International students provide global perspective into COVID-19 pandemic

The International Student Center is located on the northeast side of campus. (Elizabeth Sandstrom | Collegian Media Group)

The fall 2021 semester is the first in nearly a year and a half that sees the Kansas State campus fully open and holding in-person classes. As new and returning students continue adjusting to the “new normal” brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, international students Chahat Sehgal and Jamie Chen share their experiences with COVID-19 living in the United States and its impact in their home countries.

Sehgal, senior in chemistry, grew up in New Delhi, India, where her mother and father raised her. Since coming to the states for her first year of college, she has not returned home or seen her parents. However, regular phone calls with her family over the years — and throughout the pandemic — kept her in touch.

“My dad … he used to mention [COVID-19], little bit every day … when it was happening a lot in China,” Sehgal said. “He would talk to me about it, and I would just like brush it off and say, ‘Well, it’s not happening here. Everything is fine.’ And I actually didn’t realize how … everything is going to change.”

Sehgal lived in the residence halls during the 2019-2020 school year. After the university notified students in the spring that campus was closing operations and moving online, Sehgal went with her sister — who also attended college and works and lives in Kansas — to move out of the dorms.

“I packed all of my stuff and came back, and, um, that’s when I think the first time, when we went to Walmart and everywhere, that’s when I kind of realized that there was this panic — panic amongst the people — that they were trying to hoard stuff,” Sehgal said. “That’s when I realized, ‘OK, maybe the situation has now increased.'”

A list in the university’s announcement limiting on-campus housing operations displayed criteria of which groups would not be required to move out. The list included international students. However, Sehgal preferred living with her sister during this time and moved out anyway.

“I had the support of my sister, but I think with all other international students who don’t have family here, it’s very hard,” Sehgal said. “I try to put myself in those shoes and try to think of it in that way, that it’s actually very hard to have no family here in the time of COVID.”

International students have carried many burdens during the pandemic, including a lack of relational support. In addition to the basic human need for community comes the need for stability.

As an international student, student visa stability — or status — in the U.S. impacts stability. Sehgal’s status is dependent on whether she fulfills specified enrollment requirements throughout the school year.

“I think the very first time I got scared for myself was … because I need to be a full-time student,” Sehgal said. “If I’m taking twelve credit hours, then I need to have nine of those in-person, and that’s how my status is maintained in the U.S. And I think I was kind of really scared when the school made all the classes online because I didn’t want it to be completely online — because I was worried about my status.”

The U.S. government gave qualifying Americans stimulus checks throughout the pandemic. International students, however, did not receive such aid. In addition, the economic instability within India caused Sehgal’s financial support system — her family — to not provide as much monetary aid as before the pandemic.

Limited in-person operations on campus hindered Sehgal’s ability to earn an income as well. She had formerly worked in the lab.

“[COVID-19] impacted so many people, and as international students … it impacted us financially,” Sehgal said. “You know, ’cause our home countries got affected … I still struggled to pay for this semester … even though things started getting better here in the U.S. with the vaccine, things were not better in India because they didn’t have any vaccine.”

Chen, sophomore in computer science, was living in New York as a senior in high school when the U.S. government issued a nationwide quarantine. Having grown up in Guangzhou, China, and with family living there now, Chen said she was very aware of the presence of the coronavirus. Her parents had already been dealing with it as a threat for months.

“During that time in China, they ran out of masks and [COVID-19] hadn’t come to America yet, so I sent some masks home,” Chen said.

With her parents only living about 600 miles from Wuhan — the virus’ place of origin — Chen said she was scared not only of what the virus was capable of but for her family’s safety as well.

“I watched the news, and I saw so many people got it and then died,” Chen said. “So to me, it means if you got it, then you die soon.”

With no family to stay with, Chen lived with roommates in an apartment off-campus. Chen said even though her first year of college looked different than most, she sees the value in her unique, historic experience unlike most other college stories.

“It’s a different experience, ’cause everyone just come to America and go to in-person classes and just have friends and study groups and I have nothing,” Chen said. “Everyone is talking about, ‘Oh, my first year of college is wonderful,’ … and I was like, ‘I stayed at home.'”

During her time in America, Chen has observed several differences between the way Chinese and American citizens react to their government’s efforts to diminish the threat of COVID-19. One difference is the responses to government-issued quarantine throughout the pandemic.

“When the government told the people to stay inside in China, no one go outside. Like, there ain’t no one. No one,” Chen said. “But here, you know, it’s impossible to happen.”

Chen said she likes how safe it can feel in China because everyone follows COVID-19 safety protocols. She also said China’s use of an app called WeChat contributes to this sense of security — although it comes at the cost of personal freedom.

WeChat tracks the medical information and whereabouts of Chinese citizens to ensure the physical wellness of individuals trying to enter stores, buses, schools and other places. If medical data says the individual is sick or location tracking reveals the individual has recently traveled to a region of high risk for COVID-19 infection, the code within the app — when scanned — turns red. They are then not allowed to enter any businesses. If the individual is not sick or not considered high-risk, the code is green, and they are free to go on their way.

Now that campus is open again, Chen said she is excited to experience college for the first time in person. She said she believes this will help her better succeed in her classes, improve her time-management skills and develop a consistent schedule. Much of the fear Chen had during the onset of COVID-19 has dissipated after knowing individuals who tested positive for the virus and fully recovered.

“There’s so many people around me got [COVID-19], and they got better, and they healthy now, so they didn’t die,” Chen said.

For Sehgal, she said the reopening of campus is equally exciting. However, transitioning out of an entire year of isolation and limited in-person interaction has not been a one-and-done deal.

“It took time, I think. I would have to say it took time to … come out of it,” Sehgal said. “But I think I was excited to actually go to the classes, you know, in-person now. Just being with other students.”

Gradually, the world is adapting to the many threats COVID-19 poses, Sehgal said.

“Even though things have opened up now … it’s still not the same as before the COVID happened,” Sehgal said. “It was very normal — things were different altogether before. But I think now things have changed and … the pandemic has impacted all of us.”