There is no way to sugarcoat it.”

Returning to his parents living in Damascus would oblige Droubi to serve in the Syrian military, as per the country’s compulsory military service laws. 

After fraught discussion, his parents decided to pay the military exemption fee last week. But another obstacle remains: persisting uncertainties around the U.S.-imposed travel bans which place stringent restrictions on travel to the United States for citizens of Libya, among 12 other countries.

They want me to come back,” Droubi said of his parents last week. “But, at the same time, they’re concerned that if I leave, I can’t come back for senior year.”

“How strong the Brown community can be”

By the afternoon of the March 12 University announcement, Trovamala said that multiple people had asked if he needed help with storage, since he wasn’t able to take his belongings home. Others told him they were keeping him and his family in their thoughts. 

Professors had been sending their best wishes and reminding students that they were there for them, Droubi noted. Deans, Noh said, have readily answered questions to the best of their ability. 

For Corradi, though the daily stressors of being far from family remain ever-present, she is warmed by the outpouring of support and coalition-building. “This whole thing has really shown how strong the Brown community can be,” she said, “students and staff alike.”

Zhu is pleased that the Facebook page she created has been able to offer vulnerable students a sliver of reassurance amid so much uncertainty. It felt good to lend a helping hand to a community that has offered her so much, she said. “If it’s the last thing I do at Brown, I’ll be content.”

— Olivia George ’22 is an international student from the U.K. who remains in Providence. 


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