It’s safe to say that every Saint Rose student felt the jolt of having their semester upended by COVID-19. But those from other countries – approximately 125 students – faced an added challenge: whether to stay in the U.S. (and where) or return home.
“They had to figure out how would they stay in touch with their classes, how it would work in a different time zone, where would they store their things,” said Alfredo Varela, associate vice president of global affairs. “They were concerned about travel costs and whether they could even get home because borders were closing. They had a lot of decisions to make in a very short amount of time.”
Staying would mean months of separation from family at a scary time. Going home meant the prospect of sequestering themselves from parents and siblings already living in lockdown. Another concern: Could they even get back in the fall?
Ultimately, about 70 students elected to stay in the Capital Region. But 20 students, from Malaysia, Morocco, China, Jamaica, Nigeria, South Africa, and Mauritius, are staying on the quiet campus, being sure to practice social distancing, as they take online classes and pick-up to-go meals from the dining hall.
Varela and his staff assisted with the decisions and travel arrangements, reached out to families, stored students’ belongings, and delivered board games. They check in regularly with students on and off-campus and overseas and remind students about academic and social supports.
Being isolated far from home during the pandemic is stressful, Varela acknowledges. But, he noted, those who traveled so far to get to Saint Rose have already made tough choices.
“I don’t want to sugarcoat it, but these students come with experiences many U.S. students don’t have,” he said. “When I ask ‘How many languages do you speak?’ invariably, it’s not just one or two it’s three or four because they’ve grown up in such varied backgrounds. Their education means something really special to them because they worked so hard to get here.”
Read some of the students’ stories below:
Isabel Sanchez, a first-year student from Barcelona, Spain who is staying with a close friend in Amsterdam, New York, shared her experience in her own words:
My name is Isabel Sanchez. I am 19, from Barcelona, Spain. I am a freshman, pursuing a major in communications with a concentration in broadcast and TV, and a minor in business administration. I am also part of the women’s basketball team.
From a very young age, I knew I wanted to chase the American Dream, and basketball made it possible.
After attending high school at The New York Military Academy, which was a wonderful experience, Saint Rose recruited me to join their athletic program. I couldn’t say no. Days full of enjoyment with my friends, traveling with the team, studying what I love. I deeply believe I couldn’t ask for more.
So here I was, starting my new adventure in the heart of New York, Albany; amazed by its campus, program, classes, professors. I was living my best life.
In January, right after Christmas break, coronavirus started to sound familiar. We would hear, “Have you heard people are dying in China? … Apparently, it is just like the flu … It came from bats.” Without paying much attention, I kept moving on with my dream life.
Suddenly, March 13, I found myself in a critical spot where I had to decide whether to stay here, away from my family, or return home to a country that was overwhelmed with the coronavirus.
Spain was about to close its borders. I had to think fast. Most of my international friends were leaving. Regardless of the loneliness, I worried about how to put my future first, even while having the present as a priority.
Worried about being able to come back for summer classes, internships, and Fall Semester, I turned my heart to stone, and I stayed. Not the easiest decision, but the most beneficial.
My family, whom I love with every bit of myself, is doing well. They are on absolute lockdown trying to keep themselves busy and going on day by day. Life is anything but easy. You have to bring a permit that allows you to go to the store and you can only go for a walk if you have a dog.
It was difficult to hear my father say: “I really want you by my side, but you shouldn’t come home just yet. Please stay safe.”
As you may have heard, Spanish people are fun and kind people, so every night at 8 o’clock, they clap in order to thank the medical workers. They play bingo from the balconies, they play music out loud so everyone can dance, just to be able to mentally run away from this difficult moment.
Saying goodbye to Saint Rose and my daily life didn’t feel real, packing my room and seeing those empty walls didn’t feel real, seeing everyone running and stressed didn’t feel real, not being able to practice at the gym anymore didn’t feel real, giving elbow bumps to my friends because we couldn’t hug each other didn’t feel real. Our lives made a 180-degree turn in less than 24 hours, and it was scary, it still is.
I am staying with my good friend, Ashlyn O’Neil. She is a student-athlete at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and her family kindly opened their doors to me. I have known know Ashlyn since my first days in the United States. We share a passion for basketball.
We are keeping ourselves busy working out, painting birdhouses, cooking different meals, watching movies.
My online classes are going well. It is more difficult than attending, but I am handling it right. What I miss the most is going to class with my friends. We are calling each other almost every day!
I talk with my family every day, making sure everything is alright. I am personally doing well now, my family is safe, I am safe, and that is what matters to me the most.
I hope you and yours are safe, too, I send you my best wishes.
Marjorie Dede is a graduate student in educational psychology from Tetteh, Ghana, who is staying off-campus. She offers her perspective in this video.
Xiuping Li is a graduate student in educational psychology from Hunan Province, China, who is staying off-campus. She shares her experiences in a video.
Ahmed Lakrafli, a freshman from Morocco, has remained on campus.
After finishing high school at home in TAZA, Morocco, Ahmed Lakrafli began studying at Haut Ecole de Management University. After a year he left to take part in African Leadership Academy a leadership program in South Africa. There, his eyes were opened to the overwhelming number of people living in poverty who lacked access to basic supplies. At age 19, Lakrafli started a company that supplies affordable cleaning products to people in poor communities.
Last fall, he came to Saint Rose to pursue the business education he needs to continue his entrepreneurial pursuits. Here’s what happened when the coronavirus struck:
Italy, France and Spain have a large Moroccan population and they started returning home at the onset of the outbreak. The Moroccan government was afraid that people would bring the virus with them. They were in a rush to close the borders. Our healthcare system is already weak, and would not be able to handle this.
My parents told me ‘You need to buy your ticket as soon as possible.’ It was a tough decision to make. I told them “I’m not coming back. I think its best that I stay and keep studying.” My dad was especially disappointed. Then, the next Wednesday school closed. At that point if I did want to go home it was too late.
I felt a little panicked because I didn’t know what to do. I contacted the International office. Dr. Varela, who didn’t hesitate to answer my parents’ questions over the phone, said ‘There is no need to panic. We’re going to take care of him. You should not be worried about him.’
I have a sister in New York City, but I choose to stay here because it’s safer. My parents were thinking ‘our son is going to get the coronavirus,’ When you see the numbers, New York has hundreds of thousands of cases and they got so concerned, saying ‘What are you doing there?’ I tried to tell them ‘I’m being really careful here. I’m safe. I will take all the precautions I can’
Before, I was living in Lima. I was really engaged with people. I had the best time with my friends. I really enjoyed it. Now, I’m in an apartment in Centennial. I only talk remotely to my teachers and friends. I keep limited contact so I can stay safe. No friends around me, but my family always in my heart refill the gap of the friends.
I manage my time differently. It’s completely messed up, but oddly in a good way. My day starts at 4 a.m.; I’m back on Moroccan time now. I pray and I contact my parents to let them know I’m ok. My classes start at 9 am, depending on my schedule. After finishing classes, I go to the dining hall. I go only once a day. I get all my food there and set them in the apartment fridge, so I can break my Ramadan fast with it. Sometimes I watch the news or a movie. By this time, I’m trying to learn a new language but I still didn’t decide which one. I usually go to sleep at 6 p.m., I go to Price Chopper at 3 or 4. am so as to avoid contact with people. But not any longer because Price Chopper now is closing at 10 pm. So, I changed my schedule.
It’s extremely hard. It’s difficult to imagine if you were not placed in that situation yourself. It’s very good, however, for other reasons too– it does give you a lot of time to think about family, think about yourself, to appreciate having people around, appreciate having a friend, and appreciate the university staff that are very supportive to us as international student in the midst of this pandemic. Now when you miss them you know the value that they bring to your life, especially parents. In truth I miss everyone.
I’m really happy when I’m talking to people. I talk to people around the world on Facebook, I mostly speak to people in college and ask about how they are doing, their new lifestyle, and what changes they see in the future.
This is happening around the world. The only difference I feel between international students and American students is that they have a family around which tends to give you a little more hope and support. If I were home though, I’d isolate myself because I wouldn’t’ want to possibly spread the virus to my parents.
Today, the economy is upside down. Businesses, small businesses in particular, around the world are suffering from the coronavirus. I think this is the time where we need to sit back. A lot of us lost someone dear because of this virus. The Earth is punishing us because we didn’t listen when we still had time to change our lifestyle. It is not to late to make changes but we need to work together and try to come up with a sustainable plan to save our planet. Today there is coronavirus, but tomorrow it could be something else.
By Jane Gottlieb