Two pandemics: travel bans for international students

Photos submitted.

Left: Tendai Chiutare

Right: Alex Xing

The world has seen a multitude of changes and setbacks due to the effects of COVID-19 and the trials and errors of discovering a “new normal” way of living. Through it all, the question of universities’ actions has been on the forefront of students’ minds as endless news reports and articles report differing opinions on the reopening of schools during the pandemic.

Following the suspension of in-class lessons at ATU in March 2020, the majority of students living on campus were instructed to move out of their Residence Halls and return home; however, for some students this was not as easy of a task as it was for others. Of these students that had varying levels of difficulty in the process were international students.

On March 13, 2020, President Trump ordered a travel ban on incoming flights to the U.S, and, likewise, other countries around the world placed similar bans on flights and closed borders to assist in preventing the spread of COVID-19. For some international students this meant a prolonged delay in going home and nowhere else to go but to stay on campus or hope that someone opens up their home.

Alex Xing, a junior Business Data Analytics student at ATU, attempted to return home for the summer, but his booked flights were cancelled.  “I tried to buy plane tickets but they kept getting cancelled and the prices rose,” Xing says.

Xing is from Guangzhou, China where he says the virus was quickly under control. “In two months, the numbers went down,” Xing says and relates it to how the U.S. has not had as successful of a story.

For Tendai Chiutare, a sophomore Psychology student, her greatest worry about trying to go home right now is not being able to come back to America. “Even if I did go home, I would have to quarantine for two weeks, and I don’t know if there would be any flights to get me back to America,” Chiutare says.

She made attempts to return home to Harare, Zimbabwe in May, but like Xing, her flight was cancelled. “South Africa closed their borders, so there was no other way,” says Chiutare. 

With no other choice but to remain in Arkansas, these international students were dealt with few options to choose from for their next step.  “We still had to pay housing and buy a meal plan for the summer,” says Xing. He found himself living in Jones Hall, one of the two buildings offered for international students over the summer.

“I mainly stayed in my room and didn’t leave Russellville,” says Xing. However, Chiutare found herself in a different situation than Xing. “I stayed in Russellville with a family that I met my first semester,” says Chiutare.

Neither student felt it fair of the university to have international students pay full price for accommodations and meal plans during this time. “We’re not choosing to stay here this long, so I think there should be more resources available for us. We can’t put our feelings and emotions above our education, and we can’t afford many other options,” says Chiutare.

International students are not offered the same scholarships as American students, and Chiutare says that what they are offered is competitive to obtain. “America is supposed to be a country with the best funds for international students, but in small schools like this it can be hard to find out about the funds, and we can only afford small schools like ATU. It’s an endless cycle,” says Chiutare. 

Some international students were lucky in being able to find a way back home, and while some have returned to campus, others have remained in their home country. “I would have gone back home and done online classes,” says Xing. “I have friends that went home and they were able to move all of their classes online.” He feels as though the ability for students, especially international students, to choose to do online classes during this time is a helpful option offered by ATU.

Chiutare also wishes to return home if it were possible and if it wouldn’t negatively affect her education. “Being away from my mother has been hard. Missing important days like Mother’s Day, her birthday, and especially celebrating my own birthday here without her,” says Chiutare.

She explains that it’s hard for international students to be so far from home during a pandemic because, “Having to worry about the situation in two countries is stressful. You’re worried about yourself and your family back home.”

On top of assignments, navigating online and hybrid classes, and staying safe, international students are also concerned with their home country’s situation and the health of their friends are family.

Xing and Chiutare, along with other ATU international students, are trying their best to balance their thoughts that are thousands of miles away in their home country and being a college student during a time of continuous change.