International students put travel, career plans on hold due to COVID-19

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Moussa Sy planned on returning to his home country of Mali this summer to visit his mother’s grave.

But when the coronavirus pandemic struck, Sy, a graduate student at Syracuse University’s College of Engineering and Computer Science, had to cancel his flight home.

“I planned it to go back home after five years, and sadly I had to cancel my flight since everything is uncertain now,” Sy said. “I was really looking forward to this particular trip because I wanted to pay my respects to my mom’s grave, as I was not there when she passed away.”

Sy is one of several international students at SU who have put their career plans on hold or have canceled flights home out of fear that they will not be allowed back into the United States amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Yang Shu, a graduate student from Shanxi, China studying information management and technology, was just getting used to life in the U.S. when SU announced in March that it would transition to online classes for the rest of the spring semester.

The abrupt end of Shu’s first semester of on-campus classes disrupted his process of becoming accustomed to life in the U.S, he said.

“It hurts my process of getting used to the American social connections because I am isolated from others,” Shu said.
Concentrating at home has been difficult for Guya Scopas Bethuel Ladu, a graduate broadcast and digital journalism student from South Sudan.

“It was easy to concentrate while reading on campus because the environment would enable it more than at home where the bed is close, and TV is close, among other distractions,” he said.

International students have also struggled to find jobs and internships while navigating the visa process.

Lori Lu, a public relations graduate student from Jiangsu, China, originally planned to find a job in New York City, an early epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S. She’s now worried about whether she will be able to find work at all, or whether she will have to risk her safety to do so.

Graduating international students find themselves in a tough position, said Yuyang Chen, a public relations graduate student from Chongqing, China who will graduate in August.

“Right now, it’s hard to find a job and it’s hard to get a ticket to go back home,” Chen said.

Many airlines canceled flights at the start of the outbreak. Some Chinese international students would buy four or five plane tickets in hopes that one flight wouldn’t be canceled, Shu said. But booking multiple flights is expensive, and Shu couldn’t afford the cost.

If Haina Fnu decided to return home to Inner Mongolia, China, she would have to pay for a hotel room so she could self-quarantine for two weeks.

The price of the return trip has driven Haina, a graduate student studying marketing, to remain in the U.S. She empathizes with other students who can’t leave the U.S. because they can’t buy a ticket home.

After the transition to online classes, SU relocated students who chose to remain in university housing to South Campus. Some students who are unable to live on Main Campus for the summer may not have a car to go grocery shopping, Haina said.

“I can’t imagine how their life can be during the pandemic,” she said.
While Nobi Nyabonda was able to return home to Johannesburg, South Africa, the travel restrictions made the trip even more time-consuming. If Nyabonda’s trip home took its usual stops, she would have had to quarantine in a government facility upon arriving in Johannesburg.

“It’s 24 hours’ worth of travel time for me to go home,” said Nyabonda, a junior accounting and information management and technology dual major. “I normally stop in Dubai, but stopping with contact with that many people in the airport was not that great of an option.”

Political leaders in South Africa have made positive changes as a result of the pandemic, such as providing proper water sanitation and electricity to small communities, Nyabonda said.

For Chen, the political and racial tensions that the pandemic has stoked add another layer of anxiety for international students.

“Right now, the tension has increased and I think it will change the awareness of Chinese students,” Chen said. “Not many Americans understand how the Chinese government works and Chinese people don’t understand how the U.S. government works and how universities function.”

Sy, still in the U.S., is waiting for the opportunity to return to Mali. Despite the challenges the pandemic has posed, he’s been trying to stay optimistic.

“People now realized that we are more vulnerable than we thought,” Sy said. “We now have to think about the welfare of others — not just ours.”

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