Stay or Go? International Students Weigh Intersession Options
Concerns about safe travel, homesickness influence decisions
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has made this holiday season tough for everyone as they make plans about who they can and cannot see, but for BU’s international students, it’s been especially difficult. Besides being worried about their own health and the health of their families back home, many have had to grapple with additional factors, like potential travel restrictions and visa delays.
At last month’s virtual Back2BU meeting, where students were able to pose questions to University administrators, international students were strongly advised to stay on campus for Thanksgiving and winter break. Amanda Connolly, International Students & Scholars Office associate director for student services, pointed to the travel restrictions that went into effect “almost overnight” during the 2020 spring break, preventing many students from returning from Europe and China. There continue to be embassy and consulate closures all around the world, she said, and if a student needs to apply for a new visa, there are massive delays.
“To tell our students to forgo winter break with their family is a huge sacrifice and we do understand that,” she said at the time. “But if you choose to leave the United States and travel restrictions are put into place while you’re abroad, you risk not being able to come back for the spring semester.”
With that in mind, some international students are choosing not to travel home and are planning instead to remain in their off-campus apartments. The University has offered on-campus students the option of sharing a room at the Hotel Commonwealth in Kenmore Square for a discounted rate during the holiday break. This year, 30 international students are taking advantage of the offer, comparable to previous years, says Nishmin Kashyap, director of housing. Students staying at the hotel are still required to have frequent COVID-19 tests and on-campus dining will be shuttered, although there are many takeout options nearby. (For those students remaining in Boston, look on our Friday site for a special list of events in and around the city during the holidays.)
Faisal Halabeya (CAS’22) is among those who have elected not to risk returning home. He plans to stay in Boston because of the public health risks associated with travel and the long mandatory quarantine periods that make traveling more difficult. He says the decision to stay in Boston was made a little easier since his family is spread out across several countries, which would have made it nearly impossible for them all to be together.
Halabeya was less concerned about visa issues. “Students have been able to enter throughout the pandemic under special rules governing essential travel, and I don’t expect that to change anytime soon,” he says. “That being said, things can change quickly in the realm of international travel and it’s certainly one less thing to stress about.”
Jiaxin Tong (COM’22) is also staying put. Among his reasons: the potential risk of contracting the virus on a flight or getting infected while at home, as well as concerns about delayed or canceled flights and the uncertainty of open borders between the United States and China. “Most of my friends decided to stay in Boston as well, and they are planning to go back to China for the summer break in 2021,” he says. The film and television major intends to spend intersession shooting films, writing new screenplays, and exploring what Boston looks like during the holidays.
Maria Shevchuk (ENG’23) decided to stay in her apartment over the break with the cat she recently adopted and plans to continue her part-time job at the Dean of Students office. She is remaining in Boston because her visa has expired and the only way she can renew it is to return home to Russia and begin the lengthy process of getting a new one.
“The embassy back at home in Moscow is closed for the holidays until January 18, which is too close to the start of classes for my comfort,” Shevchuk says. “I think for most students, it is the uncertainty that’s keeping us here. Most of us don’t know if we’ll be able to come back, and doing school fully online with an eight-hour difference, while paying full tuition, just seems like a waste of money.”
But the concerns about travel restrictions and safety haven’t deterred all students, though those we spoke to say their decisions weren’t made lightly. Ariane Vigna (CAS’22, COM’22) is heading home to Paris. She says spending the holidays alone without her family and friends was out of the question. “Being on campus during the pandemic has been quite isolating, and I think going home will make a huge difference for my mental health and allow me to do well in my classes next semester,” she says.
Vigna also feels it’s safe to travel home because she does not believe that borders will close to visa holders again “since immigration services have implemented National Interest Exemptions,” she says. “The only thing that would make it very complicated for me to come back would be if BU decides to switch classes to a fully remote format. Then, immigration services would not see a valid reason for me to come back to the United States.”
If that were to happen, Vigna says, she would try to study remotely while staying with family elsewhere in France or Europe, to avoid being confined again to her childhood bedroom as she was last spring. Were classes to go remote-only, she would work to have her partner, who is also a student at BU, visit since “she would be eligible to enter my country’s borders under France’s exemptions for long-term partners,” she says.?
Maria Lazou (ENG’22) wavered for a month about whether to make the trek back home to Ukraine, but ultimately decided to go, since all of her BU friends are going home and because she has missed her family. She bought her ticket at the last minute, but says it cost less than usual, which she attributes to fewer people traveling.
“Nowhere is safe. I honestly think the plane in which I’ll be flying back home on will be the safest place,” Lazou says. “People are just scared of not being able to come back—I understand that. When I had to go back home, I was home for eight months, and the time difference was brutal. I had a class at 10 pm. But I have friends here, a relationship here. It was harder to make the decision this time, because if the ‘what if’ happens, I’d just be by myself back home. But I evaluated everything and have 10 extra plans in my head. I think it will be fine.”