International students face uncertainty as COVID-19 spreads

Senior+Francis+Sophia+Gow+shows+off+her+new+study+spot+at+her+home+in+Managua%2C+Nicaragua+on+March+31.+

Senior Francis Sophia Gow shows off her new study spot at her home in Managua, Nicaragua on March 31.

Sophia Reid

On Friday, March 13, Augustana College announced that classes were cancelling a week early for spring break. For most students at Augustana, this announcement meant packing a suitcase or two and driving three hours home. But, this switch and the move to distance learning starting on March 30 left a much more uncertain future for international students. 
International students were permitted to stay past March 14 when everyone in on-campus housing was asked to leave, but for many students, their future in the country and at school was still unknown. 
First-year student Erin Doherty, who flew home to Ireland shortly after March 13, initially had plans to stay on campus for spring break with fellow international students.  As the spread of COVID-19 continued, those plans changed. 

First-year Erin Doherty studies at her home in Ireland on March 31. Doherty will be finishing up the rest of the semester at home in Donegal.

“Within a couple of days, it became clear that we would have to return to our home countries,” Doherty said.  “Every day more students were leaving and the campus felt like a ghost town.” 
Doherty had initially planned on flying home at the end of May when her visa was finished. As she stayed on campus and awaited news about distance learning, she was met with increasing pressure from her family and other officials in Ireland to return home. 
 
Ultimately, when Doherty decided to fly back to Ireland, she was met with even more difficulties as she spent over 10 hours on hold over the phone with the airport. 
“It felt impossible. I got through to someone at 1 a.m. and then changed my flight. The feeling like you can’t get home is awful and extremely worrying,” Doherty said.
For some international students, the biggest challenge they faced was not actually getting home. Instead, it was choosing whether or not to leave campus with few goodbye’s and a lack of closure. 
This was especially true for senior Francis Sophia Gow, an international student from Nicaragua. Gow left three days after the March 18 announcement from administration that the campus would switch to remote learning for the remainder of the semester. 
“l was looking forward to graduation day,” Gow said. “I have worked so hard to achieve this milestone and to enjoy the last weeks of my undergrad career.” 
Though struggling with disappointment, Gow was dealing with pressure from her family in Nicaragua to come home due to fear of canceled flights and closed borders. 
Graphic by Kevin Donovan/Art Director

“International students and out-of-state students have to think about the consequences of going home, especially if the place that you are from already has many cases and certain travel bans are imposed,” Gow said. 
Junior Nadia Ayensah, an international student from Ghana, had similar fears that once she left the U.S., she would not be able to return for the start of her law school program this fall. The uncertainty of staying  in her current housing also added to her decision: she would stay on campus for the remainder of the semester. 
“Since I am starting law school in the fall, I did not want to make any rash decisions in going home and not being allowed back into the U.S. because of health concerns,” Ayensah said. 
During unpredictable times such as these, the differences between domestic student and international student experiences are clear. International students’ ability to check in with family, return home and take online classes is uncertain. 
Ayensah, who spoke about the stress that international students have faced, had a call to action for domestic students at Augustana: 
“Once the shelter in place order has been lifted and social distancing precautions have been relaxed, please try your best to help an international student and other students remaining on campus,” Ayensah said. “This help can range from offering hot meals to providing transportation to grocery stores.”
 
Featured image submitted by Francis Sophia Gow.