Why it’s so hard to be an international student during a pandemic

By Anna Püsök
Executive Staff

When the pandemic started in March, nobody thought it would last longer than the end of the 2019-2020 academic year. Most international students, including me, had plans for the summer, such as working in internships all over the United States and traveling back to our home countries. When May came, and there were still travel bans all over the world, we realized the situation was more serious than we thought. 

Until the end of the Easter semester, there were more American students who stayed on campus for their convenience. Still, the majority of the 30 students who spent their summer on campus were international students. 

After the beginning of the quarantine, all of us started to search for remote internships desperately. Eventually, many professors and offices at Sewanee ended up opening extra positions for us to pay for the summer housing.

Kristina Romanenkova (C’23), a sophomore from Moscow, Russia, worked with Dr. McGrath over the summer. “I was really happy that I got something at all, but I ended up finding a great internship,” she said. “I did research, which was in person. I learnt something over the summer, and I really appreciated that.” 

Although her research was a good part of her summer, Romanenkova, as well as most of the other international students, had a hard time on campus. “It was really overwhelming. Even though I was happy because I could interact with friends and had nice conversations, I still felt trapped here,” she said.

One of the most challenging things for her was the inability to physically leave campus and go somewhere. “Coming from a big city, It was very difficult, and the fact that I didn’t get to see my family was hard.” 

Another drawback of staying on campus was the dining. “The choices were very limited. Although we wanted to cook, we didn’t have enough ingredients, so that was frustrating,” Romanenkova said. 

Over the summer, the meal plan provided for students had three options: a vegan and two non-vegan options. Romanenkova, who’s a vegetarian, further explained, “During normal times, McClurg is pretty good with vegan options, but during the summer, it was tough. I’m also spice-intolerant, and the vegan options were very spicy most of the time,” explained Romanenkova. 

Although international students faced many challenges over the summer on campus, there were some silver linings too. “I spent most of my time exploring the Domain. I also feel like I got closer to this place in terms of the environment because I went everywhere,” said Romanenkova.

The Office of Global Citizenship and Campus Activities tried to develop some creative events for us on campus. There were weekly hikes together, canoeing, smoothie and chat events, and tiedye events. We celebrated every birthday with cakes from the amazing Chef Caroline, watched a movie at the SUT every Friday, and had open air art sessions once in a while.

Besides these, the Wellness Center offered online counseling for students on campus over the summer. I often found myself pretty lonely, and I didn’t want to talk about that to other students on campus because I was sure they felt the same way, but fortunately, I, and the others on campus, were always able to reach out to the Wellness Center. 

When August came, and people started to appear on campus, we all knew “the hard times” were over. We were happy that we saw familiar and new faces again. I was excited to catch up in person with my friends, but I’m sad at the same time, since the international freshman class has only a couple students on campus because the rest couldn’t come to Sewanee. Most international freshmen didn’t have the opportunity to do FYP, PRE, international orientation, or even just walk around campus. 

Mate Garai (C’24), an international freshman from Budapest, Hungary, was excited to see that the U.S. opened its borders for Europe. “I’m really happy that I was able to come and experience the whole new country, new language,” he said.

He continued, “To me, it was important to be here, and getting to know my professors and other students. Otherwise, I would be stuck at home and I would not get the whole mentality of Sewanee.”

When asked what he thinks about Sewanee’s regulations, he said, “I do think Sewanee is doing a better job of handling the pandemic than most of the places. I don’t know what would qualify as a great job, since everyone is still trying to figure that out.”

When asked how he feels about forming relationships now, Garai said, “I do think that it’s harder to form relationships and friendships now, but it’s possible, and perhaps we can form stronger relationships.”

Like everything else, the Honor Code signing was also different this year. “It was strange, but it was still a unique experience. It was different because we were outside at the football field and we got rained on, but the Vice-Chancellor had a nice speech about the rain,” Garai laughed.

This year, the activities fair was on Zoom too. “I don’t think it gives the same feeling and experience as it would be if it was in person, so I’m sad about that, but I can still join clubs, which is great,” Garai further explained.

Most of his classes are on Zoom, but he “understands why it should be like that.”  The only class that he really wanted to be in person is his Physics lab, but unfortunately, that’s online too. “I was sad to see that it’s online because I was really excited to go to the lab, and do things there.”

As the semester goes on, I’m happy, and honestly, a bit surprised at how well things are going. I had the feeling that we would be sent home during the semester again, but now I do think that everyone can stay here for the rest of the semester.

One question that’s still up in the air is about what comes next. Planning our winter break relies on things that are out of our hands. Most of the internationals are hoping to go back home for the almost two months long winter break. I recently changed my plane ticket that I was supposed to use in May to a day after the end of this semester in November.

I hope I’ll be able to use it this time.