Walking through slushy snow on my way to class during frigid winters. Barbecuing with housemates on warm summer evenings. Playing beer pong at parties. Hanging out with friends at the Student Union or the library between classes.
These are the first things that come to mind when I think back of my time spent studying at SUNY Buffalo in upstate New York a decade ago.
For international students studying there or in New York City — the current US epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak — I fear their memories may not be as fond as mine listed above.
Lockdown, shutdown, quarantine, and social distancing are just a few terms that will come to mind for those studying in New York when they think back on their student experience ten years from now.
The US currently has the highest number of positive COVID-19 cases, with New York recording 1,218 deaths at the time of writing.
some of the people hit really hard by #coronavirus in New York are international students — visa complications/finding housing in a foreign land/not being able to return because borders are shut. A crisis at @IHouseNYC exposes it all: https://t.co/JJAdTNg4ma
— Samira Sadeque🐢 (@Samideque) March 26, 2020
Their international student dreams are being put on hold as they are left unsure of what the future is going to bring after the pandemic is over, and they fear for their health and families back home.
Many who will be graduating this year are also bidding farewell to their dreams of walking in commencement ceremonies – yet another thing we took for granted back then – as a number of universities have announced they are either holding virtual ceremonies or postponing to a later time.
My own brother is currently studying miles away from New York, in Eau Claire, Wisconsin where there are currently six confirmed cases. For spring break, he is spending it holed up in his dorm room, waiting for his professors to shift completely to online learning.
With his graduation date coming up after this semester, he is anxious about getting his OPT approved and gaining employment in the summer.
Reading the multiple stories about international students’ plights and what’s currently happening in New York at this time, I can’t help but think how I would have felt going through the same.
My country Malaysia is currently on a Movement Control Order in efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 – that means I’m not allowed to leave home unless I work in or need to get essential goods and services.
But I can still seek comfort from being able to work from home and be with my husband while being close enough to provide support to my family members if they fall sick.
How far technology has come
The world has come a long way since 2010, and international students today have a lot to their advantage despite studying abroad at such a difficult time.
A decade ago, a sizable chunk of my international student experience took place online. I took a few online classes, submitted my assignments through Blackboard Learn, and chatted with my friends back home via Skype.
Still, all these sound rudimentary compared to the technology available today. Had the pandemic happened back then, it’s hard to say if universities would be able to transition so successfully to online learning in such a short period of time as they have today
Zoom – the videoconferencing platform that’s booming in popularity as classes move online – was founded in 2011 but it was only in 2013 when users were able to utilise it. Skype only introduced group video calls in 2016.
Social media was not nearly as powerful as it was today. I remember Facebook was something we simply used to post photos or write on friends’ “walls” and wasn’t a primary source of news (or fake news) like it is for many students today. Instagram was just breaking into the scene and there was no such thing as Tik Tok.
Smartphones were also just becoming popular but only for the elite who could afford them, as the first iPhone was only introduced in 2008 – the year I started my study abroad experience. Even if you had a smartphone, you had to navigate through expensive data packages or connect to slow Wi-Fi to be able to use any app properly.
Today, students have unlimited apps at their disposal to keep them occupied as they go into lockdown mode, whether for entertainment, communicating with loved ones or to order food/grocery delivery at their fingertips. Broadband and data internet speeds are faster than ever.
Thanks to technology, they are also able to keep up with their studies and stay on track despite certain challenges during the transition.
Finding employment after graduation
It’s too soon to tell what’s really going to happen but it’s clear that economies will be hit badly by the pandemic.
This is something I can relate to as I graduated during a time when the US was still reeling from the 2008 recession.
Although a few of my friends studying in New York were able to gain employment, it was difficult for me as companies were still struggling to get back on their feet – much less fork out thousands of dollars to sponsor my H-1B visa.
For international students currently studying in New York, other parts of the US, or wherever in the world – my advice and hope is that you stay strong, stay safe and stay hopeful.
Remember that while you may be in isolation, you are not alone. Seek help from your university, international student council presidents, or from your peers by staying in touch via technology.
As my brother Aruwin Segaren, President of International Student Association at UWEC says, “Being in a different country is difficult, because we aren’t near our loved ones, and things operate differently.
“However, we are all in this together, and we can do this. It will be a rough couple of months, but we must not give up. If there is any help, go to the international office or call the consulate nearest to you. Seeking help is very important at this stage. ”