Students studying far from home face uncertainty, isolation after countries restrict travel

COVID-19-related closures, evacuations, and travel restrictions have left some international students studying here—along with U.S. students studying abroad—in states of limbo or scrambling to make new plans. Conflicting or sparse guidance, abrupt status changes, and staff shortages at embassies and consulates have further compounded the stress.

International students in the U.S. finding themselves displaced, isolated

More than a million international students study in the U.S., including more than a half-million collectively from coronavirus epicenters like China, South Korea, and Spain, reports WJLA. As their U.S. campuses close, some international students have found themselves facing border restrictions, intensifying COVID-19 outbreaks, or other logistical complications that make it unrealistic to return to their home countries. Some have scrambled to secure alternative housing off campus, while others have been granted permission to stay at their otherwise largely deserted schools.

Diana Sandoval Simán, a senior at Princeton University from El Salvador, was asked to leave Princeton on the same day that El Salvador announced it was closing its borders. In order to avoid a 30-day quarantine, ensure that she could keep attending classes on Zoom, and stay on track for spring graduation, Simán and her two sisters at other American colleges decided to move into an off-campus rental property in New Jersey.

In an op-ed for The Hechinger Report, Simán recounts her and her siblings’ confusion as they attempted to secure housing with no financial support from family. She writes that she “received an outpouring of support” from her campus community but still experienced firsthand the “stress and uncertainty” that campus closures have created for international students.

Simán calls on colleges to clearly establish campus communication channels, efficiently and reliably deliver  promised resources, and formalize emergency support roles. “I do hope that in the future, strengthening information channels in emergency situations and having a clear, consistent vision for institutional responses will alleviate at least some of the fear and anxiety we face,” she says.

Meanwhile, international students who remain on campus face different hurdles, reporting a sense of isolation and uncertainty. Jimin Kang, an international student from South Korea, is one of the few hundred students Princeton University has permitted to stay on campus. Writing for Vox, she tells of a  “creeping sense of loneliness” as “everything I’ve grown familiar with has changed, quite literally, overnight.”

Kang says she feels “stuck between wanting to go home and being scared to do so” and wonders what will happen when the academic year ends. “If we cannot return to our countries, where will we go next?” she wrote. “And if we do get to leave, will we get to come back?” Kang says that, for people wondering how to help, “Small gestures—like checking in on us—can mean everything.”

Continuity challenges for American students returning from study abroad

The State Department estimates that as many as 10 percent of students study overseas during the course of their undergraduate college years. When the coronavirus outbreak first started, some colleges rushed to pull students out of study abroad situations; others determined that travel posed a greater risk than staying overseas. The number of affected U.S. students “may be modest, but the disruptions they face when their programs are canceled are not,” writes U.S. News & World Report.

Students who traveled to epicenters of the outbreak—for instance, Italy, Iran, China and South Korea—not only found their programs canceled or cut short but also have been required to self-isolate upon re-entering the United States. Some schools are providing financial assistance and/or refunds to students returning early from study abroad, or helping students find free housing when they return; other students have had to navigate rapidly shifting sands with less institutional assistance.

One major challenge is for colleges to keep students who were pulled back to the U.S. from study abroad programs “academically whole,” Noah Rost, director of the programs-abroad office at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, told The Chronicle of Higher Education. Students who started classes abroad must either finish them online, or their American universities must find alternative education plans. Looking ahead to summer and fall, many schools are still deliberating whether to cancel those study abroad programs.

Some American students stranded abroad

As commercial airlines ground flights and government efforts to evacuate Americans drop off, an undetermined number of U.S. students remain stranded in countries that have closed their borders and narrowed air traffic lanes, such as Ecuador, Morocco, and Peru, reports Inside Higher Ed. Many U.S. colleges and study abroad programs called their students back to campus early in the coronavirus outbreak, but some that did not are facing expensive and complicated extraction plans.

Boston University (BU) spent $55,000 on a private jet charter to evacuate BU students—as well as students and staff from Lewis & Clark College and the University of Miami—from Ecuador, reports The New York Times. Channing Stirrat, one of the Lewis & Clark students, said “it was really disheartening to see the embassy, the State Department, wasn’t able to help us.”

Similarly, Jessica Buie, a student at Lenoir-Rhyne University studying in Peru, said she felt “a little helpless” after she and her peers secured almost no assistance from the U.S. Consulate in Cusco or the American Embassy in Lima. The Peruvian government has halted international private charter flights, prompting college presidents to ask Congress to “urge U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo to work with the Peruvian government to create a solution that would bring these stranded students home as soon as possible.”

“These are unprecedented circumstances,” the State Department said in a statement. “We recognize the closing of borders and air space, lack of flights, and other local conditions make travel difficult and it may not be advisable to immediately repatriate all exchange participants. In these cases, [the State Department Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs] is working with U.S. embassies to adjust the timeline on which exchange program participants will be required to depart.”

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