International Student Guide to Surviving the Pandemic
Updated: Jul 10, 2021
I rang in the new year 2020, asleep in my hotel bed in Jordan, the latest addition to our long list of international travels. To celebrate me being back home for the holidays, my parents did what they always did, whisk me off to a foreign country for a family vacay. 2019 had been a good year, but I was excited to usher in a whole new decade. The 20s! These were the years I’d graduate, do my masters, get a job, travel, maybe even get married and settle down in professional and personal bliss. I was eager to see what lay ahead.
My family decided to play a game where we all talked about the one thing we were most excited to do this year. My sister and brother-in-law were most excited to spend more time together as a recently married couple. My parents were excited to continue thriving in the new jobs they had both taken up in the last year. I was most looking forward to going to Uganda on a backpack journalism trip, a venture unlike any other I had ever undertaken. And so, I boarded my bi-annual flight back to Omaha, Nebraska, the charming midwestern city that served as the backdrop to my institution: Creighton University.
Flash-forward to six months later. My sister and brother-in-law had not seen each other in 55 days, thanks to him being stranded on a never-ending business trip to Saudi Arabia, and her working in India. Flights had been halted indefinitely, with no news of repatriation efforts. My father’s booming pediatric business now received somewhere between 0-2 patients a day, although if we were being honest, zero patients was a more common reality. And, my Uganda trip was cancelled, and my classes moved online, with no way to fly back to my country of residence: UAE.
The COVID-19, which was once a threat mentioned in passing but not one we thought would actually seep into our immediate world, had taken hold of the US and was declared a global pandemic in Mid-March. My friends and I were returning from a Spring Break trip in South Padre, filled with pouts, arguments and friend group drama. Little did we know, those trivial problems would not stand a chance against the behemoth of the challenges that lay ahead.
Once we heard that the coronavirus had been declared a pandemic, the events followed quickly like a domino effect. First, our university moved our classes online, and students were encouraged not to come back to campus. For me, an Indian girl from the UAE, and my friends, a guy from India, and a girl from Belgium, this posed a big challenge. The flights to our home countries were suspended. Secondly, I lived on-campus, and as an international student, I would be allowed to stay under the guise of ‘special circumstances.’ But if I were to be honest, I didn’t want to return to an empty campus where most of my off-campus friends wouldn’t even be.
A hasty decision was made to drive up to an American friend’s farmhouse in Missouri. Living together, all 8 of us friends, 3 internationals and 5 Americans, would be a new experience, and something we were excited to explore. But underneath the excitement, I felt a wave of trepidation, I was someone who liked her space and alone time. That’s what recharged me to be my usual sunny extroverted self. Now, I would be forced to stay with my friends 24/7, and they would see all the dark, messy parts of me. My angsty broody self who liked to spend time by herself in the bedroom, my overly chatty self when the night rolled in, and my perpetually absent-minded self when it came to the household chores, something I wasn’t used to doing as the pampered youngest daughter back home. Regardless, I buried these qualms and charged forward with no fear. Besides, this quarantine thing would only be for a few weeks, right?
We ended up living at the farmhouse for a solid 3 months. It turns out living in an isolated bubble surrounded by acres of gorgeous farmland, and nights of enjoying bottles of cheap Moscato can lead to interesting group dynamics. The lingering interpersonal disputes of spring break were straightened out with drunken hugs, and for some, dramatic confessions of hidden feelings were exchanged over the firepit while melting marshmallows. The first month actually brought us closer together as friends, and for some of us, led to something more. Despite the supportive friendships, a budding romance, and constant video-calls with my family back home, I still felt alone.
All my life, I had felt a little out of place, like a puzzle piece that didn’t quite fit. I was a third-culture kid, which means I was born in a culture other than the one I was raised in. I attended an Indian school in the UAE and studied both Arabic and Hindi. But I resonated more with the open individualistic culture of the American movies and television shows I was exposed to. The three cultures of UAE, India and US shaped me to be the person I am, and I was proud to be a global citizen. But now none of the three countries felt like ‘home.’ In UAE, I was a resident, not a citizen, despite having been born and raised there.
And so, traveling to the place I had grown up in for the past 20 years was restricted to me at the time. And I needed to return within the next 6 months, or my residence permit would be cancelled. I couldn’t go back to India, because that’s not where my immediate family and home was based. And US was making it increasingly harder for international students to continue staying there and take online classes. I was essentially living off borrowed time and the kindness of my friends.
Friends really help you get out of the funk though. The first week of the pandemic, I would spend hours in the bedroom that had been allotted to me in the farmhouse, hidden under the covers. I didn’t want my friends to see the dark moods I could get in; I was more comfortable letting them see me as the bubbly, fun, albeit a little immature and narcissistic best friend. But they accepted me without question.
One friend cheered me up with a warm, freshly baked cookie in bed. They’d drag me out of bed to go on impromptu grocery trips or go outside with them to play hacky-sack or kick a soccer ball around. If I wanted to go on a long solitary walk amidst the green pastures, I would always have a volunteer to come join me while I ranted about the uncertainty of these unprecedented times.
The farmhouse was a good way to shut off from the world, and just focus on our studies, and activities in nature like fishing, hiking or feeding baby calves. The city girl in me liked getting acquainted with the outside adventurer within me. But all good things come to an end, and soon it was time to leave the place we called home for the last three months and go back to Omaha.
At first, it was great to be back. I could finally have my personal space back! My beautiful on-campus apartment was as pristine as ever and it was nice to get reacquainted with friends we had left behind in the city, when we went to the farmhouse. But Omaha was different, a ghost town. Most of the streets were empty, and because of the horrendous crimes inflicted on George Floyd and other African Americans, riots and protests had taken the city by storm, leading to a curfew; we were told to stay inside to protect ourselves.
Even when the curfew ended, I remember being in a friend’s car and driving to avoid the sound of gunshots, the tear gas and shouts of people in the background. It was terrifying, even though I knew these things needed to happen. The more people’s voices were suppressed, the more they would retaliate. I remember feeling helpless, the world was going to shit and what was I doing to help? Absolutely nothing.
It was still deemed unsafe for me to fly back home, but the earlier contentment that the farmhouse had brought in our lives started to dissipate once we returned to real life. The new romantic ‘situation-ships’ that had emerged in the farmhouse now crumbled as quickly and dramatically as they had appeared; it was a fantasy and nothing more, and 2020 has no time for looking at each other through rose-colored glasses or dynamics built on shaky uncertain foundations. The friendships that had been restored, now began to drift apart as everyone dealt with the reality of the pandemic and the uncertainty of the future in their own way, leading our friend group to further divide themselves into smaller sections.
In a way, it was heartbreaking. The last two years in the US were a dream come true for me, filled with new academic and professional opportunities, parties, road-trips, and new memories. But now everyone around me seemed depressed, drained and tired. There was nothing I could do. I didn’t know if it was because of the pandemic, or because of senior-itis, or because of our individual circumstances, but I felt helpless and detached from the people I loved most in the world.
I was never one to spend too much time crying over spilt milk, so the quarantine drove me to get my shit together. I cleaned my apartment, rearranged my wardrobe, and started applying to graduate schools. I also started writing, a continuous process, of which this piece is one of the results of. Things have gotten a lot better since college has begun, and with hybrid classes giving us the opportunity of face mask-to-face mask contact.
Despite the social distancing, life has gone on and I have learned to find the pleasure in the little things like social distancing with my closest friends, going to parks with face masks on, or having indoor activities like wine and cheese nights or movie nights. I’m excited to do a socially distanced Halloween and returning to the farmhouse for thanksgiving. And, this December, I was finally able to go back to see my parents, not having seen them for a whole year.
I grew up with a love for stories, and if this period of our lives was a story, the happy ending would be the world standing together arm in arm, no longer bound by the shackles of our face masks and hand sanitizers, bursting into song and dance, after having triumphed over the evil monster that is coronavirus. And our lives would magically fall into place, and everyone would be happy and fulfilled again. But deep down, we know that it isn’t that simple. A long, arduous road lies ahead. Even with a vaccine, and no intermittent quarantining,
2020 has taught us the lesson that everything is not always what it seems, and that the world needs healing. It needs healing from disease, racial divisions, class inequality, climate change and an endless array of other issues. Burying ourselves under our covers and shutting ourselves from the world like I did the first few weeks will not help; the human race might be flawed, but at the end of the day, we need each other more than we care to admit.
So, what has been my takeaway from this year so far? As an international student in a world where countries are increasingly strengthening their immigration restrictions and closing their borders, and where no place feels quite like home, the quarantine can be tough. But with good friends and family, an established routine, and knowing that we are all in this together, we can face the uncertainty head on, and remind ourselves that the feeling of home is found within ourselves, and the darkness will not last forever.