As students evacuated campus, research labs closed and classes transitioned online, international students were forced into two options: travel inordinate distances to go home or remain on an empty campus thousands of miles away from their families.
Olivia Song (22C) is a Chinese undergraduate student staying at Emory for the remainder of the semester. On March 22, she moved from Woodruff Residential Center to Clairmont Campus, where the University has decided to house students remaining on campus. Although Song said she wasn’t surprised to receive the news of Emory’s closure — as other peer institutions had already made the call — her initial concern was where she would live.
“The biggest concern was … are we going to be allowed to stay on campus or will we be kicked out,” Song said. “Luckily it’s resolved now, and I’m staying on campus.”
Song said the process of requesting housing was simple, and she received a response five days after requesting housing.
Song said the Chinese international students she spoke to weren’t afraid of returning home as they come from regions of China less impacted from the virus. She said, however, some students were worried about disease transmission on the nearly 23 hour flight there.
Song also expressed concern about food availability and preparation: in the face of limited options for eating out, Song also questioned whether it would be feasible for her to constantly cook for herself. Shuttle routes to grocery stores will still run during the closing, but only during limited times.
Other students, mired in their research, worried over lost work, deadlines and postponements.
Nuri Jeong (23G), a neuroscience PhD candidate from Suncheon, South Korea, had to abruptly halt her experiments when an announcement from Laney Graduate School stated that all non-essential research activities would cease by March 20.
Jeong has worked for three years in Assistant Professor Annabelle Singer’s lab in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory. When Emory announced its move online, Jeong was in the middle of training mice for eventual brain recording, an in-person process that requires Jeong perform surgery on the mice before training them for a period of more than a month.
“It’s been very stressful,” Jeong said. “We had to shut down our entire lab. I was in the middle of experiments and had to shut it down.”
Not all of Jeong’s research requires her to be physically present in the lab. Jeong has been able to analyze previously collected data, run code, read scientific literature and prepare figures; however, she speculated that graduate students in other fields may be more limited in what progress they can make remotely.
“I can always go back, and I’m lucky to have data I can analyze at home… we’re coping,” Jeong said.
Outside of impacts on her research, Jeong said the hardest part of quarantine has been the isolating effects of social distancing.
“Not being able to interact with people you see usually day to day has been really tough,” Jeong said. “It feels isolating. … I assume that it’s going to be like this for a while.”
Jeong, who lives off campus and will continue to do so for the rest of the semester, said she sympathizes with undergraduate international students who have had to scramble to find housing on short notice.
As an international student, the physical distance from her family has become disquieting and difficult as the pandemic worsens. Though Jeong noted that the situation in South Korea is improving, she remains restless over the wellbeing of her family.
“Right now South Korea is recovering really well, but it still worries me that my family is all back home,” Jeong said. “If something happened to my family, I wouldn’t be able to go back, and vice versa. It’s emotionally distressing.”
Some international students have taken such a crisis as an opportunity to build bridges among the community. As Vice President of International Students in the Graduate Business Association at Goizueta Business School, Sanjana Chhantyal (20B) took it upon herself to contact at least one MBA student from all the different countries Emory draws students from.
Chhantyal wanted to hear how her fellow peers were coping. Through her outreach, the Nepal native heard firsthand how international students in the MBA program were dealing with quarantine measures.
Chhantyal received estimates for the amount of international MBA students who had returned to the U.S. and those who are still trying to return. She reported these numbers to the business school. Some students she spoke with were having difficulty securing flights.
One primary concern students had about getting back to the U.S., according to Chhantyal, was ensuring their visa status as full-time students. Under normal circumstances, the U.S. government requires international students to live in the U.S. to be considered full-time students for visa purposes; however, the Department of Homeland Security has waived this restriction, which gave international students peace of mind.
“I think that has been a great relief for students because they don’t have to panic as much when they try to enter the country,” Chhantyal said.
Like undergraduate classes, MBA classes are also transitioning online, though students are still unsure whether they can attend lectures asynchronously or if they will have to be present for live online lectures.
Chhantyal said this is an important concern for international students because a large percentage have families with children and will have to schedule school work around childcare, a task made easier by recorded lectures.
“I think that’s another concern for international students … trying to juggle life as a family person and as an MBA student,” Chhantyal said. “No one wants to send their kids to daycare given the situation, but even if they wanted to, the daycares … are closed.”
During Emory’s shutdown, Chhantyal is remaining in Atlanta and has no immediate plans to return to her home country of Nepal. Chhantyal said that though there are few cases of COVID-19 in Nepal, the nation is still feeling the virus’s impacts on tourism. There have also been price hikes on essential products like rice and gas for cooking. Chhantyal stated that the public health infrastructure in Atlanta was part of her decision to stay.
“I feel much safer [in Atlanta] because the medical infrastructure is much better here, and my family would be much safer as well if I don’t go back [to Nepal],” Chhantyal said. “I think it’s better for me to just stay here and finish the rest of the semester.”