International students balance desire to return to US with uncertainties of pandemic

“I feel like going back this December is probably going to be one of the biggest gambles in my life,” one student said. Tired of difficult school schedules and distance from friends, some international students living abroad will return to Westwood this winter. (Lauren Man/Assistant Photo editor)

By Noah Danesh

November 14, 2020 at 12:16 p.m.

The COVID-19 pandemic and UCLA’s subsequent shift to remote learning has affected how some international students have approached their education. In light of International Education Week 2020, here are four stories that highlight some of the challenges international students have had to deal with during fall quarter.

Crystal Kei decided to stay home in Hong Kong for fall quarter after lengthy conversations with her parents and a concern for COVID-19.

But Kei, a second-year sociology and economics student, plans to return to Westwood for winter quarter after months of separation from her friends and keeping up with classes held 16 hours behind her time zone.

Some international students living abroad plan to return to Westwood to end difficult school schedules and to be closer to friends, despite winter quarter being mostly online.

Being close to friends is a big pull to Westwood for many international students, said Christine Ow, a third-year political science student living in Singapore. Ow, who plans to move back to Westwood, added it was difficult leaving her friends in Westwood in March when UCLA first transitioned to remote learning because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“As an international student, what happens is that oftentimes you will leave your social circles in your home country and you create new ones,” she said. “It’s lonely to a certain extent being in Singapore compared to being in LA.”

Ow, who is also the president of the United Nations Association at UCLA and a board member of UNICEF at UCLA, said she can be a better leader when she goes back to Westwood because it will give her the opportunity to meet and collaborate with members at more convenient hours.

“It’s really hard to be a leader when you’re so far away,” she said. “Having that time difference just makes it so much harder, being in Westwood allows me proximity to my teammates.”

Ow said she constantly apologizes to her professors and her peers to accommodate her circumstances as an international student, like meeting up late at night and taking exams at odd hours.

“‘I’m sorry – I am so sorry that I have to ask for accommodations again,’” she said. “That feeling is a big reason why I am going back. … I’m sick of putting myself down for something that I can’t help. So I want to make my life a little bit easier choosing to go back to LA.”

However, some international students may not have the option of returning to campus.

The United States Department of Homeland Security is likely to continue requiring international students who are in their first year at a U.S. university to take an in-person course in order to enter and remain in the country, according to the UCLA Dashew Center for International Students.

[Related link: Incoming international students face struggles amid new ICE policies]

Jenson Choi, a second-year computer science student living in Hong Kong, said although he could return to Westwood, he decided to stay home for his personal safety. The challenge of keeping up with his classes and fulfilling his club responsibilities will continue.

Choi, who is also an officer in the Association for Computing Machinery at UCLA, said he and other international students wake up early to host live workshops to accommodate students who are living in Pacific Standard Time.

Los Angeles County is experiencing another surge in COVID-19 cases, with more than 2,100 new cases reported Wednesday, according to a press release from the LA County Department of Public Health.

Kei said international students have a number of factors to consider – such as the health risks involved and the opportunity to meet their friends again – when deciding to return to the U.S.

“It has been kind of lonely here in Hong Kong,” she said. “I do have friends here, but I am just missing my college experience. Knowing that I only have four years of college … I would prefer to be there than to be here.”

However, Kei added she is grateful to spend more time with her family in Hong Kong during the school year, which she would not have been able to do during normal times.

Ow also values being with her family, but said she believes returning to Westwood is the right choice for her.

She said she is choosing to return to Westwood with a cautious hope that the situation in LA will get better. With the difficult hours and distance from friends, remaining home in Singapore would be difficult for her mental health, she said. Ow hopes people will understand this is a dilemma that some international students face, she said.

“I feel like going back this December is probably going to be one of the biggest gambles in my life,” she added.

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