International students adapt to long-distance learning, COVID-19 restrictions

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GRAPHIC BY CHARLES COLEMAN / THE FLAT HAT

Having lived in Beijing for more than 18 years, Jiayi Wu ’22 is now studying at Beijing Normal University as a College of William and Mary student. Wu is not the only Chinese student who is currently studying in Beijing, as the College is working with several study abroad programs to help Chinese students remain in China for the fall 2020 semester in response to the various travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States and the resulting subsequent travel restrictions led many international students to opt to return home last spring and remain in their home countries through the fall semester. In addition to Wu, Yuqiao Li ’22 from China, Suyoung Kim ’22 from South Korea and Maheen Khan ‘22 from Pakistan decided to stay in their countries as a result of the pandemic. 

“I went to my country around March when the school told all the students to head back home,” Kim said in an email. “On my way, I met up with so many high school friends from the airport. I saw people wearing level d suits (wearing goggles, white jump suits, masks) but I enjoyed three cups of benne & jerry chocolate chip cookie dough ice-cream. I was just too stressed out at the moment.”

Some students like Khan and Li experienced greater difficulty returning home. 

“When we got to the airport the airline said that Pakistan had shut its airways, so they weren’t going to be operating the connecting flight,” Khan said in an email. “Then we had shown them all our documents saying that the airway was open, and they had to confirm with lots of people and it turned out that they were actually going to be operating the flight and it was a misunderstanding. After which they let us on, but it was extremely stressful.” 

In order to return to China, Li had at least four stops before her arrival in Shanghai. She also transferred planes in three different countries before arriving at her final destination.

Both uncertainty about the future and the worsening situation of the pandemic drove the students’ decisions to leave the United States.

“I knew that COVID-19 can be spread through asymptomatic patients and this feature will endanger so many people in the states in the near future,” Kim said. 

Khan was concerned that the College would be forced to close again in the fall due to rising COIVID-19 cases. 

Some international students from China are spending their fall 2020 semester taking classes through a study abroad program at Beijing Normal University. COURTESY PHOTO / FREDA DENG

“I made the decision because of the volatility of the situation back then,” Khan said. “The US was doing terribly with its response and I was sure that they would have to shut down mid semester. Therefore, I didn’t want to take the stress or risk of all the traveling and possibly being stranded there, in addition to wasting a bunch of money.”

While the stressful journey and uncertainty about the future have come to an end with the beginning of the new semester, international students are facing new challenges while they navigate attending college outside of the U.S.

“Doing a job in one time zone and taking classes in a different one has made it quite difficult to have a routine or honestly get much sleep. The only good thing that has probably come out of it is the time I’m getting with my family. I haven’t spent this much time with them in years so it’s quite nice being home with them.”

“Doing a job in one time zone and taking classes in a different one has made it quite difficult to have a routine or honestly get much sleep,” Khan said. “The only good thing that has probably come out of it is the time I’m getting with my family. I haven’t spent this much time with them in years so it’s quite nice being home with them.”

As the president of the Korean American Student Association, Kim also finds it challenging to monitor virtual events within the campus organization from across the world. He is also adjusting to the problem of different time zones.

“Luckily, I only have one class at 6 A.M.,” Kim said. “It’s still hard but I can literally wake up at 5:58 A.M. and join the class.”

For students like Wu, who joined the BNU program, the morning rush hour into Beijing created for an unforgettable first day of classes.

“We need to take a 1.5 hours ride to a different district for classes, so we set up early at six on that day,” Wu said. “However, we all underestimated the traffic condition during the rush hours, and I totally missed my first class of the semester when I arrived at the campus.”

In addition to the traffic, the sense of belonging is also a problem for Wu. Chinese universities divide students into different cohorts, referred to “classes,” within a department, which is quite different from the system in American universities.

“While no one would notice unless I tell somebody — an identity that I haven’t experienced, and probably very few students have experienced before —I’m studying abroad in my own country.”

“I don’t know how to reply when a girl asked about my class number,” Wu said. “We are not assigned to any classes since we are ‘international students’ in some sense. I suddenly realized that though I am studying at where I have grown up, I do not belong here. I am an international student who is ‘studying abroad.’ While no one would notice unless I tell somebody — an identity that I haven’t experienced, and probably very few students have experienced before —I’m studying abroad in my own country.”

Nevertheless, studying at home also brings unexpected happiness to international students.

“I feel so glad that I can just enjoy these familiar Chinese cuisines for a whole semester,” Li said. “You can get a bowl of mouth-watering beef noodle using less than one dollar.”

Kim added that being home again is an adjustment in some ways.

“I sometimes miss the independence, but my parents help me with laundries and meals so I’m very satisfied,” Kim said.

Although many international students will not return to campus this fall, they are still connected with the school through College offices, such as the Reves Center for International Studies, in anticipation of their eventual return to campus.

“They’ve been very responsive and held various mental related events to calm the international students down,” Kim said.