International students left uncertain after COVID-19 closures

With strict travel bans, closings and quarantines, international students are left scrambling to figure out what the rest of the semester will entail.

March 19, 2020

After UA students were mandated to leave campus, international students, unable to travel home and store their belongings, were left with uncertainty in what to do next. 

The University of Alabama’s spring break was extended until March 30 due to the outbreak of COVID-19, and according to a recently updated policy, the University will move to online instruction for the rest of the semester. Students are not allowed on campus grounds, and those who currently live on-campus must make a compelling case to stay. Many of those who stay will be international students who face limited options in the midst of strict travel bans. 

Some international students like Alisha Kale and Desiree Brown have traveled to be with friends and family in the United States during the outbreak. 

Kale, a freshman studying computer science, is from India. India suspended most travel and tourism visas, with some exceptions. While Kale is an Indian citizen and would be able to travel home, she would have to go through a two-week quarantine once landing. She decided to stay with relatives in North Carolina. 

“I knew that they were going to turn to online classes, but I didn’t expect them to ask everyone to leave,” Kale said. “I am glad they ended up giving accommodations for people who couldn’t leave, but that was really short notice.”

Students were asked to not return to campus once online classes begin unless they were an international student, did not have access to high-speed internet, or faced exceptional hardship, academic employment or clinical or research requirements. All residence halls and recreation facilities will be closed, and dining halls, food courts, libraries and other services will not be readily available, according to the semester completion plan

Brown, a freshman studying kinesiology, left campus for spring break before UA announced the switch to online classes. Brown, who is in a military family, is not technically an international student but lives in South Korea on a military base. She left for spring break to visit family in the U.S. 

“They did not communicate very well what was going on,” Brown said. “If they would have told everyone beforehand that they were planning on canceling school, I would have had everything in order. This stuff ain’t cheap! It costs money to fly out, get storage units and move stuff.” 

The University has not announced when students will be able to come back and move their things out of the dorm but is creating a staggered move-out plan to follow guidelines for social distancing. 

Other international students like Jessica Trang and Barbara Dias are staying on campus. 

Trang, a freshman studying electrical engineering, is an international student from Vietnam. Due to travel restrictions, her family has not been able to visit her and she has not been able to go back home. 

One of Trang’s concerns is that if she did contract COVID-19, she would not be able to receive affordable medical attention.

“My parents are really worried about me because of the health care system in the United States,” Trang said.  “If we get coronavirus in Vietnam, we get treatment for free. If I actually get sick, the only option is to just go home because it’s way cheaper if you are treated there.”

Dias, a senior studying journalism and international affairs, is an international student from Brazil. She also has UA health insurance but feels it’s inadequate. 

“I have health care from the University,” Dias said. “I’ve used it before and it was terrible. It’s nothing compared to healthcare I get back home.”

Dias lives at The Rotary International House, a dedicated space on campus for international students. She recently had to cancel her spring break trip to Germany due to travel restrictions and issues regarding her visa. Like many international students, she does not own a car and relies on university transportation. Dias is concerned that if she were to get sick, she would not be able to go to the health center or DCH. 

The Crimson Ride is not providing service during the University spring break but will start again on March 23. 

“My international friends and I were all really disappointed that we won’t get to go back for the summer because that was the one thing everyone was looking forward to,” Kale said. “Everyone’s just confused and there’s like no clear answer for anything.”

The Capstone International Center (CIC) is the main resource on campus for international students. This is where international students go for information on maintaining their student visa status, receiving academic help for their classes, and transportation services. International students are now having to rely directly on digital communications from CIC on important information regarding their education and well being. 

The University of Alabama is not alone in struggling to meet the needs of students during the pandemic. Other universities across the nation have struggled with arranging accommodations for international students during COVID-19.

International students are typically not allowed to take only online classes, as it is a violation of their F-1/J-1 visas. However, according to the Department of Homeland Security, international students will not be affected by the move to online classes and will maintain their status as full-time students. The University is continuing to collect data from international students about their needs and working to accommodate them.

But, despite these crucial measures, the move to online has left students like Kale feeling anxious.

“I’m worried about the classes being online and in general because I’ve never done an online class,” Kale said. “I don’t really know anyone outside of campus. I’m lonely. I don’t really know anyone here. It’s pretty much a quarantine without being in quarantine. I miss being on campus and the whole campus life that came with it.”

The University has not yet responded to a request for comment.

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