International students speak on how they are impacted by COVID-19
Richard Clement Kusuma, UCLA’s international student ambassador for Indonesia, will be staying in his Westwood apartment for his final quarter at UCLA. As the novel coronavirus spread and UCLA suspended in-person instruction, many domestic students traveled home immediately. However, international students like Kusuma, who is from Jakarta, have more factors to consider. (Lauren Man/Daily Bruin)
As news of the coronavirus pandemic spread and UCLA suspended in-person classes, many domestic students traveled home immediately. However, international students often have more factors to consider, like navigating travel restrictions, employment complications and attending class from different time zones. Some decided to stay in Westwood, where others returned to their home countries despite all the obstacles.
Staying in Los Angeles
Richard Clement Kusuma, UCLA’s international student ambassador for Indonesia, will be staying in his Westwood apartment for his final quarter at UCLA.
“I’m staying no matter what happens, since, who knows, this could be the last moment I’m staying here with my friends,” said Kusuma, a fourth-year economics student.
Some international students planned to remain in their apartments or the Hill dorms for the rest of the academic year, as they felt staying on campus was an easier option than the restrictions and potential coronavirus exposure of international travel.
During her isolation on campus, Linwei Li, a second-year biochemistry student from China, said she returned to some of her old hobbies during spring break to occupy herself and deal with the stress of waiting for winter quarter grades.
She recently started drawing Powell Library, something she’s wanted to do since her freshman year.
Many universities across the country, such as Harvard University, closed down their dorms entirely, forcing all students to find a place to stay. Li said she is glad UCLA is providing resources for students staying on the Hill.
Like Kusuma, Vaibhav Gupta, a second-year electrical engineering student from India, decided to stay. He felt life at home wouldn’t be much different than staying on campus.
“My position has always been, ‘What am I going to do if I come home?’” Gupta said. “I have nothing to be doing at home, and I’ve got nothing much to be doing here either, but I cut out the risk of travel and all that jazz.”
After UCLA announced classes were going online for the entirety of spring quarter, many of Gupta’s friends flew home quickly, partly because of pressure from parents to do so. But his case was different.
“I don’t think either of my parents are particularly stressed out,” Gupta said. “I think from the moment spring classes were shifted online, the communication has been pretty clear; they’ve been pretty relaxed about it.”
Gupta said he thought that, although the administration’s initial response was slow, UCLA has been handling the pandemic as best it can.
“I think people have been a bit unfair to UCLA’s admin team,” Gupta said. “Their responses have been pretty good and they’ve been doing the best they can in a pretty (messed) up situation.”
Many international students, including Kusuma, want to stay in the United States after graduation, but the pandemic has made that process much harder.
An international student studying in the U.S. typically does so on an F-1 Visa, which allows the visa holder to enter the U.S. as a full-time student at an academic institution.
However, if the student wants to stay after graduation, they would have to apply for a post-completion Optional Practical Training authorization, which would allow them to remain temporarily in the U.S. after graduating as long as they are employed in a field related to their studies. Kusuma is one such applicant.
OPT applicants from UCLA have to go through the Dashew Center for International Students to complete the application. The center moved to remote work for the pandemic, however, leaving students to deal with more of the application responsibilities and making applying a more time-consuming process.
Instead of submitting all the required materials to the Dashew Center for it to mail to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, they have to apply to get any supplementary material needed from the Dashew Center and mail all the documents to USCIS themselves, Kusuma said.
Furthermore, international students aren’t certain whether they must be physically in the U.S. to apply. USCIS has not issued any COVID-19 pandemic-related provisions that allow students to file their OPT applications while overseas, according to to the Dashew Center website.
Although Kusuma has already filed his OPT application, some other graduating international students have returned home and are hoping for the best, he said.
And with many companies freezing their hiring processes during the pandemic, even finding employment after graduation is a concern.
Kusuma recently received an email from one of his recruiters telling him his job interview has been put on hold. He still has a few prior internships, though, and he will be working at another one during spring quarter, so he still has hope. However, if he fails to get a job related to his field of studies or maintain his student status, he will have to leave the U.S. when his visa expires.
“I’m still going to do my best,” he said, “I’ve prepared myself if I have to go home, but at least I’m trying my best first.”
Finally, international students in LA still have family to worry about back home.
Kusuma is concerned about his parents. Indonesia currently has the most COVID-19-related deaths in Southeast Asia, but research by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine suggests as few as 2% of the country’s cases may have been reported.
His hometown, the capital Jakarta, has been hit the hardest. On March 28, Jakarta’s governor extended its state of emergency by two weeks, following the rapid rise of cases.
However, many people in Indonesia are still going outside, Kusuma said.
The day Salsa Mazlan’s 24-hour flight landed in her home country of Brunei, the nation announced mandatory self-isolation for all incoming passengers.
Brunei, a small island nation near Malaysia and bordered by the South China Sea, has reported 135 cases of the coronavirus and one death due to COVID-19 as of April 6, according to a report from the Hong Kong Centre for Health Protection.
Mazlan, a second-year anthropology student and the international student ambassador for the country, was met at the airport by officials from both the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health. The Brunei Ministry of Education has taken an active role controlling the spread of the virus from international students, meeting with students coming from abroad to help them in their transition to isolation, Mazlan said.
She spent two days alone in a hotel room before the government called and told her she had the option to self-isolate at home, which she immediately took.
“On the drive back home from the hotel, when I was able to really feel the sense of what Brunei roads were like or the greenery or the houses, that’s when it really dawned on me that I did miss a lot of these things,” Mazlan said.
She’d been briefly unsure she’d even be able to get home. Before her exam Monday of finals week, Mazlan received a notification saying her flight had been canceled.
“So I told my parents, ‘Could you please help me?’” Mazlan said. “It was quite alarming for me to have to deal with that.”
Mazlan and her parents spoke with the airline company and secured another flight on the Wednesday of that week.
Ophelia Sin, a second-year geography student and the international student ambassador for Hong Kong, said she had family in LA to drive her to the airport to catch her flight to her home country – her parents were too nervous about the new coronavirus to let her take an Uber.
The precautions Sin took made traveling home tedious, Sin said.
“I actually poured like … 70% (sanitary) alcohol into a small bottle,” she said. “And I just brought it onto the plane with me and like, as soon as we got it to our seats we just stood there and we sprayed everything.”
Sin, who was traveling with another friend from UCLA, said the two even donned UCLA ponchos, surgical masks, glasses and gloves to protect themselves throughout the journey.
Additionally, Sin said she avoided eating unpackaged food and drinking water offered during the flight, as well as other facilities on board.
“I didn’t use the bathroom at all,” she said. “It was a 16-hour flight, and I didn’t use a bathroom. I heard it was dangerous.”
When she reached the airport, the Hong Kong government gave her a wristband that would track her location to ensure she remained in isolation for 14 days, Sin said.
Returning residents would download a mobile application that would scan the wristband’s QR code to track their location. The app would send a notification at the end of the 14 days, letting residents know they would be allowed to cut the wristband off, Sin said.
However, the local health department didn’t send a text to Sin or her friend, and hence both were unable to enable the app and its features.
“So like, there’s really no point since like, they can’t track (my) location,” she said.
Although the wristband cannot monitor Sin, she said leaving the house wearing it would be a mistake.
“If people see you, they will report you to the police and … people will come and grab you and send you to a quarantine camp,” Sin said. “And after 14 days, they will send you to court.”
Attending online classes from different time zones provided additional challenges to scheduling and some students’ education.
Although Mazlan said she received support from professors she reached out to individually, she hopes the university will establish accommodations for international students to ensure, for example, that students in different time zones can take classes without major inconvenience.
While the time zone difference between Hong Kong and LA made classes more difficult to navigate, Sin has found herself able to handle her coursework as the quarter begins.
“There’s definitely a lag time to that, but thankfully those classes aren’t too demanding academically for now,” Sin said.
Mazlan said she understood the difficulty for some international students being unable to fly home due to travel restrictions and hoped they would be able to find a supportive community around them and routine to keep their spirits up.
“Read the things that you’ve always wanted to read, watch the things that you’ve always wanted to (watch) or, you know) pick up a new skill,” Mazlan said. “And if you want to, you can document your time now in self-isolation, or your time away from home, just because it really is like a point in time where we’re making history.”
Contributing reports from Sameera Pant, science and health editor.