International Students Reflect on COVID Challenges One Year After Lockdown

Jen Hughes '21, Guest Writer

As the Dickinson community grappled with the challenges that began last March 2020, international students in particular were faced with unparalleled uncertainties as they scrambled to cope with the coronavirus pandemic. 

“I packed my entire room in under two hours at midnight,” Jooeun Song ’22 said in an interview with The Dickinsonian. “I booked a flight back to Seoul [South Korea] the next day.”

Nam Hà ’22 said that she hurried back home to Vietnam, arriving just hours before the country’s travel lockdown was imposed. 

Her sudden departure left her with no time to move any of her belongings from Dickinson to a storage unit. They still remain in the sorority house from which she departed last year. “I was panicked. It was all kind of abrupt,” she said.

Those who returned to their home countries had to contend with a handful of other challenges, from spotty internet service to participating in classes held some twelve time zones away. 

Over the course of the past year, Ha Phuong Vu ’23, said she has taken classes that begin at 8 p.m. and end at around midnight in Vietnam. But she now takes a lab, which starts at 1:30 a.m. and sometimes runs until 4:30 a.m. 

As a result, Ha said “my sleeping schedule is messed up. I sometimes go to bed at five in the morning and sleep in until noon.” There are two other Vietnamese students in Ha’s lab, so, “we are all going through the same thing together,” she added.  

Another student, Natnael Fetene ’21, returned home to Addis Ababa,the capital of Ethiopia, after completing his final exams last May. Although Natnael was unable to participate in a Zoom interview due to poor internet connection, he shared his experience via email exchange. 

Currently, there is an ongoing armed conflict between the northern regional government of Tigray and the federal government of Ethiopia. “Although the government claims the end of the war, the northern part of the country is still unstable. While I was taking class online last semester, I had very little internet connection,” he wrote.

This semester, Natnael continues to grapple with slow internet connection, which makes taking classes remotely difficult, especially when paired with the eight-hour time difference between Addis Ababa and Carlisle. 

By the same token, during the pandemic a considerable number of international students decided to remain on campus or in the U.S. In the weeks following Dickinson’s decision to go virtual, Nuhan Abid ‘22 said the college campus resembled a ghost town.. 

“It was an incredibly isolating time,” he added. While the Center for Global Studies and Engagement (CGSE) departmental staff has not responded to questions on the matter, the Associate Dean of Residence Life & Housing and Conduct, Amanda George, estimated that around 125 international students remained on campus in the spring of 2020. 

Sagun Sharma ’21 echoed similar sentiments. While she spent the first half of the year in other parts of the U.S., she returned to campus last summer, and described her experience as both lonely and isolating. 

In the midst of a global health crisis, being halfway across the world from Nepal has been nerve wracking. “In some ways, I am happy to be away from home so that I am not a risk to my family members. But I also wish I had that support and security here so that if something does go wrong, or if something were to happen, I would have someone looking out for me,” she added.

This isolation has led to one of the most significant of all unintended consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic: a decline in the mental health of college students. However, little attention has been paid to the mental health impact on international students even though, unlike their domestic counterparts, international students often face more complicated situations.  

Nhi Ly ’22 has remained in Pittsburgh with a close friend since last March. However, she contacted the Wellness Center after experiencing stress and anxiety. Her efforts to receive help went on for several months since the Center has limited staff that can provide counselling. “But because I was determined enough and had friends who encouraged me to keep seeking out help, I was [eventually] able to get that support,” she said. 

Some international students found the staff and faculty at Dickinson to be a primary source of support during these unprecedented times. “I must say all Dickinson professors I had have been incredibly helpful and considerate. Although the pandemic coupled with the political turbulence in my country has been mind boggling, I would say my professors have always been of extreme help,” Fetene wrote. 

Several others mentioned that although understaffed, the CGSE department was particularly helpful in providing practical advice at the beginning of the pandemic.  

However, there is certainly room for improvement, Abid and Sharma agreed. 

“I find it to be the systems and structures in place that make it difficult to access resources,” said Sharma. The cultural barriers that many international students experience often prevent them from searching for help, she added. One of the ways in which Dickinson can better address the needs of international students is by making existing resources readily and easily available to them, she said. 

For example, as Sharma noted, Dickinson’s homepage does not currently have a portal or even a landing page exclusively devoted to international students that can direct them to relevant Dickinson personnel and information. 

Additionally, several students expressed the need for a counselor at the Wellness Center who is trained to address the concerns of international students specifically. Over the past year, Sharma, among others, has had to manage for herself at every turn. While providing more resources and trained staff members won’t solve all of the problems facing international students, “it would be so beneficial,” she added.