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International students talk challenges amid the pandemic

Illustrated by Ndidi Nwosu

By Shreya Jindal     9/14/21 10:20pm

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages worldwide for another school year, it continues to bring about uncertainty and stress for Rice’s international student community. After facing numerous stressors such as ever-changing travel restrictions, visa problems and time zone differences, the majority of international students arrived on campus this August, according to the Office of International Students and Scholars.

As the primary support office for international students, the OISS dealt firsthand with many international students’ specific problems that occurred as a result of the pandemic, including U.S. embassy closures, flight cancellations and special in-person course requirements of U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), according to Adria Baker, the executive director of the OISS. 

This year’s matriculating class had a 53 percent increase in international student population. According to the OISS, this increase is due in part to Rice’s successful management of the pandemic. 

“We believe it is a reflection of the care that the Rice community has shown in trying to keep people safe, adjusting classes as needed, [enacting] strong COVID-19 policies, [making] testing well available and [providing] vaccination clinics,” Baker said. 

This increase in population will have a significant impact on the OISS staff in particular, according to Baker.

“It increases our enthusiasm with each new student, but the amount of follow-up, compliance needs, work authorization, questions, concerns, and students’ issues have greatly increased,” Baker said. 

During the pandemic, the OISS has held events that are normally in person virtually. Normally held a few days prior to Orientation Week, the Undergraduate International Orientation (UIO) would provide guidance on setting up phone numbers and bank accounts along with information about visa requirements.

“[UIO] is geared for those students who did not do their education in the USA, as well as those students who need to understand the parameters, limits and benefits of their nonimmigrant visa,” Baker said. “[For the last two] years we held Zoom pre-O-Week meetings, as well as meetings during O-Week. We had some in-person gatherings outside for the students [as well].” 

Kelly Shang, a sophomore at Hanszen College, spent her first year remotely in China and came to Rice this semester. Last fall, she took Rice classes online while living on campus at the Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech) in Shenzhen. For the second semester, Shang chose to move back to her home in Nanjing to be with her family, she said.

According to Shang, living at SUSTech allowed her to meet many other Chinese students who were attending Rice remotely. She said she was also able to bond closely with her three roommates. Due to these friendships, her remote experience last year did not hinder her recent transition to Rice campus life, she said. 

“I already know so many friends, either from SUSTech or just from Zoom,” Shang said. “My friends that went in person last year, they’re already very familiar with the campus, so I never actually get lost ... I feel very secure.”

Martel College sophomore Joshua Chiang said he is also on campus for the first time this semester. While Chiang is a U.S. citizen, he was a remote Rice student in Taiwan last year. He said the absence of support from the OISS made his transition to campus more difficult.

“That sort of in-between category isn’t really accounted for when it comes to easing in and settling,” Chiang said. “Opening a bank account and setting up your phone number are all things I figured out myself because I don’t have that [resource] …  I think the lack of outreach from the OISS to students like me can sometimes feel alienating.”

Baker said that the OISS provides special services to visa-holders, who must meet specific requirements and that the academic and that apart from UIO, the social resources for international students and US citizens living abroad are the same.

Lovett College sophomore Mehek Jain who is originally from Hong Kong and Singapore, came to campus last fall. Upon arrival at Rice, Chiang and Jain both said they noted a difference in American attitudes towards the pandemic and vaccines compared to their home countries. While COVID-19 vaccines have been widely available in America and at Rice, many countries still do not have the same access. 

“For me to get my vaccine, I really had to use connections,” Chiang said. “But here in America, you can just walk in wherever you want [and get] the vaccine. That also influences everyone’s attitude where they’re like, ‘We’re vaccinated. We’re fine, we can relax.’ But for people who are coming from abroad [inoculated] with different vaccines that may not be as effective as the ones Americans have access to, [living at Rice] definitely can feel a little scary at some times.”

Jain said that it is very likely that the families of students from abroad are unvaccinated and living in an area far more vulnerable to COVID-19 than the U.S. 

“International students probably need more support than ever before,” she said. “And I felt like emotional and social resources [don’t] really exist that much at Rice. Because I don’t think that that is OISS’ job.” 

Quarantines and other travel-related restrictions remain obstacles for students from abroad. Jain said she will not be returning to Hong Kong for the upcoming winter break.

“This winter break, I definitely will not be going home to Hong Kong because it just doesn’t make sense,” Jain said. “Because they’ve now increased [the on-arrival quarantine] to 21 days, I would literally quarantine and then come back. There’s just no point.”

Jain said she traveled to campus as an incoming freshman alone due to numerous travel restrictions. 

“Even if financially it was feasible for parents to come, it didn’t make sense logically and with travel restrictions,” Jain said. “I came alone in the summer in August [2020] … which was obviously intimidating — coming to the U.S. for the first time on my specific student visa ... and then setting up everything on my own.”

Jain said many international students that she talked to in her matriculating class struggled with obtaining a U.S. visa since many of the embassies were closed in the summer of 2020 due to the pandemic. 

“My visa appointment was three days before my flight,” Jain said. “And I was like, ‘Well, if something goes wrong, I’m screwed.’” 

Sini Koivu, a Hanszen junior from Finland, also said she faced last-minute changes when arranging her plans for returning to campus last fall. Koivu said she and her friends from Rice had to consider traveling to a country outside Europe for two weeks and then flying to the U.S. from there due to U.S. immigration restrictions.

“We made all these travel plans and it started to sound super expensive, and we were worried that we wouldn’t even be able to come back [to Rice],” Koivu said. “Luckily, those [restrictions] were lifted maybe two weeks before we were flying back. But, [they] definitely increased stress for many of us. Some of my friends actually had to delay their start to college because of those issues; they were not able to get their visa early enough.”

A swimmer for Rice, Koivu said she did not fly home during her two-week winter break last year due to Finland’s quarantine requirements and the shortened length of the swim team’s vacation.

“Christmas is family time for my family, so not being able to be there for people that I only see once a year was a little frustrating and emotionally draining,” Koivu said. “But I think I didn’t realize [that until afterward], when I was tired to even start the semester.” 

Remote students faced different issues last year. In far away time zones, some classes were scheduled at odd hours. Chiang and Shang said they attended the same architecture studio class at 6 a.m. local time in China.

“I [would] always pull all-nighters to try to finish my work before studio,” Shang said. “Every time I finished my class, I would go out and see my friends during [the] daytime. So I feel like my sleep pattern [was] very disturbed because I wanted to [do] my schoolwork and have fun at the same time. It was just a mess.”

Chiang said one of the biggest struggles was the lack of a collaborative academic environment, particularly in his asynchronous classes, due to the virtual format and different time zones. 

“When you’re watching a recording, you feel a lot less engaged with the class because you’re also receiving information after everyone else,” Chiang said. “You feel a sense of behindness …  being isolated, abroad, from people who are doing the same work as you, but you’re just doing it by yourself.”

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