To stay or go: living as an international student during COVID-19

COVID-19 has caused many countries to shut their borders, resulting in complications for international students.

Creative Commons

COVID-19 has caused many countries to shut their borders, resulting in complications for international students.

Haifa Rejili received a call at 7 p.m. telling her she had the option to either stay at USI housing or go back to her home country. 

The international student made her decision and by 10 a.m. the next day, she was taking a flight back from the U.S. to Tunisia, ending her time in the U.S. early.

There are around 50 international students still on campus, after the original 63 who stayed after the pandemic hit, according to Heidi Gregori-Gahan, associate provost for international programs and services. 

She said some international students have returned to their home country or moved off campus, but the majority remain on campus.

Gregori-Gahan said the university is checking in on international students by regularly providing additional supplies and food. Sodexo is currently running limited food services from the C-store and the university is providing bus travel twice a week for groceries. 

Gregori-Gahan and President Ron Rochon personally deliver a meal to the students every weekend. Gregori-Gahan said although they’re practicing social distancing, the weekend meal gives students the opportunity to see the faculty and each other.

Gregori-Gahan said the university is doing what they can to try and help the students on campus feel supported. She said she’s received lovely messages from students appreciative of everything they’ve done for them.

“The main thing is just trying to make them feel connected and engaged while making sure their basic needs are met,” Gregori-Gahan said. “ I always try to put myself in their shoes and think about what it must feel like to be stuck here without family or anywhere to go and worrying about their families at home…but trying to help them with all of those issues.”

She said USI’s international services had regular zoom meetings with the students to help them feel connected and answer any questions they may have. Gregori-Gahan is currently working from home.

Rejili was supposed to stay for a year at USI through an exchange program from her home country of Tunisia, but the sophomore finance major ended up going home earlier than expected after she heard the news of campus closing.

Rejili was living in the dorms with the international students Living Learning Community when she and the rest of the remaining students were moved to the apartments after the closure. She said the borders to Tunisia are closed but since she came to the U.S. through the U.S. State Department, her sponsors were able to negotiate with the Tunisian government to get her and the other students in her program back.

Rejili was told when she was still in the dorms there would be a flight back, before being told that the flight was canceled.  She stayed in the apartments for around 10 days before receiving a phone call telling her there would be a diplomatic flight from the U.S. to Tunisia the next day and she had to decide if she wanted to go or not. 

Rejili said she decided to go home because of everything being shut down and courses getting moved online. The next day she left for home.

She said the choice was easy because she was already thinking about what she would do if she got the chance to go back before she received the phone call.

“But it was really, really stressful because I was planning to buy gifts for my family,” Rejili said. “I was planning to stay with my friends and give them the regular goodbye ceremony…but it was all over and I just had to leave.”

She said she didn’t have time to buy a suitcase for the trip because she received the call at 7 p.m. and left the next morning. Rejili couldn’t sleep the night before. She met with Gregori-Gahan in the morning before she left along with another student from her program.

Rejili said some students she knew came to the apartment the night before to say goodbye while still maintaining social distancing. She couldn’t hug her friends, but she could take pictures to commemorate the moment.

Rejili had to stay in quarantine at a hotel after she arrived back in Tunisia. The Tunisian government paid for the expenses and she said she was excited to see her family after the quarantine ended. 

Rejili said, at first, she thought the stay at the hotel was going to be bad, but it actually ended up being fun. Tunisia is located in northern Africa and she said her room had a view of the Mediterranean sea. Volunteers would serve food to the people at the hotel and the government paid for all the meals. 

“The people here are really taking good care of us,” Rejili said.

She said the people in the hotel were always playing music, dancing, playing games and speaking to each other from the balconies. 

Rejili said she’s going to miss Gregori-Gahan, who she calls Mama Heidi, and the community of USI. She said she had access to good education in Tunisia, but she doesn’t see the same diversity there.

“At USI I learned many different things,” Rejili said. “ I learned about cultures, I learned about different cultures and I even learned about other languages. I lived with other people from different backgrounds, and we got to communicate together to be close friends…so that’s the thing that I liked the most USI.”

She said USI did all they could given in the situation and even more. Rejili said Rochon would talk to the international through social media and they were regularly in contact with Gregori-Gahan.

She said the day she was leaving she and the other students going on the flight received a phone call from Rochon who apologized for not being able to say goodbye before they left. 

“That was really amazing,” Rejili said. “Having the president calling you and making sure you’re safe.”

She said she’s looking forward to seeing her friends after quarantine so she can tell them about her experiences.

“If I’m ever asked to be whatever student I can be, I will always choose to go to USI, because it’s like I found another family there,” she said. “And I’m lucky for that.”

Diego Castillo Koussa was originally from Venezuela and he’s been in the U.S. for three years. Although the junior mechanical engineering major’s family now lives in Houston, he has had to remain on campus.

Castillo Koussa said he decided to stay because he didn’t want to risk contact with the virus by taking a plane. He has his own space at USI in his apartment to work on his online coursework and on his job at Berry Global. 

Castillo Koussa said he was scared when he learned about campus shutting down because he had just flown back from Houston after spring break and it would be hard for him to move out since his family lives so far away. He said allowing him to stay on campus was a life saver.

Castillo Koussa, who lives in the apartments, said his roommate was moved to the other room in the suite so they would each have a room to themselves to maintain social distancing.

Castillo Koussa said living on his own has been bittersweet because he has his own room to work and study, but he usually has to be in his room most of the time. He said it’s something he’s never experienced before as a student who used to spend all his time at the library and surrounded by people on campus.

“It’s been a situation where I have to adjust to my new life,” Castillo Koussa said. “I think the first week, first few weeks, maybe was a little bit rough…I think I handle it better now, but it was definitely like a psychological game.”

He said Gregori-Gahan and Rochon have done a great job providing food for students on campus during the weekends. 

“I’m glad they’re doing it because it kind of relieves you, you know of everything,” Castillo Koussa said. “And when you look at people and you talk to them at least from a distance, I think that helps mentally.”

He said the international students get to see each other on the weekends when Gregori-Gahan and Rochon bring the food, but they maintain social distancing and wear masks for protection. The students wait to get the food so there are not too many people in the room at once. Castillo Koussa said he mostly avoids other students to prevent the spread of the virus.

He said he’s supposed to have an internship this summer and whether or not it gets canceled will determine if he’ll continue to stay on campus or not. Castillo Koussa said he wants to see his friends and travel after the quarantine ends, but right now he feels trapped.

“I think we’re going to appreciate our time with people more when we get back together,” he said. “Because one day you might be in this world, the next day you might not be. I think we’re going to learn how to appreciate our time with people and friends.”

Castillo Koussa said USI has done the right thing by giving a big consideration, not just for international students, but all of the USI community. He said the university understands not only that it’s not easy for professors to rearrange their curriculum, but that it’s not easy for students to work when they’re surrounded by family all the time or in a room by themselves.

“I think it’s been a really mutual agreement between the university and the students and they have done the right thing,” Castillo Koussa said. “USI has done an amazing job with all the measures that they have taken.”