Perseverance: The international student experience during COVID

Paula Azuaje celebrating her 25th birthday with family at her Uncle’s house
in Waxhaw, NC, where she and her parents currently live.

Living away from home is hard, even more for someone starting out in a new country. Add virtual learning and a global pandemic to the mix, and this new life may feel almost impossible to navigate.

This is the reality for international students currently enrolled at Queens University, which has moved all classes to remote status for the fall semester. Though some may be able to return to campus for the spring semester, no one is certain what the coming months hold.

Queens is home to 171 undergraduate and graduate international students, just seven percent of the university’s total population, according to Queens administrators. While relatively small in number, many of these international students form the backbone of Queens’ thriving sports programs, so their presence is felt on and off-campus. These students come from all around the globe, across all time zones.

Maria Jimenez, a senior who arrived from Venezuela in 2015, recounts what it was like growing up in a country in crisis.

“It was always on my mind that I had to leave to pursue my dreams,” said Jimenez.

Although Jimenez has lived here for five years now, life in the United States still presents many obstacles for her, such as long-distance family connections, independent living challenges and immigration uncertainties.

“I have my apartment,’’ she said. “But it was just a matter of am I going to keep my job? I did not have financial support from my family.’’

“If I were to get sick,’’ she continued. “I wouldn’t be able to pay my bill.’’
Even though economic stressors stay at the top of Jimenez’s worry list, COVID-19 has brought new concerns for her as well as for other international students. She has adjusted to online learning for the fall semester. But social isolation has been hard.

“The most difficult part of having to learn online is the human aspect,’’ said Jimenez. “I miss seeing people, having spontaneous conversations with my classmates, something that doesn’t happen, sadly, on ‘RingCentral.’”

The longing for human interaction is a feeling many other international students have experienced.

Kalpaka Pradip pictured at Queens in her Wireman Suite.

Kalpaka Pradip, a junior born in India but raised in Bahrain, said that she sometimes feels isolated in her Wireman suite, where she lives alone. She said it sometimes takes a few hours for “the empty feeling” to go away.
Although more than half of Queens’ international students currently live in the US, 40 percent of all of the university’s foreign students are still living at home in their native lands, according to Angie Edwards, Director of the Myrta Pulliam Center for International Education.

In interviews conducted through text, FaceTime, phone calls and RingCentral, several of these international students still living overseas said that the distance from campus and the separation and isolation is difficult. In some ways, they said, it is similar to that of students on campus. In other ways, it is different.

Ida Osterman on a boat near Grasko Island in Sweden

Ida Osterman, a junior living in Sweden and taking class remotely, said she feels unmotivated and misses the structure of traditional classes. She was also frustrated by the late cancellation of in-person learning. “My flight was two days after I found out school was canceled,” said Osterman. “I had to pay $700 for nothing.” Osterman also said that she has a triathlon friend who traveled from Australia and landed the day the school announced the switch to remote learning. “She is now staying with some friends in the U.S,” said Osterman.

The time difference for students living abroad has also not been ideal for learning. Both Osterman, Yuri Poplawski, a junior living in his home country of Brazil; and Elvis Menayese, a senior from Wales, said it is difficult learning and scheduling classes due to the time difference. Menayese said that the time difference does not interfere with his class schedule this semester, but sometimes submitting work on time can be hard. “I just have to be aware of the time difference when submitting assignments,” said Menayese.

The announcement of a visa ban for students whose colleges went all online has also been stressful.

On July 6, 2020, the Department of Homeland Security declared that foreign students on student visas would be banned from the United States if their schools were to operate as “online only.” Officials have since rescinded the bill, but this announcement in addition to COVID has elevated distress for international students.

“It was tough to find comfort when the news came out,” said Paula Azuaje, a senior from Venezuela now living in Charlotte. “I was fearful of not finishing my degree, and that all the hard work I had done up until now was going to go down the drain.”

Still, these students have begun developing coping strategies.
Because Azuaje still lives in Charlotte, she can continue counseling at Queens through video calls, “I don’t know where I would be if I didn’t,” she said. “I also try to read at least one book a month, and exercise is big for me. I try to do this in the mornings before my day starts.’’

 Elvis Menayese at the Berlin Cathedral in Berlin, Germany.

Poplawski has found that staying busy helps him stay grounded.
“I created a schedule, so I don’t have much spare time,” he said. “I am a person who needs to be doing something all the time.’’

Queens has also tried to provide resources to international students. Edwards said her office is extending hours, operating during atypical times, and hosting monthly virtual coffee klatches.

The Center for Student Success is trying to make sure all students have access to CFSS services such as writing tutors, SI tutoring and subject tutoring through RingCentral.

The Queens Health and Wellness Center, however, cannot work with students living outside of the US. But they can help international students living in some states, including North Carolina. Kate Regan, director of counseling said that she had been able to help some international students find resources in the United Kingdom and is trying to help other students find help in their own home countries.

The COVID-19 situation has been hard for everyone, especially international students. But Queens’ students have come so far to get here and won’t give up easily.

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Published by students of Queens University of Charlotte, 1900 Selwyn Avenue, Charlotte, N.C. 28274.