Steven Bui spent his freshman year half-a-world away from Buffalo.
The sight of the sunrise creeping over his laptop screen as he clicked off his last class before bed was a daily routine for Bui, who is from Vietnam, 12 hours ahead of New York.
For Bui, who arrived on campus for the first time this semester after taking his classes remotely due to COVID-19 last year, that sight is a distant, albeit unpleasant, memory, and his eyes feel better rested.
Bui is one of thousands of international students at UB who arrived or returned to campus this semester in the wake of a tumultuous year-and-a-half that saw the COVID-19 pandemic shutter college campuses around the globe.
Nearly three-quarters of the way through the current semester, several international students at UB reflected on their experiences over the past year as well as their journey to a campus.
No sleep for the sophomores
Bui and sophomore computer science major Ky Anh Tran, both international students from Vietnam, often occupy empty Academic Center classrooms for late-night study sessions before heading back to their respective dorms for the night.
Bui, a biochemistry major, says he goes right to bed. He says he wakes up as early as possible each morning to call home and see how his girlfriend and family are doing.
Tran picks up right where she leaves off. She says she usually spends a couple more hours working in the privacy of her dorm before turning in for the night.
Despite only meeting shortly before the start of the fall 2021 semester, the pair shared strikingly similar experiences prior to arriving at UB.
When the university announced there wouldn’t be any in-person classes last year, the decision to attend remotely from home was a no-brainer for Bui.
“I still have to stay at one place to study online. Why don’t I stay in my country so that I can still meet with my family [and] my friends as I study?” Bui said in an interview with The Spectrum.
Tran, too, considered the financial benefit of studying remotely from home.
But both students quickly found that doing their studies from their bedrooms could present a whole host of other issues.
“I would say the most difficult thing for us is the different time zones,” Tran said. Synchronous instruction presented particular challenges for Asian and other international students, who were forced to attend classes at odd times of the day. Classes with required attendance were especially difficult, these students said.
Tran said she twice overslept a class that was scheduled to begin at 3 a.m. and found that remote learning was slowly consuming the boundaries of her life.
“Well, to be honest, I don’t think that I was functioning normally as a normal person, because originally, I had a bedroom and a study room, but then I just moved all my stuff from my bedroom to my study room,” Tran said.
Bui also had mandatory classes that took place at 2 and 3 a.m., though he said that the workload was light enough that he had no trouble keeping his grades up. Still, he maintained that the schedule took a heavy toll on his health.
“I had really few sleep hours, like about four hours a day,” he said. “Some days I [would] get enough sleep, about six hours, but some days, the lowest sleep hours I got was about two hours for a day.”
While his night classes allowed him to sleep during the day, Bui refused to allow his academics to distract him from his social responsibilities and the time he had to spend with his family before departing for the U.S.
“I had a lot of things to do with my family and my friends back in high school. We had a project about our memories in high school so they came to my home very often in the freshman year. I couldn’t sleep during the day because of my social life,” he said.
Tran worked tirelessly to ensure that her academics wouldn’t slip despite a daunting freshman workload. She took 19 credit hours in her first semester, followed by 18 credit hours in the spring.
Not being able to spend time with her family was also a mental struggle.
“I literally only met them during lunch, dinner and dessert,” Tran said. “I didn’t take any vacations during that time — no breaks.”
It all began to take a physical and mental toll on her, she says.
“I lost a lot of weight during my first year. I didn’t have any social life at all and I was depressed last year,” she said. The experience pushed her to the brink. “I kind of wanted to drop out of CS [computer science],” Tran admitted.
Like the thousands of other UB students who trudged through the year without a moment’s respite, Bui believed he would have benefited greatly from a break. UB took away spring break last year because of the pandemic, much to the chagrin of its students
“I think having a break during that time would [have] really helped,” Bui said. “Like one or three weeks that I can balance my sleep schedule and regain my health. Just a little bit of refreshment during the year.”
Tran cited human interaction as an important component to staying mentally healthy during the pandemic. Bui says he could sense the impact virtual learning had on the behavior of students in his classes.
The pandemic and its subsequent changes affected a particular aspect of Bui’s experience as an international student: learning English. Though Bui by this point had a decent grasp of the language, he found opportunities to improve his speech harder to come by online.
“The most affected class by the pandemic is [the] ESL [English as a second language] class because the class is supposed to be designed so that classmates practice speaking and talking with each other. And like, the whole thing is online, like we only communicate by Zoom,” he said. “Only the professor is talking and no one will talk.”
Bui thought he might at least get to engage with his peers more prior to or immediately following class, but found neither them nor his professors willing.
“We don't have free time before and after class so that we can have a chance to communicate with each other which really affected the chance to practice English,” he said.
Tran says that although she believes UB tried to integrate international students into school, it was difficult to meaningfully connect with the UB community online.
Bui and Tran have found it much easier to get involved since arriving on campus.
UB’s decision to hold in-person classes meant the two could finally travel to the U.S., having secured a visa long before Vietnam’s vise-like grip on COVID-19’s spread kept it off of U.S. travel restriction lists.
Both have hailed viable sleeping arrangements as being essential for their renewed health.
“[My lifestyle] is more healthy and balanced, but the food here — I mean, they are understaffed, so to get healthy food is really hard. Back home, my mom just cooks and I eat it,” she said. Appreciatively, she continued. “But one more thing is that the sleeping schedule is much better here at UB.”
Bui says that living in the dorms has made a big difference for him — not only for his social life, but for his English, as well.
“I think I got the most English practice through my roommate, and the friends that I made when going to dinner around the dorms,” Bui said.
Tran also observed that being on campus has enhanced her social life.
“People are eager to make friends in person rather than make friends virtually,” Tran said. “And so far, I have really great friends.”
Bui says he continues to make it a point of spending time with his family, albeit virtually.
In the wake of these events, Bui and Tran take care to monitor the situation while living their new lives in the U.S.
“I still worry about my relatives,” Bui said. “I call them every day to make sure that they know how I’m doing here and I know how they are doing there.”
What’s next for international students at UB?
UB was experiencing a drop in international enrollment, even prior to the pandemic. But the emergence of vaccines and the loosening of COVID-19 restrictions worldwide has contributed to a slight reversal in those trends.
“A majority of international students could not travel to the U.S. last year and deferred their admission to this year,” Lee Melvin, vice provost for enrollment management, said.
As UB anticipates an influx of international students in coming semesters, students share words or warning and encouragement.
“Don’t be afraid to talk to your friends, because I noticed that most international students were afraid to speak out because they thought their accents cannot help them to get to know the newer students,” Tran said. “Just don’t be afraid to speak out and reach out to professors if you need help.”
Freshman computer science major Andrew Kadmiri similarly advocates for international students to stand their ground and confidently speak out, especially when it comes to anxiety around the all-too-familiar foreigner tag.
“You could just feel the discomfort of like, this is not where I belong. It’s not my country, so I can't feel as comfortable,” Kadmiri said. “But generally, one [piece of] advice I would give to incoming international freshmen is to just not be afraid of putting yourself out there and just thinking of yourself just as equally as any other person.”
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Kyle Nguyen is a senior news/features editor at The Spectrum.