International Students Lost in the Aftermath of Campus Closures

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Pictured (left to right): Andrea Villegas-Ospina, Leili Varasteh, Alex Kydoniefs, Gloria Ndilula

International Students Lost in the Aftermath of Campus Closures
By Raven Yamamoto

It was nearly 1 A.M. when senior Gloria Ndilula got the news that LMU was evicting all students from campus housing. Residents were told they had one week to move out all of their belongings before being charged late fees. Her family in Namibia was able to get her a ticket for the last direct flight home from LAX before their borders were set to close. The flight departed at midnight, giving her less than 24 hours to pack up her entire life and say goodbye to her college experience.

“The first thing I felt was just panic,” said Ndilula. “Everything became real in that moment.”

Now nine hours ahead of Pacific Standard Time (PST), Ndilula wakes up groggily at 4 A.M. to attend the first of many classes during her day. Her internet connectivity is so spotty at times that she’ll wait hours for her professor’s pre-recorded lectures to buffer before she can view them.

But Ndilula isn’t alone. After making it home to West Singapore through multiple airports in high-risk countries, sophomore Alexander Kydoniefs is now 15 hours ahead of PST. His 8 A.M. classes have become 11 P.M classes and his noon classes start at 2 A.M.

“Being on the equator, it doesn’t get much worse,” said Kydoniefs. “International students, we get a different dose of that.”

Many international students have also had to grapple with state laws that went into effect the minute they landed home. Kydoniefs recalls how in addition to quarantining per his country’s request, he was forced to share his contact information with government officials that were put “in charge” of him amidst his transition to online school.

“I had to give physical proof that I was home,” he said. “They visited my home and basically made me get my passport [while] they did a full background check on me.”

Similarly, first-year student Andrea Villegas-Ospina was given an ankle bracelet to wear for the duration of her quarantine when she landed back home in Bogotá, Colombia. Even under the stress of strict surveillance, she is expected to focus on her schooling.

“It’s so much easier to fail school right now,” Villegas-Ospina said. “I’m sleeping and doing work in the same place.”

Villegas-Ospina also explained that her visa requires her to be enrolled as a full-time student (minimum of 12 credits) at her U.S. institution, prohibiting her from dropping classes or switching to pass/fail grading.

“I have my American friends who are just changing things to pass/fail and dropping classes to make it easier on themselves, ” she said. “No one’s making it easier for us.”

Many international students also suffered financially from the abrupt eviction, as LMU has yet to provide tuition refunds and exchange rates rose exponentially amidst the economy’s downfall.

In Colombia, the exchange rate rose from 3,000 pesos per dollar to 4,200 pesos—approximately the amount that it would usually rise in a year. The cost of Villegas-Ospina’s plane ticket home was $150 million pesos, and she is still expected to make payments on tuition despite the depreciated quality of learning she is now receiving because of distance learning.

“I still have to take dance classes,” she said. “You can imagine how much of a mess that is.”

Other international students, though lucky enough to already be home when the eviction notice came, had to come to terms with not being able to retrieve their books or other belongings after their borders closed.

Junior Ricardo Jurado was home in Panama with his friends when the news broke, cutting his spring break short as his friends immediately made arrangements to get home.

“My mom called me and she was like ‘I really don’t want you to leave,” he recalled. “It’s not like I was stuck somewhere else, I was home. For them it was different.”

But Jurado will need to hire movers just to get his belongings out of his apartment and shipped back home before his lease expires in May.

“My books are there, I need them,” Jurado said. “I didn’t pack anything. Nothing is in boxes."

First-year student Leili Varasteh found herself forced to stay home in Paris, France with a single suitcase she packed for a short spring break.

Varasteh expressed her devastation upon realizing that she wouldn’t be able to visit her original hometown of Tehran, Iran anytime soon now that Paris’s borders have closed indefinitely.

“Every time I go home [to Tehran], I’m complete again, it makes me remember who I am,” she said. “The coronavirus has made it impossible to make decisions. Every day the governments are enforcing new laws and giving out new information.”

On top of all this, international students have had to grapple with the emotional loss of their year, especially seniors, and grieve memories they had yet to make while still being expected to perform in their classes.

“It was the worst possible way to end this,” said Ndilula. “It still hurts that I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to people that have shaped me in the last four years.”

This was a common theme shared amongst all the people Agency interviewed. First-year, sophomore, junior or senior, the reality is the same—their college lives have either been cut short entirely or paused indefinitely.

“This pandemic seems like a massive buffer that has put my life on hold,” Kydoniefs said. “It’s essentially put my life at a halt.”

LMU’s Office of International Students and Scholars (OISS) has been reaching out periodically to ensure their community’s well-being post-eviction. The department reassured all their students that the status of their visas would not be affected by the emergency maneuver and have made themselves available virtually to provide travel signatures as needed.

“That’s the one office on campus that’s been trying to reach out every single day since they announced this stuff and every person who works in there has been texting me [and] asking me what I need,” Villegas-Ospina said. “I know for a fact that they’re doing as much as LMU allows them to.”

In an email, OISS explained that they are in communication with faculty and staff to relay strategies to continually support their students during this time.

“OISS is thinking about all of you and your families as well as LMU staff and faculty as we all continue to navigate through the unprecedented disruption that current conditions have brought us,” an email newsletter reads. “We are grateful to the entire LMU community for your patience and flexibility through this time.”

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