Insight: International students endure heightened homesickness in pandemic

Having to isolate during a pandemic has not eased homesickness for international students

This year has been less than ideal for students, but it was especially difficult and emotionally draining for international students. 

It began with Asian students reporting racism and xenophobia at ASU before COVID-19 became a global pandemic. 

Then in July, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement proposed guidelines requiring international students to enroll in in-person classes if they wanted to maintain their full-time enrollment status. 

The message was clear – quarantine in your own country.

Universities across the U.S. filed lawsuits against the guidelines, leading it to be revoked. The widespread support against this policy was a testament to an integral part that international students play in contributing to this country’s economy.

But in the few days this policy loomed over the student population, there was a mad scramble to find tickets back to home countries and a race to find in-person classes to enroll in. I remember thanking my stars I was registered in at least one in-person class in fall.

When the policy was rescinded, a new issue appeared when countries, including the U.S., started closing their borders indefinitely and placing restrictions on incoming flights. I was one of many international students who canceled plans to go home in the summer because I was sure I would not get a ticket back in time for my classes.

Then fall started, and it turned out that most classes, especially graduate classes, were online. I’m enrolled in three online courses that will end with online finals. I find myself spending a lot of effort trying not to think about how I could have gone back to India in May and saved on rent.

Xuhan Huang, a senior majoring in industrial design, said it has been over a year since she went back home to China. Being a senior at ASU, she has experience spending several months away from home, but it’s especially difficult this year because of the isolation.

“Every day is so long,” Huang said. “I feel like I don’t have any memories from this summer. Every day is the same.”

She said she was planning to go back to China this summer to do an internship. Huang stayed back primarily because she didn't believe she would be able to get a flight back to the U.S., something she considers "has happened to every international student," including me.

Huang said she needed to be in the U.S. in the fall to take a studio class, something her advisor told her couldn't be taken online. But as of fall, it is available online, she said.

Huang said she has kept in touch with her family through social media, trying to reduce their anxiety about her wellbeing.

“They watch the news, so they’re worried," Huang said. "I have to tell them I’m good and not to worry about me. People need to be social. But right now, we can’t. Social media is good, but sometimes it still feels like we’re missing something. We’re human beings.”

Cagla Demirduzen, a doctoral student majoring in political science, had a similar experience to mine, saying there were travel restrictions that stopped her from going back to Turkey in the summer and there was a possibility she wouldn't be able to return.

“I didn’t want to miss anything, so I stayed,” Demirduzen said.

Yousef Alhaoli, a graduate student majoring in justice studies, wanted to go home to Saudi Arabia around April to be with his family, safe from all the confusion resulting from the pandemic.

“Everything was in a state of chaos. There was no food, nothing, really,” he said. "I thought, maybe it’s time to go back home and just stay there for the summer."

But he said even planning was a long process because he had to make most of these decisions quickly.

He said his sponsor didn't tell him and other sponsored students if they were able to study remotely "until, like two weeks before the beginning of the fall semester," adding that "It wasn’t just on ASU."

Alhaoli said he tried to stay calm through the summer while the number of cases peaked in Arizona, but it was not an easy task.

“Almost everyone I knew had left the country," he said. "Up until May it was going well in Arizona, but then it peaked in June. It was a lot of staying home, wanting to be with my family and trying not to freak out.” 

Positive thinking from both the students and their families is crucial in helping get through these difficult times, Alhaoli said.

“I’m still processing," he said. "I’m looking forward to going home in December. That’s how I keep myself going."

I know when we come to this country for higher education, we sign up for a certain amount of homesickness, but this is not a normal situation. When there is a death toll like COVID-19's on the news, most people can go to their families for safety and comfort, but we can't. 


Reach the reporter at abhilasha.mandal@asu.edu and follow @AbhilashaMandal on Twitter.

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