How the COVID-19 pandemic changed the lives of EKU’s international students

College students in the United States, including international students from all over the world, experience their studies under the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic since the spring 2020 semester. Eastern Kentucky University's international student population is no different. 

A year ago, many colleges did not return to in-person classes after Spring Break and transferred classes of the remaining semester online. College students faced the challenges of moving out of dorms, perhaps finding a new place to stay, learning remotely, coping with a restricted social life and other effects of the pandemic.

For international students, travel restrictions or even bans, time differences and uncertainty about leaving or returning to the U.S. added to the struggles of being a college student.

Countries and state unions, like the European Union, across the world, followed  precautions and adopted restrictions of public life based on the local spread of COVID-19, causing international travel bans, airports to shut down, and even nationwide lockdowns. 

For example, in March 2020 many European countries like Spain and France entered lockdowns, and beginning March 17, 2020, the E.U. hindered travels from non-E.U. states. For international students, who decided to leave the U.S. and return to their home countries, a battle against the clock started. 

"When I heard that airports and borders are shutting down in Spain, I was afraid to  not be able to return home in time," said sophomore sports management major Elisa Orduna-Shackleton. Orduna-Shackleton traveled to her home country Spain in March of 2020. 

"Flying back home freaked me out. The JFK airport was completely empty; you really  felt like the end of the world is near," said Orduna-Shackleton. 

Emma Garcia-Palencia, a sophomore criminal justice major and member of EKU's track and field team, remembered the circumstances of leaving the U.S. last spring and returning to Valencia, Spain.  

"My parents were worried. My mom wanted me to come home immediately. After hearing about the increasing number of cases and airports shutting down, we booked a flight back home," Garcia-Palencia said. 

The worries about her family accompanied concerns about leaving the U.S.  

"Of course, I felt sad about leaving – I have been here for only a year, and it feels like home," said Garcia-Palencia. 

Additionally, Garcia-Palencia was worried about losing some of her newly gained English skills. 

Harry Kim, an exchange student from South Korea majoring in aviation, was less concerned about leaving the U.S. 

"The South Korean government made a deal with the U.S. to ensure the travel of  South Korean citizens. I even thought about staying in the U.S., but with the dorms closing and off-campus rent contracts being long-term, I decided to travel back home," Kim said. 

When continuing spring studies in their prospective home countries, international students perceived the circumstances differently. 

Jeanne Reix Charat, a junior biomedical research major who returned to Sonnay, France, in March 2020, discovered the benefits of studying at home. 

"I am a night owl, so the time difference between the U.S. and France was not a problem for me – I actually enjoyed staying up late to turn in assignments when it was daytime in the U.S.," Reix Charat said. 

Orduna-Shackleton, on the other hand, said that recording oral presentations for her communication class caused more stress than giving the presentation in-person. Besides the struggles of leaving the U.S. bureaucracy complicated studies abroad. To maintain legal status, international students need to follow a set of rules regarding their enrollment, residence and documentation.

The Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVIS) alternated those rules in March in response to the international student body facing the pandemic. For example, universities could sign and send documents virtually which took a financial burden off universities with large numbers of international students. 

However, in the interim period of spring to fall, SEVIS planned regulations that would have complicated studies in the U.S. for international students. 

"If things would have gotten worse and a university would have had to switch to online classes completely, the international students would have had to leave the U.S. immediately," said Matthew Allen Cox, international student advisor at EKU, about the impact of SEVIS' planned regulations. 

In July, the Trump administration lifted the travel ban for international students due to legal issues, and SEVIS returned to their March guidelines shortly before the fall semester. 

"I'm very happy that the policy changed – I would have been very upset to send students home again," Cox said. 

When international students could travel to the U.S. again, many returned to EKU five months after the university's shutdown. 

In the conversations Cox had with EKU’s international students, most exercised caution but still aspired to the opportunity to return on campus. 

"I have always told my students: Do what you're comfortable with," Cox said. Garcia-Palencia mentioned the friendships she formed in the U.S. and reuniting with her teammates as reasons for returning to EKU. 

Reix Charat, who moved off-campus in the fall and thus experienced college life away from campus for the first time, said that she does not feel like missing out on college life due to her housing situation. 

However, not all international students of EKU returned to campus for the fall semester in August. 

Alice Daag, sophomore sports and exercise science major who also competes for EKU's golf team, stayed in Linköping, Sweden, last semester.

"I decided [at the] last minute to stay in Sweden. After the Ohio Valley Conference canceled the golf season and I heard about other Swedes staying too, I decided to spend the fall semester with my family," Daag said. 

Studying in college from outside the U.S. came with difficulties. Daag said that the additional study load of six classes instead of five stressed her and that unclear communication frustrated her during her studies in Sweden. 

Kim also spent the fall semester outside of the U.S. in South Korea. 

"The time difference between South Korea and this part of the U.S. comes to 13 hours. Some of my Zoom classes were at two or three at night," Kim said.

Dr. Andri Yennari, licensed clinician at EKU's Counseling Center, presided over "Support Without Borders," a virtual support group for international and multicultural students. Dr. Yennari's observation of international students over the past year complements the experience of canvassed international students. 

"I had a number of international students seeking counseling services share their concern about not only leaving their country during the pandemic but expressing fear of travel to visit home as well," Dr. Yennari said in an email interview. 

Dr. Yennari said that among the obstacles that international students had to face during the COVID-pandemic were travel restrictions, immigration policies, fear of deportation and precarious immigration status, loneliness and isolation, housing concerns, fewer employment opportunities, financial hardship, discrimination, and mental health challenges. 

For example, the anticipated regulations for the fall semester by SEVIS caused international students to worry. 

"International students were fearful that their immigration status could be in jeopardy under a regulating dictating that students who were unable to attend in-person classes had to leave the country." 

Additionally, especially students of Asian descent had to face discrimination. "[Discrimination] came in form of exclusion, interception, and interrogation at airports, suspiciousness, and hostility towards foreigners," said Dr. Yennari.

While limited social contacts caused domestic and international students to experience loneliness and isolation, homesickness perhaps played an important role in international student's mental well-being. 

"It is hard to experience feelings of belonging and equality under these conditions," Dr. Yennari said. 

"I highly encourage international students to utilize the Counseling Center services and resources offered as those could foster mental health and well-being during the pandemic especially," she said. 

The Migration Policy Institute estimated that the number of international students attending U.S. colleges in 2020 decreased by 10 percent to 176,000 compared to 2019. Asked if EKU's international student population of about 200 students decreased too, Cox said, "That is tough to say. I would guess no. Although we received fewer applications for the Fall 2020 semester, those applications were more serious. I'll be curious about the Fall 2021 applications." 

Forecasting how the future of international students in U.S. educational institutions remains complex due to various factors like travel restrictions, locus of learning, speed and availability of vaccinations all over the world, and personal matters. 

At EKU, Daag does not regret being an international student during a "once-in-a lifetime-event" like a pandemic. 

"I am still happy for this opportunity. Studying abroad is a valuable experience nonetheless."

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