The Collegian
Saturday, April 20, 2024

INTERNATIONAL OPINION: A foreign perspective of life during COVID-19

<p>Graphic by Noah Campbell and Valerie Szalanczy</p>

Graphic by Noah Campbell and Valerie Szalanczy

Editor's Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian.

It was around 6 p.m. on March 11. I was on a day trip in Washington, D.C. with other UR students and the Center for Student Involvement staff who had organized this outing. Suddenly, during our dinner, everyone started staring at their phones as if their lives were about to change. 

It was official: the University of Richmond had extended its spring break until April. There are only two words that could best describe what followed after that moment: pure chaos.

Alison Keller, the director of CSI, was trying to calm us all down and give us hope. Despite her efforts, fear and uncertainty filled our entire bus ride back to campus. Normally, you’d expect people to doze off from a long, tiring day trip. But everyone was wide awake. Phone calls, texts, loud voices filling every corner of the bus, contemplating what to do next and how to do it.

This question, “What to do next and how?” has really been a recurring theme for me and many other international students like me during this pandemic. From finding housing to arranging food, us nonresident “aliens” — as the U.S. Department of State likes to call us — really have had no place to go and it has been a constant struggle.

On the night of March 11, I sent out a dozen texts to people all around, ranging from my close friends to a few acquaintances at UR, asking if they could host me for this interim period. Given how uncertain this time was for everyone, responses were full of “maybes” and “IDKs.” I was super worried in that moment because, in my heart, I knew that-- no matter what-- I didn’t want to stay all alone on campus. I had already lived on campus during the winter break of my first year when there was practically no one around. The last thing I wanted was to be stuck there during a pandemic.

To be honest, all I wanted was to go home like everyone else did -- to my home in Pakistan, which now seemed farther than ever before. I just wanted to be in the comfort of my family, hug them and say, “Look: if the world ended, at least I know I was with you and we were together.” 

You may say these are crazy thoughts, but imagine being thousands of miles away from your family when a deadly virus is taking lives at an exponential rate. You’d be terrified, and I was too in the moment.

Sadly, Pakistan was quick to close its borders and I couldn’t make arrangements to make it back in time. However, thankfully, a very kind friend jumped in to help and host me. Pennsylvania was going to be my “home” for the next few months.

After getting through the first week of remote classes — yep, that first week of weird Zoom calls and attending classes from my bed — I realized the challenges that this work-from-home situation would pose for me in terms of getting daily tasks done on time. Of course, I wasn’t really at my own home, but rather taking refuge at a friend's place. And sometimes it can be hard to find the right motivation and support, especially when you're living with a foreign family you barely even know. 

Even with these concerns, I still cherished the little moments in my day, such as a brief walk outside, seeing the faces of my friends on Zoom or the hours-long video chats with my family back home. However, after these moments would pass, my head would still wander off, trying to figure out the answer to the same question, “What to do next and how?”

I may have found a roof to stay under, but there were still several challenges to overcome. Who was going to collect my stuff from the school? Would I ever be able to go home? How long would my friend be able to host me? These were questions that would constantly echo my head. 

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Over time, I vented some of these concerns to the UR administration via emails. All I found in response were what seemed like repeated and pre-drafted scripts reading something like, “We are sorry about your situation,” with links to a financial assistance form.

The problem is, sometimes we incorrectly think that a little check can solve everything or that “you can explore other options” is the way to go. In reality, there were, and still are, far too many complications that the pandemic posed for me and many other international students like me then that a check could solve. More often than not, we’ve found ourselves so homesick and overwhelmed by the crisis that there was no energy left to explore or even think of other options. 

And although I was fortunate enough to find a place to go, many of my international friends had to fight the UR administration for extended stays on campus. Some were even forced off-campus to fly home despite the safety concerns. 

The point in mentioning these examples here is not just to express anger but also to highlight a sad truth. Similar to how the inequalities that led to COVID-19 disproportionately impacting certain communities in the U.S., some Spiders have found themselves in way tougher circumstances than others.

Being in quarantine has made me reflect a lot and I've been reminded once again of the privileges that one has in just being a resident of the U.S., such as the ability to have a home to go to, a roof to live under and a family to be with during terrifying times like these. 

At the same time, after having had multiple conversations with my American friends, I’ve also realized that having a home here is one thing; it being a safe and loving space is an added privilege that not everyone has.

The question “What to do next and how?” still remains on several other students’ and my mind. How I wish it was easy to know the answer to this and plan it all out. How I wish that none of this was really true and I’d be at home now...

Contact contributor Sandeep Kumar at

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