Being an International Student in the U.S. During a Pandemic

When I decided that I wanted to study in the U.S. almost three years ago, I never imagined that I would end up taking college classes from the same desk I spent endless nights preparing for the IB exams back in high school. Or that I would look outside my window during my MEJO 153 lecture and find myself looking at the Santo Domingo sky, far away from where I wanted to be. I thought I would be spending the next four years in 400 person lectures – a big difference from my high school classes, where I only graduated with 36 students. I imagined walking down the streets of my college town, feeling free and safe.

Being a college student in the current world is not an easy task. Balancing exams, papers, internships, mental health and a pandemic with no light at the end of the tunnel is exhausting. Let us not forget that we just witnessed one of the most crucial elections in American history. But being an international student – pandemic or not – brings a unique set of challenges. We have to worry about things like visas, language barriers, less financial aid opportunities and work authorization for internships. 

Quarantine was all but restful. There was nothing to do, but a lot to think about. International students spent all summer worrying about every different scenario, from travel bans and closed airports to the risk of exposing ourselves to COVID-19 as we prepared to travel back to Chapel Hill. 

Everything changed for the worst on July 6. 

I was consumed with anxiety the second a friend sent me a link to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement website. These new policies would thrust my fellow international students and me into uncertainty and leave us scrambling to figure out our plans for the fall. 

The guidelines were unclear. We all struggled to figure out what this meant for us as we awaited  the university’s response. Did this mean we would be losing our visas if we could not make it back? What about all of the things we left in Chapel Hill? What about the leases we had signed for the fall? According to these regulations, foreign students would not be able to enter or remain in the U.S. if their classes were to be conducted entirely online. If their universities began the semester in-person and switched to online, they would have to leave the U.S. or risk deportation. 

For me – and I am confident that most international students agree – studying in the U.S. is more than sitting down in a lecture hall. It is about new experiences, new cultures and making life-long friends from various parts of the world. Although we knew that this would be an unusual semester, being in the U.S. and being back home are two different things. From stable Wi-Fi to psychological counseling, many international students have access to resources in the U.S. they cannot obtain back home for various reasons. Also, many students would be taking classes at 3 a.m. due to time zones. The option of  coming back to Chapel Hill was taken from us, an option that was open to our fellow American friends. We also deserved the opportunity to decide if we wanted to come back or not.

I saw a small glimmer of hope after reading the news that Harvard and other big universities were going to fight this big time. And they did. Only a few restless nights later, ICE rescinded the guidelines following lawsuits from several universities, including Harvard and MIT. I can not describe the level of relief that I, and many international students, felt on this day.

Back on campus, international students can’t catch a break either.

Last week I received my first response for this internship season: “Unfortunately at this time we are unable to progress candidates who would need (visa) sponsorship now or at any time in the future,” the email read. Considering everything that is going on around me, I wasn’t even slightly fazed. 

Getting an internship with a student visa is tricky. Many companies seek to hire their interns after they complete their internship programs, but many are unwilling to sponsor work visas for international students. As a result, many are left out of these programs. Besides that, we always have to ensure that everything we do is legal. You need authorization for this, you need authorization for that.

I do not think it is bad that international students must go through extra processes to get internships in the U.S. It is how the system works in most countries. The problem is that we are often left alone to navigate through the paperwork. And trust me, I have talked to so many people about it and there are many things I still do not quite understand.

Do not get me wrong, I do not want to sound like this is 1,000 words of me complaining about the challenges of being an international student. Studying in the U.S. has given me life-long friends, the Chapel Hill community, an education and opportunities to meet people with different perspectives. As I write this, I sit on my bed, with my windows open and the dark Chapel Hill night sky looking right at me, and I am so grateful that I was able to come back for the fall.

We can not forget the international students that could not make it back, those who have to wake up at ridiculous hours to meet for group projects, meetings or simply go to class. We are thinking about you. Whether you chose to stay home or just simply could not make it because things did not work out, you are still a part of Carolina. 


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(1) Comment

  1. Jackson Tang says:

    Wow that was an amazing read. I could relate to this on every aspect of your article, especially when you mention the part where we couldn’t stay on campus. Hope I can read more of your articles in the future.

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