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Uncertainty, yearnings and hope: international students amid COVID-19

May 1, 2020

When President Clayton Rose first announced that the College would transition to remote learning on March 11, the news set off a firestorm of messages in “ISA Bowdoin,” a WhatsApp group chat for members of the International Students Association (ISA). In the frantic 12 hours that followed, international students were left with the impression that they were being displaced from campus housing with no reprieve.

As chaos unraveled, Lemona Niu ’23 was in Aroostook County, Maine, on one of the not-yet-cancelled Alternative Spring Break trips, consumed by the fear and trepidation that had become common among virtually every international student, asking herself, “Where do I go now?” As a deluge of possibilities flooded her imagination, she felt abandoned by the administration.

“At the very beginning, I feel like international students were a little bit left out by the administration,” Niu said.

It was unclear at first whom, among College administrators, international students could reach out to.

“We wrote emails and asked the school what to do, only to be met with responses like ‘Do you have friends in the country?’ or ‘Think creatively,’” Niu said.

While Associate Dean of Upperclass Students Khoa Khuong serves as Bowdoin’s liaison with international students, the College has no office dedicated solely to international student affairs.

“[Dean Khuong] is a dean of students; he has a lot to take care of on top of international students, and I feel like we need to have a point person that we could talk to just about international student matters,” said Jay Yoon ’21. “Most of [Bowdoin’s peer institutions] have at least one person delegated just for international student affairs.”

Tianyi Xu
STAYING INSIDE: Many international students remain in Brunswick Apartments at the College, where it snowed last week.

“I think if we had a devoted staffer to international students, who make up 10 percent of the student body, things would have just gone a lot smoother, with everything in terms of questions, housing and logistics of moving,” added Nirhan Nurjadin ’21, president of ISA. “That is something I know a lot of students are passionate about, even before the whole pandemic.”

On the same night as President Rose’s initial email, however, the College clarified its position and offered Brunswick Apartments as housing for international students through May 17. Take-out meals were made available at select hours each day at the Moulton Union dining hall for students, though most campus facilities remained closed. Despite initial hiccups, students say the College has successfully implemented social distancing while providing housing.

“I think it’s been nice still being on campus and being able to do classes here as opposed to being at home,” Nurjadin said. “Still living with other students who I’m really good friends with has just been really nice.”

On Thursday, Dean for Student Affairs Janet Lohmann announced in an email to international students on campus that current residents will be permitted to remain on campus after the semester. Although dining will be closed, meal assistance remains available upon petition.

Other next steps, however, remain uncertain for international students. Unemployment rates across the globe are skyrocketing and the job market looks bleak. Students who previously wanted to secure jobs in the United States after graduation are now realizing they may need to return to their homes abroad.

“Entering the College as a freshman before all of this craziness happened, I had the expectation and the goal of wanting to spend a couple of years in the U.S.,” said Nurjadin, who is from Jakarta, Indonesia. “But I think I’ve sort of tempered my expectations a little bit with how competitive the job market is going to be with a recession and the limited amount of jobs available for international students. I’m sort of coming to grips with potentially having to go home and just work there.”

Looking ahead to the summer, many students grapple with the choice of whether to return home—via risky, potentially virus-ridden international flights—or stay. Plane tickets are also becoming increasingly scarce as governments restrict international travel, and some students worry they won’t be able to come back to the United States in the fall should they return home now.

For some, returning home could mean upending the lives of their family members. This is the case for Yoon, whose family is in South Korea, which mandates rigorous self-quarantine measures upon arrival.

“If I were to go back to South Korea right now, I would have to be quarantined in my house for two weeks with an app downloaded on my phone. It would track the days of my quarantine, and if I leave home I could be fined significantly or prosecuted criminally,” Yoon said. “Because my dad is still going to work, and my sister’s going to academies, I wouldn’t be able to stay with them for the two weeks of quarantine. So my dad and my sister would have to stay somewhere else.”

Other students cite concerns that traveling internationally, in the current climate, could have an unpredictable impact on their ability to return. Niu, a native of Beijing, China, worries that returning home may jeopardize her immigration status and invite even more uncertainties.

“I think my biggest concern is visa status, because with the worsening U.S.-China relations and the current federal government, I don’t know, if I ever were to go back home, [if] I would be able to come back again,” Niu said.

Nurjadin is hopeful the administration’s decision about whether students can return to campus for the fall semester takes into account the particular challenges international students face.

“In terms of international students, [administrators] just have to be cognizant of the different situations that everyone has to go through and then go sort of on a case-by-case basis to judge it,” Nurjadin said. “I would hope that if we go online and some students have nowhere to go, that they would let them all back on campus like this current situation or help set them up somewhere.”

 

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