The challenges I faced as an international student during the COVID-19 pandemic

By Chase (Junyan) Li | Photographer

When COVID-19 broke out in the U.S., many schools were closed and a large number of international students living on campus found that they no longer had a place to live.

As an international student, my social media was full of posts from people who were looking for housing at that time. Fortunately, Baylor allowed all international students to continue to live on campus, and provided services, such as meals and grocery shopping shuttles. However, not all international students were as lucky as Baylor’s. I have a couple of friends in Seattle, Wash. who are international students from Japan and Korea. They ended up living in others’ living rooms or basements for a while.

Many international students and I have thought about going home. Still, a large portion of us feel that the sudden influx with a significant number of people going into our country will cause problems for the epidemic prevention work. Also, traveling might expose ourselves to the virus, so many of us, including me, stayed in the U.S. and waited for the summer to come.

We soon discovered that our decision to stay in the U.S. was wise. Most international students who returned to their home countries found it difficult to take online classes because they had to access the learning websites’ servers across the sea. The slow and sometimes disconnected network caused a lot of trouble. Difficulty in live lectures was just the tip of the iceberg. Disconnection from online exams could make them crash, and this is still a problem for international students that are currently taking classes in their home countries.

When summer came, many international students like me who stayed in the U.S. found that it became even harder to go back home. For Chinese international students, both the U.S. and China were restricting the number of international flights. Some flight tickets have even increased to 10 times the usual price, but they were still always sold out in a second. There are also varying degrees of the shortage of flights to other international students’ home countries.

Back in 2019, I looked up the school calendar and booked a flight back to my home country China in advance. But the flight was canceled when the epidemic broke out, so I changed to another available flight. Soon, another flight I changed to was also canceled due to the restriction of the number of flights, and the airline no longer offered the option to change.

At the beginning of the summer, I had some disappointment and anger towards China. I think that as a citizen of China, I should be able to return to my country with the help of the country, but China restricts a lot of flights. But gradually seeing that many countries have far more imported cases than China has, I began to understand the Chinese approach. There is another reason why I am no longer angry with that because the U.S. has not lifted China’s travel ban as of now. If I return to China, it will be difficult for me to return to the U.S. for the fall semester. I am majoring in film. If I can’t take classes face-to-face, it will be difficult to complete my studies.

At that time, some international students faced the problem that their housing leases were ending. I felt lucky because I was planning to stay in the U.S. and take the first two terms of three total summer school terms, so I renewed my apartment lease before spaces ran out. But I think I can understand the anxiety of having to move in a short period and find another place available and good to live. Not to mention that many services are not provided during the epidemic, and many daily necessities are in short supply.

And even worse, there were also some graduated international students with an expired visa stuck in the U.S. who became “illegal immigrants.” What surprised me was that I couldn’t find the U.S. media reporting this issue. While Baylor also did not provide a solution for these international students, the University of Washington has included this issue on its “Coronavirus information for F1 & J1 students” webpage (under the Q&A question “My status is expiring soon and flights to my home country are cancelled. What should I do?”).

Asian international students stranded in the U.S. have found that racial discrimination against Asians seems to be getting worse. As the U.S. government may be trying to divert domestic conflicts by blaming China, some Asian international students have been abused on the internet or in person.

This is my personal experience: I visited Austin and San Antonio this summer. While I was heading to Austin, in the middle of nowhere and at night, I stopped at a gas station. I was standing there waiting to get gas. A man walked out of the store. He insisted that I was looking at him. He began to question why I was staring at him, why I brought the virus into the U.S. and asked me to leave the U.S. Of course, his original words were much meaner and can’t be repeated here. Although the man prayed so sincerely that I could leave the U.S., all the airlines let both of us down eventually.

In addition, some Chinese international students and scholars have had more in-depth experiences. In recent years, Chinese companies have been accused by the U.S. of “threatening national security” and been suppressed. Now, the research-oriented Chinese international students and scholars are accused of being “spies.” With much research terminated or suspended due to the epidemic, many Chinese international students and scholars need to go home. But in the past few months, if you watched international news, you may know that a number of them were intercepted and interrogated at the airport because they were suspected of being spies. Their phones, laptops and any other devices were confiscated, and many of them even missed the flight they had fought to purchase.

No matter what, I wish that all international students in the U.S. can survive this difficult period safely. When you go through all this, you will become much stronger.