Shortly after the NBA suspended its season and the 2020 NCAA Tournament was canceled, Jasmine Simmons, an Australian international student playing basketball at Oregon State University, realized just how much the coronavirus could impact her life.
The virus, which started in China and has since spread around the world, has infected nearly 245,000 people and killed more than 10,000 as of early Friday, according to the Johns Hopkins University data dashboard. In the last week, millions of people have been forced to work from home or lost their jobs, countries have closed borders and schools have moved to online learning models, effectively closing campuses.
The pandemic has left international students of all ages scrambling: Do they stay in America? Do they go home and risk being quarantined in an unfamiliar place? What happens if, or when, dorms are closed permanently?
“It’s stressful,” said Simmons, a 21-year-old sophomore from Mildura, Australia, located in the southeast part of the country. “I want to be with my family, but going to the airport seems like the worst decision right now. Also, if I left, I don’t know when I’d be able to get back. It’s been a pretty emotional week.”
It’s been a anxiety-filled week, too, Simmons said: Watching the news and talking with her family has been “eye-opening.”
“Fear,” she said, “has been instilled in so many people.”
That includes students thousands of miles from their families. Hundreds of colleges across the U.S. have closed their campuses, canceling in-person classes, moving to online learning modules and encouraging students to head home while they wait out the virus.
When home is across the ocean, that’s not easy.
“The practical reality is that our international students have challenges in doing that,” said Dulce Dorado, the director of international students and programs at UC-San Diego, where almost 9,000 international students are enrolled, nearly one-third of the university’s total population. “Some of them are from areas that were really high impacted, and they can’t relocate because of high risk.”
Like many campuses, UCSD residential and food services buildings remain open for students who have no other options. But it’s a fluid situation, and students and staff everywhere are trying to trying to make adjustments in real time.
Coronavirus concerns: ‘What if I got stuck in an airport somewhere?’
In Nashville, Eduard Tataru, a 21-year-old sophomore studying computer science, returned from spring break on March 9 to news that Vanderbilt University was planning to move to an online-only system until the end of the month. He figured he’d wait it out.
But within days, Vanderbilt had canceled in-person classes for the rest of the semester. By that time, Moldova, where Tataru is from, had closed its borders and shuttered its airport. Getting in through a neighboring country — Ukraine or Romania — isn’t likely either.
“It’s moving so quickly every day,” Tataru said. “Finding direct flights is hard, too — what if I got stuck in an airport somewhere?”
Information is coming at warp speed, which makes the situation challenging for students and families, said San Diego’s Dorado. On her campus, administrators have started organizing weekly webinars — they start late at night, Pacific Time, when it’s early the next day overseas — with Mandarin interpreters to help explain to families what they’re doing to keep students safe.
At Yale, Aaron Feng, 24, is a graduate student in environmental management. Originally from Wuhan, China — where the virus originated — Feng went back to visit family over winter break in December. From there he went to India, with day trips to Singapore and Abu Dhabi. When he returned to the U.S. on Jan. 19, his family in Wuhan was just starting to feel the impact of its city going into lockdown.
As he learned more about the virus, Feng recalled reading about a man who carried SARS to a handful of countries in Southeast Asia, deemed by many to be a “super infector.”
What if I’m like that guy, Feng worried.
Fortunately, Feng hasn’t experienced any coronavirus symptoms since returning to the states and his family in Wuhan has also remained coronavirus-free.
Now, as he waits out the virus at his off-campus house, Feng is focused on the future, even though he doesn’t know what that will bring, either. Two weeks ago, he got a job offer from a company in New York but with an economy in free fall, he’s recently been told by that company that there’s “lots of uncertainty” when it comes to hiring.
“For international students, the visa issue is going to further complicate things,” Feng said. “If you’re a student and you do want to stay, what happens if your visa expires during this? How do you find a job?”
For international students away from home, coronavirus is ‘scary’ and ‘stressful’
It’s not just college kids who are worried about the transition to life after the virus — foreign exchange students in high schools have been impacted, too.
In Channahon, Illinois, about an hour southwest of Chicago, Jill Geers and her family have spent the past seven months hosting two foreign exchange students: John, from China, and Lucca, from Brazil. Coronavirus has been a “tremendous stressor” for Geers, her husband and their three biological sons.
Though they’d originally decided as a group that having John and Lucca stay in America would be best for everyone, Lucca soon received a frazzled email from his exchange program insisting he return to Brazil. Against Geers’ better judgement — “he’s had a cough for two months, and now he’s gonna breathe all that recycled air for how many hours?” — she put him on a plane home. She’s not sure if, or when, he’ll come back to the states.
For now, John will stay in Illinois, but Geers can sympathize with how hard that must be for his family.
“Your maternal instinct is to have your child home with you,” she said. “But if you step away from that, the rational part of you knows it’s probably better to follow the CDC’s guidelines, to respect the lockdowns and keep them sheltered from germs at the airport.
“But I know it’s easy for me to say that, because my kids are all physically with me in this country.”
In Sandy, Oregon, Manon Bebin also opted for safety.
An 18-year-old senior from Brittany, France, in the country’s northwest region, Bebin has decided to stay in America because “I love my host family, I’m having so much fun with them.” She said she was giving a choice by her exchange program, whereas others were not.
“My friend from Spain who is also here, she said she was staying at first,” Bebin said. “But, then, the next morning, she said, ‘They’re forcing me to go home.’”
Bebin worries that if she were to go back to France, she’d potentially get stuck in quarantine in an unfamiliar city, by herself. “Being alone in a room for two weeks in Paris, not being able to see anyone, I’m not ready for that,” she said.
So while she can, she’s soaking up the time with her American family, which includes four siblings.
“Sometimes, I try to imagine the situation in France and it’s really scary,” she said. “It’s stressful here, too. But my host family, they’re like my real brothers and sisters, I don’t want to leave them. But still I’m scared that in a couple days, I’m going to get an email saying I have to go home to France.
“I’m waiting for something, but maybe I’m waiting for nothing. I don’t know. It’s stressful.”