The Ambiguity of Being an International Student During COVID-19

The plan for 2020 was simple: Go to work, apply for full-time jobs, and walk across the stage with a degree from Georgetown University.

I started the year as a hopeful 23-year-old looking forward to making my parents proud, while I grinned ear to ear in the nation’s capital. Little did I know that in a matter of weeks, things were going to take a turn for the worst. Not just the virus but a sea of different dilemmas. 

As I sit at home quarantined while my internship is temporarily suspended, I find myself worried about the market, job applications, my parents navigating the lockdown in India, the situation of the economy when the pandemic ends and its impact on my F-1 visa, which allows international students like me to stay after graduation to pursue additional training. 

The worst yet best part? I am not alone.

[Read Related: Xenophobic Attacks Against Asians Increase as Coronavirus, COVID-19, Spreads]

On March 18, Georgetown students woke up to an email from the President’s office about commencement getting postponed. A major part of me knew it was coming but I went cold and still. I remember the day I got into Georgetown, I remember how happy my folks were, and how one of dad’s colleagues told him that he’d never be prouder than the day he sees me walking down the stage with a degree from Georgetown University. I was born and raised in the city of Mumbai and that is where my parents live. I was the first in my immediate family to move to the United States and since then, life has been a rollercoaster.

Not many people discuss the stress that the final semester has on international students. We’re worried about applying for jobs, securing our Optional Practical Training—a temporary employment status granted to international students based on their major area of study—and most importantly, convincing employers to take that chance.

Job-hunting as an international student continues to be an interesting learning experience, as you come across recruiters: some anti-sponsorship, some unaware of cultural differences, and many unfamiliar about visa requirements. 

But in our case, there’s yet an additional bridge to be crossed. For us right now, it’s the COVID-19 pandemic.

Along with the burden of job hunting, we’re worried about storing food, finding enough supplies, and our aging parents who are hours away from us. 

[Read Related: COVID-19: 6 Ways to Stay Safe and Sane]

Ever since I have been stuck at home, I find myself talking to my mother at least twice a day. She’s indoors and I’m also indoors, yet we find stuff to talk to each other about—be it a rant about my father’s office or my sister’s bland cooking. My heart worries every time she steps out to pick up groceries or complains about not being able to go to church during Lent. During our video call today she asked, “I have diabetes and blood pressure, what will happen to me?” I responded with a “Nothing, Mumma, you’re strong” while a tear fell down her wrinkled cheek. 

A major part of me wants to take a flight, head back home, and help my 53 and 57-year-old parents through the pandemic. I mean, it’s virtual classes, right? You would think this won’t be an issue. But that isn’t the case for us. 

When I see parents picking up their children, I find myself feeling jealous and worried that I am disappointing my parents by not returning. If we leave the country now, there’s always a fear of travel restrictions and health scares which could prevent us from returning. 

As a final semester student, I am waiting for my Optional Practical Training to be approved. If a students’ OPT application is denied while in their home country, they cannot re-enter the US in F-1 status to re-apply. Authorization is granted by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services and the process usually takes somewhere between three to five months. As a journalism student, I am eligible for a 12-month training period, whereas, for STEM students, this period extends to about three years. 

While most international students studying in the U.S. wish to continue here, they often compete with more experienced applicants amidst increasing immigration restrictions. The stress associated with this transition is now heightened with worries of the coronavirus for international students.

[Read Related: Make Quarantine Fun with Activities for Everyone in Your Home]

The whole experience has left me wondering whether universities are taking additional responsibility and efforts to connect with international students. For example, asking them what happened when they moved out of campus and whether their internships or on-campus jobs are paying them. 

Georgetown, through a statement on March 17, announced that the university will continue to provide students with opportunities to work on campus and get paid. But, international students at George Washington University were caught off guard when they received an email on March 18, telling them that if they were teleworking from off-campus housing, they must stop working immediately since they are technically not working “on-campus.” A day later,  they received a follow-up email that claimed the “message was provided prematurely.” Why cause this fear?

There are many questions that the higher education system needs to address.

If you’re an international student looking for support, know that you’re not alone. Across many campuses there are international students like us, supporting one another through virtual happy hours and spreading cheer. 

It’s okay to ask for help. It’s okay to question the ambiguity. We’re a community that stands together at immigration counters, wearing our university varsity gear and holding our paperwork in hand—a community with unspoken, solidarity.

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By Saniya Rao

Saniya Rao is a graduate student of Journalism at Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies where she serves as the … Read more ›