When the University of Redlands suddenly closed its campus in March, the whole University community—faculty, staff, undergraduate residents and commuters, graduate students—had to learn to deal with a situation no one had experienced before.
Nine months later, students are still adjusting to virtual learning, working from home, and physical distancing. For many Redlands international students, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought an extra layer of challenges, including navigating changing immigration laws, financial uncertainty, and multiple time zones of separation from loved ones.
One thing after another
According to Inside Higher Ed, when schools closed in March, 90 percent of international students initially remained in the United States. Traveling home was not only prohibitively expensive; it was also a logistical nightmare as airports closed and flights were canceled.
Gavi Dhariwal ’22, an Indian national, planned to stay at Redlands through the summer of 2020 to take part in the Student Science Research program. When the campus closed in March, the math and computer science major didn’t panic, hoping that Redlands would reopen by summer, and he would still be able to conduct research in person.
The pandemic continued, however, and another wrench was thrown into his plans in July when the Trump administration announced that international students would not be allowed to study in the United States if their universities did not offer in-person instruction. While the administration eventually walked back those plans after 200 universities, including Redlands, filed a suit against the Department of Homeland Security, the stress was palpable.
Financial challenges added to the strain of being “stuck,” Dhariwal says. International students are not allowed to work on F1 (student) visas; they are also ineligible to receive funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which provided funds for students to cover food, housing, and other expenses.
Steve Wuhs, assistant provost for internationalization and now incoming interim CAS dean, has communicated regularly with the CAS international students. “It has been critical to us to support international students through the pandemic, but it has been a very serious challenge,” he says. “Students are now spread across the community and across the globe—some enrolled, some on leaves of absence. They have really different needs.”
Wuhs says the University was able to meet many international students’ individual needs—from offering housing to opening a food pantry on campus and helping with visa requirements and financial needs—with the help of “community calls and messaging about support for this amazing group of students.” And the students have been appreciative; Dhariwal says, “Wuhs was—and is still—there for us whenever we needed help.”
As days turned into weeks, then months without school reopening, Dhariwal began looking into traveling home to Mumbai. There were evacuation flights back to India, but students were the last priority. He tried to leave in May, but his flight got canceled. In July, he finally caught a flight home.
Studying across borders
Prior to the start of the fall semester, Wuhs reached out to professors in U of R’s College of Arts and Sciences to make sure they understood the challenges of international students studying from overseas. “Faculty have overall been really responsive to those realities and made accommodations to help students who ask for them,” he says. “Beyond that, I’ve continued to communicate individually with a lot of students about their progress, their struggles, and their desire to remain in touch with Redlands.”
Dhariwal says he’s happy to be safe with his family in Mumbai, and is adjusting to virtual learning. This fall, his first class began at 12.30 a.m. Indian time; he finished his school day at 4:30 a.m. Staying up all night and getting assignments done on time has been challenging, but Dhariwal says his professors have been supportive. Still, he looks forward to returning to the Redlands campus and following a regular schedule once the pandemic ends.
Vietnam native Quynh Nguyen ’23 is another of the dozens of international students at Redlands studying across borders. A Hunsaker scholar, double major in international relations and economics, and a member of the Proudian Interdisciplinary Honors Program, she was able to leave the U.S. shortly after the campus closed in March.
“I don’t have family in the U.S., so with rising cases [around the world] and uncertainty over what would happen because of COVID-19, my family and I decided it would be better for me to go home,” she says. “Just a day or two after I landed, people had to go on a months-long waitlist. There were thousands of people waiting to go on chartered repatriation flights.”
Taking virtual classes throughout the fall, she notes the experience went much more smoothly than spring 2020: “U of R professors had more time to prepare, and they allowed me to work on my classes asynchronously, so I was able to study on my own time.”
For the spring 2021 semester, Nguyen is staying in Vietnam, where citizens wear masks and follow public health guidelines. “I miss seeing and interacting with my friends, but here in Vietnam we hardly have community transmission of COVID-19 cases. Life here is almost back to normal.”
Sheltering in place
Ja Seng Brim ’20, a Burmese graduate student getting her master’s degree in curriculum planning and instruction at the School of Education, chose a different path. Here on a scholarship from the First Baptist Church of Redlands and the U of R, Brim briefly considered going home when news of COVID-19 hit.
“But it was just a thought for me more than an actual plan,” she says, noting Burma is hard to travel to, there are not many flights, and tickets are expensive.. “I came to the U.S. to get a better education than Burma. To me, that includes going to school, interacting with Americans and other international students. I knew I wouldn’t have that if I returned home.”
Continuing to live with a host family and take all her coursework online, Brim is excited that she’s still graduating on time. She adds that having supportive professors and staff at the U of R made the difference.
Mousumi De, who teaches in the Department of Teaching and Learning in the School of Education, is one of the U of R professors who helped international students adjust to academic life during the pandemic. In her classes, she allotted the first 10 to 15 minutes to a “share and care” activity. “All the students would share the challenges they were experiencing in their lives and also discuss strategies for overcoming those challenges,” she says. “This strengthened our class community, while students were living in isolated spaces.”
De also volunteered to mentor and create support strategies for international students on campus from across colleges: “I encouraged students to be optimistic and view the pandemic as an opportunity to develop more resilience against adversity, reflect on themselves, be grateful for the life and opportunities we still have and progress further by not giving up. This, too, shall pass.”
And, despite the current challenges of the pandemic, Brim is excited to go back to Burma as soon as travel restrictions are lifted. “I’m excited to bring back what I learned about teaching critical thinking skills and first languages. Growing up, I just learned by memorizing. At Redlands, I learned that our students need to critically reflect on themselves and their world to become culturally responsive, action-taking citizens.”