One year ago, droves of U.S. college students were ordered to abandon their dorms and campuses and return home. Amid the chaos, many international students found themselves in an unprecedented situation, forced to choose between the college experience they’d expected and their home country. Meanwhile, growing concerns over border closures complicated things further, and the Trump administration’s waffling on whether to allow foreign students back into the country to attend virtual classes added additional stress. We talked to five international students who were forced to learn just how big the world can really feel.
“Before the pandemic, I had not been home for more than two weeks at a time since September 2018.”
Julian | 20 years old | from Belgium | attending Brown University
It was around a week, a week a half, before we left for spring break. We were all so excited, but talks of COVID-19 started creeping up. I was thinking, What’s actually going on? How serious can this thing get? We were jokingly elbow-high-fiving people around campus. Next thing I knew, school was shutting down. I tried to convince my parents to let me stay in the U.S. for a little bit, but they were adamant I come home. I didn’t see it coming or really take it for what it was until I got there.
I was completely disconnected from the U.S. when I was back home. Not being able to foresee a time when I could come back to school, it was difficult to maintain relationships. It suddenly felt harder to connect with everything that made up my life before the pandemic started. But I felt more connected to my family than I had felt in a long time. Before the pandemic, I had not been home for more than two weeks at a time since September 2018. It was special to spend that time with them.
The pandemic put a lot of things into perspective for me, especially the fragility of my parents getting older. The world that once felt so open and free is feeling much harder to navigate these days. The moments that I get to spend with my parents back home are incredibly valuable. Prior to the pandemic, I was very happy to just live the rest of my life in the U.S. Now, I realize that living closer to home is probably the right decision for me.
“The idea of getting on an airplane to go to America was absolutely terrifying.”
Cleo | 22 years old | from England | attending University of Pennsylvania
Coming to the U.S. for freshman year was a huge culture shock, more than I thought it would be. Still, I really didn’t get homesick. I would consider myself very independent. There were never any tears when I left home. Then the pandemic hit and everything changed.
After spending spring semester back home in London, I headed back to America in May for the first time since COVID-19 really struck. I decided to come back for the summer because, although my internship was remote, attempting to work East Coast office hours from London just seemed too difficult. It was traumatic to leave home. The idea of getting on an airplane to go to America was absolutely terrifying, which it had never been before. I found myself crying in the airport, which I had also never done before. My mum used to never even know what day I was leaving, now she drove me to the airport and sobbed at security.
You just don’t know when you are going to be allowed back. It doesn’t make sense to fly home if I have to do ten days quarantine or live in a quarantine hotel. It has made it all feel so much scarier. I just suddenly feel so much further from home.
“I tried to do online classes and finals from home, but with the 14-hour time difference it was a disaster.”
Simon | 21 years old | from Australia | attending Brown University
When the pandemic broke out, I was hesitant to go back to Australia. I couch surfed with friends across the country until I began to feel like a bit of a burden. I flew home and spent two weeks alone in a hotel room before I was reunited with my family. I tried to do online classes and finals from home, but with the 14-hour time difference it was a disaster. You just can’t work like that.
I came back to America in June and haven’t seen my family since then. It’s okay. I really cherish the independence of living here, but I do wish America would have handled COVID-19 better.
“My visa expired in September, but I couldn’t leave to renew it”
Lore | 20 years old | from Nigeria | attending Northwestern University
I grew up going to school abroad, so being away from my family isn’t a new experience. Still, I haven’t been back to my home country since January of 2020. I’m going back soon though. I have to — my passport is about to expire.
In Nigeria, you are only granted a visa to study abroad in America for two years. You have to go back to Nigeria to renew it every time. It’s a whole long process. My visa expired back in September, but I wasn’t able to go home to renew it. Not only did it not feel safe to travel, but processing at the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria has been delayed since the pandemic started. I couldn’t risk getting stuck there.
I’m going back at the end of March, because now both my passport and visa are expired. If I left the country with expired papers, I wouldn’t be allowed back in. I have no choice but to go through the renewal process back home. It’s going to be difficult. I will be there during finals week. I don’t really have another option though.
“I was trapped there for six and a half months until I came back to New York in August.”
Mark | 22 years old | from Turkey | attending Brown University
I love my life at school. I love the people. The place is beautiful. But back in March, it was panic mode there. My parents were on the other end of the phone telling me that I had to come home “right now.” I got on a flight to Turkey the next day. I was trapped there for six and a half months until I came back to New York in August. Doing school work was horrible. I consumed zero information in the three months of schooling that I did online in Turkey.
Now I am back at school in America, but my family is still in full lockdown at home. I feel bad about it, but it’s different for us. It’s easier for my parents to stay at home in lockdown than it is for my age group. They have lived their life to the fullest and now it’s time for them to sit back, drink wine, and relax.
I used to think I would never go back to Turkey, especially to work, but the pandemic has taught me that you never know what is going to happen. Now, I am way more open to moving home.
Some names have been changed.