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Sailing in the fog: Being an international student during a pandemic crisis

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In late March, Stanford asked its students to leave campus as soon as possible because of concerns over COVID-19. Many international undergraduate students felt like they were sailing in the fog; concerns — over whether they should fly across the world back home or find a way to stay, when or if they’d be able to return any time soon, how they’d deal with remote classes in different time zones — were all clouded with feelings of unease and uncertainty.

Due to COVID-19 transmission concerns, a great proportion of international flights got canceled –– many notices came just hours before scheduled departures. Tiantian Fang ’23 booked more than four plane tickets in a week before finally finding one that was able to fly her back home. “A lot of flights got canceled at that time,” said Fang, a management science and engineering (MS&E) and computer science double major from Shanghai, China. “I wasn’t sure if I could land in my stopover due to travel restrictions.” 

Fang’s cross-continental plane ride, exhausting under normal circumstances, became more challenging with all the additional safety measures she had to take. To prevent the spread of the disease, many airline companies have been requiring travelers to be masked at all times during the flight. According to a vlog sharing tips for long-distance travel during the pandemic made by Fiona Wang, a freshman from UCLA, passengers board the airplane equipped “like a spaceman with safety goggles, two masks and surgical gloves.”

“I kept my masks on for the entire 12-hour plane ride because it’s full of people in such a compacted space,” Wang said in the video. “I didn’t eat and drink to avoid going to the bathroom. I am glad I did it because 10 rows behind me someone was tested positive after we landed. You don’t want to wear too many clothes even though the AC is cold on the plane, because if your temperature is any higher than 98.7 degrees Fahrenheit, your spot on the plane will be taken.” 

In many cases, a 14-day mandatory quarantine at the final destination follows the long plane trip. 

Yet, many international students still decided to return to their home countries in the midst of the pandemic. Megha Parwani ’21, The Daily’s opinions editor, is one such example of a student who decided to return to her home country rather than return to the U.S. for spring quarter. She flew back to India in early March after studying abroad at Oxford. 

“I was geographically close enough to both Delhi and the U.S., but I had a strong feeling that the school would not be opening for a while,” Parwani said. “I didn’t think we would have three weeks of spring break and school returning to normal. So I decided that the most economically efficient and the realistic thing to do would be to return back home to my family, instead of struggling to move into a dorm or an accommodation somewhere in California when the pandemic is probably not ending anytime soon.” 

Looking back, Parwani was glad she made that decision, because not long after she returned, the government of India suspended all international flights starting March 22.  

As of July 15, there are 96 countries in the world completely closed. With flight cancellations and travel bans still persisting, many international students are not able to get back to their home countries and have to remain on campus for months. Nuzhah Tarsoo ’22, an Earth Systems major, was still on campus during the first week of summer quarter due to travel restrictions. As an international student from Mauritius, “literally the farthest place on earth relative to Stanford,” Tarsoo stayed on campus after winter quarter because initial communications from the University left room for the possibility of campus reopening in the middle of the spring. 

“When they did finalize their intent to make the whole end of the year online, it was too late for me to return because the borders of my country had already closed,” said Tarsoo. “I am boarding a repatriation flight, organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of my country for Mauritians stranded abroad, in less than two weeks. I would have returned at the start of summer if I could but that’s how things turned out to be.” 

Amidst adapting to remote learning and social distancing this spring, international students at American universities were more or less on their own, thousands of miles from their family and other support structures. Fang told The Daily she felt concerned for her international friends trapped in the U.S. –– “Even though they tell me they are fine just staying in the dorms, I feel like the fact that they are not able to go out is still a big problem.” 

Nuzhah, who lived on campus for the entirety of the spring says she wasn’t able to get out much and “it [was a] lot of screen-time.” 

“My relatives [were] worried, although I feel like they would have been more worried if I were off-campus,” Tarsoo told The Daily.

When asked about her remote learning experience for the past spring quarter, Parwani told the Daily that she sometimes felt like she wasn’t going to Stanford anymore –– “I was just engaged in some sort of learning platform online,” she added. The time difference between India and Stanford made the already challenging online experience even more difficult. 

Although all online classes at Stanford are recorded and can be viewed at later times to accommodate international students who are unable to attend classes in another time zone, the reality of such a measure proved not practical for everyone. Discussion and participation-heavy classes almost had to be taken in synchronized manner. Luckily for Parwani, the two synchronized classes she took met at 11 p.m. India time, which was a comparatively reasonable time for her compared to other international students who had classes at trickier times like 2 a.m. or 3 a.m.

Besides difficulty attending classes, the time zone difference makes it hard for international students to engage in other school offerings. The biggest challenge for Fang during spring quarter was not being able to attend or participate in many clubs and student activities 

“I couldn’t pay as much attention as I wanted to many cool speaker series from different clubs,” Fang said. As for Parwani, who has a habit of attending office hours during the normal school year, she found it exhausting to attend virtual office hours in a time zone 12 hours and 30 minutes behind. 

The spring virtual experience plays a huge role in international students’ plans for the 2020 school year and beyond, on top of safety concerns. Even though the school has announced flexible plans for the upcoming school year, many international students find themselves disoriented amidst recent Re-Approaching Stanford communications indicating an upcoming academic year that will consist of mostly online, socially-distanced academic programming. 

On the one hand, if the student chooses to enroll online, they will have to continuously battle with time zone differences; on the other hand, getting back to campus means going through the lengthy and risky journey all over again, not to mention dealing with the difficulties of getting visas approved on time. Under such circumstances, some current international students are considering taking a gap year, waiting until things are more normal to resume their studies.

“I want to get a complete frosh experience, not just one from my screen,” says Lora Xie, a high school senior from China who was admitted to the Stanford class of 2024 but decided to enroll with the class of 2025. 

International students make up roughly 10% of the undergraduate population at Stanford, and while some international students feel like the University is at least partially aware of the unique dilemmas they face and making accommodations for people in different time zones to take exams, many still find some of the challenges insurmountable. 

Contact Annie Li at ALi21 ‘at’ thehill.org.

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Annie Li is a high school student writing as part of The Stanford Daily's Summer Journalism Workshop.