Behind the Mask: International student finds wearing masks normal

Uyen Diep, graduate student at K-State, said staying positive and complying with safety regulations are helping her get through the pandemic. (Emma Witter | Collegian Media Group) Photo credit: Emma Witter

Just two days before her flight to the United States was scheduled to take off, Uyen Diep’s visa finally came in. Diep found the process of getting to Manhattan from Vietnam to begin her graduate studies difficult.

“International students have to arrive two weeks early to self-quarantine, so it was kind of rushed to come here,” Diep said. “I finished all my paperwork in April. Then, my case was just thrown into limbo.”

As many international students struggled to return to the U.S. for fall classes, Diep said she considers herself lucky to have made it.

“A lot of my friends were surprised that I was able to arrive here, especially since the U.S. has so many more cases than Vietnam,” she said.

Diep said many of her friends in Vietnam asked her why she would want to move to the U.S. during COVID-19.

“I won’t let the pandemic interrupt my education,” she said. “I planned to study abroad to pursue my master’s degree four years ago. I told my friends, ‘I have a chance to go, so I have to go.'”

Given the vastly different populations of the U.S. and Vietnam, Diep said comparing the countries COVID-19 situations is difficult.

“[In Vietnam], we try to figure out our health issues first because the health care system isn’t very good compared to other developed countries,” she said. “In the U.S., after one month of lockdown, there were a lot of issues with the economy. The U.S. had no choice but to start trying to open things.”

A big difference between Vietnam and the United States, Diep said, is how the two countries handle the issue of masks.

Diep said it surprised her when professors asked if she was comfortable wearing a mask because, in Vietnam, mask-wearing is a part of daily life.

“We wear masks when we ride motorcycles on the street,” she said. “We protect our skin from the sun with masks.”

In the U.S., Diep said she noticed people are much less comfortable with the concept.

“Some people say it’s their freedom to choose to wear a mask or not,” she said, “But I think during a pandemic, we have to follow the measurements that are supposed to help.”

Diep described the early days of her experience in Manhattan as “so far, so good.”

Having interesting studies and meeting students and staff who really care about international students has been helpful during the transition, Diep said. She said thinking positively helps her cope with the stress of the pandemic.

“I just wait and believe that good things will come,” she said. “If we protect ourselves and wear masks, sanitize our hands and social distance, I think it’s not as dangerous as we think.”

Diep said her philosophy during the pandemic is to stay safe first, then “do what you have to do.”

“We don’t know when the pandemic will be over,” she said. “If you have the chance to pursue something, just go for it.”