As Lewis & Clark prepares to limit campus activities for the next six weeks, there is one remaining group who are particularly vulnerable: international students. While many American students have been able to flee campus to the safety of their own homes and families, many international students cannot do so. Instead, they are left living at LC as COVID-19 dominates global affairs.
The international community at LC consists of over 60 students, many of whom elect to stay in the U.S. during the summer. Students like Tobias Varntoft ’21 from Denmark opt to rent houses close to campus during the summer so they can have access to necessities, such as the Pioneer Express. For many of them, the U.S. is home for four years of school and often a year after, as they try to navigate college and life. Those who do usually go back to their home countries during school breaks are now unable to do so due to COVID-19.
Emma Franco ’22, an economics and international affairs double major from Mexico knows that she cannot go home. The spread of COVID-19 has led to the U.S. and many other countries closing their borders in order to ensure the safety of their citizens. If Franco were to leave the U.S., she may not be allowed re-entry, despite her student visa status.
There are also significant health risks involved with going back. Airports and airplanes are cesspools of infection, and Franco is afraid of the risks they pose.
“I don’t want to get exposed (to COVID-19) and bring it back to my ederly grandparents,” Franco said.
Although coronavirus is not necessarily fatal if contracted, it can be for the elderly, young children, and those with compromised immune systems.
Although many students could return to their native countries, issues arise once they arrive. Many countries across the world have not yet been able to slow the spread of the virus. The disease has just recently entered Mexico, and much like the U.S., they have not adequately equipped themselves to deal with the oncoming pandemic.
For other countries, the state of affairs is even more dire than that in the U.S.
“For me personally, I would not be able to go back,” Varntoft said. “ The virus in Denmark is the second worst in Europe right now after Italy…getting home is the last resort for me right now.”
Varntoft maintains that the international community on campus has always been friendly. This is partially due to the international students orientation that they are required to attend at the beginning of their freshman year. However, many of them also attended United World College schools, an experience that helped them relate to one another. But according to Varntoft and Franco, this global hysteria has brought them even closer. One student has offered up their car for rides to the grocery store, and they have even created group chats to help support one another. This type of support is crucial in moments like these. As of March 18th, Maggies and the Dovecote have suspended all operations, leaving students with only two meal options: Fields Dining Hall and the Trailroom. However, the Pioneer Shuttle, which provides access to grocery store Fred Meyer’s, seems to be on track to continue running for the rest of the semester.
They have also been advocating for themselves. According to Varntoft, there were tentative plans in place to move all remaining students to Juniper, the dorm with only singles. However, a few days ago, the international students got together and emailed seven administrators, imploring them to allow the students to remain in their respective apartments and dorms. Both students also stated that some halls, such as East Apartments, are almost exclusively international students.
“Being put into (single) rooms would be very damaging to our mental health,” Verntoft said. Being so far from their families and losing all of their friends can already be alienating enough for these students, and they do not have the privilege of just flying back to their parents if they miss them. Moving out of their homes would just add more fuel to their stress fire.
Another group that is also particularly vulnerable during this time are the foreign language assistants. Currently there are six on campus, but at the time of publishing, the Chinese foreign language assistant will have returned home to Taiwan.
Fulbright scholar and Russian language assistant Zemfira Gogueva, French language assistant Sara Aitelhocine, and German language assistant Luis Markowsky are all worried about their future at LC. According to them, all of their countries are open for citizens to return, but they do not want the stress of quarantine that awaits them.
“ I really don’t want to go back to Germany… 14 days of quarantine and then probably self-isolation, and social life will be shut down…there will be a curfew probably.” Markowsky said.
The same fate awaits Gogueva and Aitelhocine if they also attempt to return to their native countries. They are also afraid that they might be more at risk for infection in their home countries than in the U.S.
“At the moment [Russia] does not have a lot of cases,” Gogueva said, “But I’ve read that they [misdiagnosed] people, and they diagnosed people as having simple pneumonia, but they probably had cases of [COVID-19].”
Low testing supplies and misdiagnosis is also an issue that is currently plaguing many nations, including the U.S. But many international students want to remain here for a variety of reasons, and they are all grateful for LC’s continued support.
“I’m kind of happy with the situation because campus is remaining open,” Aitelhocine said, “ And they’re providing us with housing and food… I feel like the situation here is much better than [trying] to go back home.”
Franco and Varntoft repeated this sentiment. According to them, many international students they knew at other universities have been forced to leave campus as COVID-19 forced complete school shutdowns. But LC has pledged to keep campus open for those who opt to stay, at the very least, until the end of the spring semester.
Brian White, director of the International Students and Scholars has confirmed this detail.
“I told the students that I can commit to you for the rest of the semester, that we’re going to have a place for you, and there’s going to be food,” he said.
And many international scholars appreciate the office’s dedication to their students’ wellness and safety. According to Franco, ISS has also been extremely helpful in notifying them immediately of new information.
“They’re honest and transparent with how things are working out.” Franco said.
But the ISS office, according to White and Vostoft, also does not have a solid idea of what to do if the situation changes. According to White, the administration has still not hashed out a detailed plan for what to do for international students if this pandemic continues into the summer.
“I don’t think there is a detailed plan of what would be provided, or for how long, past the spring semester.” White said.
And even though the administration may be overwhelmed with all these issues, the international scholars are even more overwhelmed with anxiety over an uncertain future. This extra stress on top of living in a foreign country can easily overwhelm even the most stable of adults, let alone young students.
Like most LC students, the international students are currently shocked about the situation. Just two weeks ago, the international community on campus held the International Fair in order to celebrate and share their respective cultures with the LC community. Within the span of a week, their whole worlds have been turned upside down. Their friends have left, many of their countries are too risky to return to and they remain at the mercy of the Lewis & Clark administration.