When colleges began announcing in late March that campuses would be closing down and moving instruction online for the rest of the school year, students across the country grappled with deciding whether to stay in their college towns or move back home.
But for Tom Huang, a first-year electrical engineering student from China, and many other international students, that decision meant choosing between his home at UC Santa Barbara or his home an ocean away.
Huang said he was faced with either staying in California for the remainder of the quarter — knowing he’d be separated from his family during a pandemic — or moving back to Shanghai, where he would face two weeks of mandatory isolation and a 15-hour time difference for lectures.
At the end of winter quarter, Huang said he decided to return home, mainly because of safety concerns he had with staying in the U.S.
“I think the situation in China is recovering, especially because I’m not from Wuhan. I’m from Shanghai and all the city is actually dealing with it pretty well. My dad resumed working in mid-February and we know that the peak is already passed,” he said.
“I do believe it is safer in China than the U.S. It’s not even a government problem. People in the U.S. don’t even have the awareness to wear a mask or anything like that. So I felt a bit concerned [staying in the U.S.].”
International students at UCSB have faced a unique set of difficulties in keeping up with coursework during the coronavirus pandemic. The switch to remote learning forced students to quickly decide whether to stay in Santa Barbara or go to their home countries, a hardship that domestic students did not have to navigate.
While UCSB recently unveiled its plan for hybrid instruction for Fall Quarter 2020, some uncertainty still looms for international students, whose options for the upcoming quarter make the decision between home and UCSB more complicated.
In an email outlining fall quarter protocols, Chancellor Henry T. Yang announced that all first-year international students will have the option to continue with remote curriculum “sufficient for full-time status,” and that “any student who wishes to continue with a full remote offering may do so without being present on or near campus.”
Many international students are unsure whether they can get visas renewed to re-enter the U.S., or if coming to the U.S. is the safest option, according to Hak Zheng, a second-year physics major in the College of Creative Studies, currently back home in Japan.
“I bought a one-way ticket because I’m so uncertain about when I can come back,” he said.
“I’m actually not sure if I wanted to come back right now if I’m able to. They might not be allowing any non-citizen people to come in [to the U.S.].”
Zheng said it was “obvious” for him to go back to Japan instead of “being by myself in I.V.” He tentatively plans to come back to the U.S. for fall quarter, even if his classes are all online.
“If fall quarter is still online but the U.S. lets me come back inside, I might consider coming back, just because I do feel like my productivity is low here, so I might decide that I’ve had enough time with my family, now I’m gonna go back to my school,” he said.
College students across the country, while disconnected from campus and tuning in to lectures over Zoom, have shifted to a “new normal” over the past few months. This adjustment is even greater for international students, who are trying to keep up with classes in a different time zone.
International students who have chosen to move back home have had to, in some cases, attend lectures and take exams in the middle of the night or early morning. While some professors chose to hold asynchronous classes over the past quarter — which international students could attend to on their own time — there was limited flexibility when it came to exams.
Zheng had Zoom lectures at 5 a.m. twice a week for one class and had to take the midterm and final exams at 3 a.m. for another class.
“Students who stayed in the U.S. have their normal time and normal schedule, but we have to do this weird scheduling thing, so the score is not a good reflection of where we are. I don’t know if any professors are going to take that into consideration at all, but that’s just something I’m a little concerned about,” he said.
“I think we as human beings need that strict sleep schedule to operate well. I feel like I’m less energetic than usual. But I’m seeing it as something that I just have to deal with for this quarter, hopefully only this quarter, but who knows.”
The time zone difference between California and home proved to be a major factor in some international students’ decision to remain in the U.S. To avoid the time difference, Aimee Wang — a third-year sociology major from China — decided to stay at a friend’s house in Rancho Cucamonga this quarter after moving out of her sorority house.
Wang ran a successful Associated Students Senate campaign for a College of Letters and Science seat, becoming the first international student elected as senator. But the demands of the job, from running for her seat to beginning her duties at the end of the quarter, meant moving back to China would have been a “huge hassle,” she said.
“My friends that I’ve spoken with said they’re not going back to China over the summer because, right now, when we go back, we have to quarantine ourselves,” she said.
“So it’s kind of a very long process to go back, then spend almost a month [quarantining] by yourself. That may be half of a normal summer break, just to come back to the U.S. and you’d probably have to quarantine yourself again.”
Another obstacle for students moving back to China in particular is that they have to use a virtual private network (VPN) for internet access, which Wang said can be very slow.
For international students in China, students cannot access Google or any affiliated websites like Google Docs due to restrictions.
“I have two other CCS physics students who I’m pretty close with, they’re both from China and they did both decided to stay [in the U.S.], and the main reason for them was that they had to deal with the firewall and probably more restrictions in China,” Zheng said, adding that it was a “50-50” split between friends of his who decided to stay in California and who decided to leave.
Zheng also said there’s been a sense of isolation that comes with living over 5,000 miles away from his school and his peers.
“I do feel disconnected from my friends, most of my friends are in the United States, so I mean, they call and they would do homework together, so sometimes they’ll be calling while I’m sleeping, so I do notice that I connect with them a lot less than when I’m back in school,” he said.
“There’s a huge difference between trying to connect with a person through a video call than hanging out in person.”
The main uncertainty that lies ahead for Wang is fall quarter’s hybrid scenario. She said she’ll be staying in I.V. regardless of whether courses are conducted remotely or not because she wants to experience her senior year there. But she added that a concern for many international students is paying international tuition while missing out on in-person educational benefits.
“For out-of-state and international students, we pay a lot more for tuition. With the whole online situation, all these changes are already unfair for all the students, but I think it’s even more unfair for international students and out-of-states.”
Huang said he doesn’t know exactly when he’ll be back in the U.S. But of all the challenges he’s faced this quarter, he said the most difficult and ongoing challenge is the uncertainty that lies ahead for his education.
“I’m not saying I’m worried about living or anything like that, but mostly learning. Really what most of us are worried about is being able to come back to the U.S. in the fall.”