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International students weighed risks of going home over break

Quarantines, flight cancellations complicated international travel

In her room at home in South Africa, International Mentoring Program Coordinator Mpumi Tshabalala ’23 attached photos of the Stephen Robert ’62 Campus Center and her dorm room to her wall to remind her of Brown after she was sent home in March 2020. Over winter break, she returned back to those photos in her South Africa home for the first time in a year. Concern about travel restrictions in May and August had dissuaded her, and she almost didn’t go home for the break. 

Her experience is typical of many international students, who had to decide between going home, where they would face quarantines and an uncertain return, and remaining on campus and not seeing family for the holidays.  

Tshabalala had a flight scheduled, but said she talked to deans and decided to remain in Providence due to the numerous flight cancellations. She was also concerned that not being able to return to campus could jeopardize her visa, which allows her to study in the U.S.  

But after spending Christmas in the States with a friend, she ended up making the trip home when travel restrictions toSouth Africa were lifted in late December, she said.  


Jerry Chen ’23.5, on the other hand, stayed in Providence in his apartment for the entirety of break.  To go back to his home in Shanghai would have meant  at least 14 days of government-mandated quarantine. After completing quarantine, he would’ve then had to use a government tracking app that would assign him a status code — green, yellow or red — which would dictate what he would be allowed to do. 

Chen tried to make the most of his break in Providence.  He de-compressed from a hectic fall semester, worked on planning a sustainable investing conference that he’s involved with, spent about two weeks with his mother — who was in the U.S. on a business trip — and made trips to Boston and Amherst to visit friends.  

It was strange to see the campus and streets empty at the start of break, he said. But he had experienced the same thing when he stayed on campus as others left in March 2020.  

And though Chen hasn’t been home for a year, he doesn’t mind being on his own.  “I’m not a person that misses home that much, partly because I’ve always lived kind of independently and I don’t rely on my parents that much,” he said. Plus, it’s preparation for life after college, he added.  

The Global Brown Center organized activities for students on campus. Andrew Heald, the center’s program director, said that the center’s student staff members in Providence got access to snacks for hosting events.  

Program Coordinator Natalia Roman Alicea said they also set up a group chat for students who would remain at the University during break, which 68 people joined.   

IMP coordinators and other international students held casual gatherings, Tshabalala said, but plans for movie nights were canceled because of COVID-19 concerns.  

According to Sherab Dorji ’22.5, a student from Bhutan who stayed on campus, Residential Life also organized activities, including offering movie tickets, a tour of the RISD Museum, a raffle to go skating in Providence and a meal with President Christina Paxson P’19.  

Health Services, CAPS, Brown EMS and the Administrator on Call remained available to help students, according to an announcement by the Division of Campus Life.  

Despite the University’s attempts to help international students, for Tshabalala, the uncertainty was especially difficult.  She thinks it’s part of the reason people didn’t go home. “You never really know what’s going to happen.  You never know when flights are going to get canceled or not get canceled,” she said. “You never know if your own country or the U.S. or other countries are going to put in place travel restrictions.”


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