International students navigate travel bans and visa status amid COVID-19 crisis
Students adjust to life at UB amid shift to distance learning, others travel home amid pandemic
Mingchen Cai went home to China over winter break to see his family. Upon returning to Buffalo, he had to self-isolate. But Cai never anticipated New York becoming a virus hotspot.
Now, he feels “trapped.”
Cai is just one of 4,500 international students at UB who decided whether to stay or go back home as U.S. COVID-19 cases rose from 5,000 to more than 170,000 across the nation in the last two weeks.
Thousands of miles away from home, international students are uncertain about their futures at UB. Many say they worry about protecting their health, but also about being far from family during the pandemic. For many, their home countries are closing borders to international flights and if international students leave the country for more than five months, they risk losing their Visas. UB is letting international students stay on campus, and International Student Services is providing letters to those who may exceed the five-month period by going home now. But students still worry if they’re better off at UB or at home.
Cai said he is “frustrated” with being isolated in Buffalo while his family is across the world. He left China just before a lockdown was issued as the pandemic escalated and now, as the new cases in China are decreasing, Cai wishes he could return.
“Now everything’s happening again,” Cai said. “It’s like [an] apocalypse right now, especially for international students because they don’t have families here and they’re struggling.”
Cai said he worries that going back home could jeopardize his Visa status if he stays in China until the fall semester.
According to ISS’s COVID-19 website, the office will issue support letters to help students re-enter the U.S. in fall if they exceed the five month limit. Students returning to their home countries from March 11-May 19 due to COVID-19 concerns are eligible for the letter.
But the website says ISS “cannot be certain this [letter] will resolve any concerns by [Customs and Border Protection] officers,” when students come back in the fall.
Many students had similar concerns as Cai and decided to stay in Buffalo.
Parinieta Ahuja, a senior pharmacology and toxicology major from India, said when it comes to staying in Buffalo or going home, “there’s no best decision.”
“You make [the decision that] works for you,” Ahuja said.
For her, Buffalo seemed like the “safest place to be,” as any travel could expose her to the virus.
“There’s also a travel ban in India, and I feel like it wasn’t the smartest decision to go and be quarantined for 14 days and miss out on schoolwork,” Ahuja said.
Netra Mittal, a sophomore applied math major from India, said she is worried about her parents getting COVID-19 and said it’s scary to be away from them. But her fear of being denied re-entry into the U.S. kept her in Buffalo.
“The fact that my parents could [catch] the disease and I wouldn’t even be there around them, there’s no possible way for me to go back home because of Visa restrictions and there’s a possibility if I go back home I won’t be able to come back to the U.S., which is even scarier,” Mittal said.
Assistant Vice Provost and Director for International Student Services Katie Tudini wrote in an email that the office hasn’t received information about the reopening of consulates and embassies so there are many uncertainties about visa and travel restrictions.
“We don’t know if the U.S. government will further restrict travel inside or into the U.S.,” Tudini wrote in an email.
Clara Kok Xi-Yuan said her family strongly urged her to come back home and Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs recommended overseas students return when cases started rising in the U.S. two weeks ago.
Xi-Yuan, a communication major from Singapore, said she initially decided to stay because she hoped the situation would get better. But she decided to return to Singapore after seeing the rapid rise in cases and realizing that there was “no proper health care” for her in the U.S. because she’s not a citizen.
“I’ve accepted it now and I’m just relieved that I’m leaving,” Xi-Yuan said.
Tudini said UB is working with SUNY and International Student Healthcare to address student questions on health care and insurance policies.
Doreen Fan-Liyi and Xi-Yuan attended UB’s Singapore campus before moving to Buffalo this year to finish their senior years and graduate from UB’s main campus. Fan-Liyi said she was upset that her American college experience came to an abrupt end due to the growing COVID-19 pandemic across the United States and the world.
“It’s a lot more disappointing than I thought it would be,” Fan-Liyi, a senior communication major from Singapore, said. “The whole plan was to come here and graduate and live the whole American college experience and when it gets potentially canceled it’s like, ‘sh-t.’”
Although some international students stayed on campus, UB has made drastic changes. Students can’t visit each other in dorms and apartments and 24-hour quiet hours are in effect. Seating areas are closed, all dining services are to-go and people need to stand six feet apart in dining halls, while interacting with campus staff and in shared spaces.
“I saw a lot of people leaving yesterday,” Rutuja Sawant, a senior media studies major, said last week. “I’ve been working on just FaceTiming people, talking to them while I’m here because I’m going to go crazy.”
After UB’s move to distance-learning on March 11 and Campus Living’s emails urging students to move out on March 17 and 18, international students were concerned about their living situation. Students said they felt relieved when Campus Living announced that international students will be permitted to stay on campus.
“I’m glad that we were not made to go back home because that would’ve been even worse,” Sawant said.
Ahuja emphasized on the importance of staying connected despite the social distancing.
She said “no one knows what’s going to happen” but that it helps to share each other’s stories to help get through the crisis.
“I do feel like talking to people and reaching out is very important,” Ahuja said. “I’m trying not to be anxious, but it totally gets to you like there are days when I’m in bed and I’m like ‘what is going to happen.’”
Vindhya Burugupalli is a senior multimedia editor and can be reached at email@example.com and @moonhorizon__ .