Cornell is incredibly cosmopolitan. Over 10 percent of the undergraduate population and 20 percent of the total student enrollment is international. With upwards of 100 countries represented in those statistics, Cornell can claim to be one of the most diverse universities in the countries. This diversity is normally nothing but positive. Having students from varying origins enriches classroom discussion, helps other students think more globally and elevates campus dialogue.
During the past month, this diversity has shown itself to be a double-edged sword. Yes, our diversity continues to improve discussion about grading policies and virtual academic practices. It strengthens our resilience and enhances our perspective. But the very source of Cornell’s diversity, its international students, is also one of the demographics hardest hit by the pandemic.
International students have largely borne the brunt of Cornell’s policy changes and the ensuing emigration and switch to virtual instruction. They’re grappling with academic struggles that the rest of us acknowledge, but don’t really understand until we think a little more deeply about their situations.
Most of us are dealing with no time difference, or at most, one or a few hours. Many international students are juggling time differences in the double digits. Melody Na ’21, who is struggling with a 12-hour difference in Hong Kong, says time zones are her biggest problem. “I’m already finding it difficult to keep track of when assignments are due and when office hours are,” says Na. “The time zone difference is also making it hard for me to remain an active member of the classroom, since the majority of my friends are awake at the exact opposite time … it’s difficult to discuss or engage with others.”
For other international students, time zones are just one obstacle of many. For example, an anonymous sophomore from China must also contend with firewalls. Because sites like Google, Facebook and YouTube are banned in her home country of China, this student can’t do simple things like use her Gmail account or collaborate with classmates via Google Docs. She says her “working efficiency is lowering greatly.”
It’s hard enough just to balance attending classes and discussions when you’re in a different time zone. I couldn’t imagine juggling due dates and office hours as well, especially without the benefit of staple websites like Google. Personally, I find it difficult to manage all the new expectations as it is, and I’m working from EST.
Between attending class and calculating due dates, many international students are still reeling from the shock of returning home. While the majority of us simply packed up and travelled to our residences within the U.S., international students faced multitudes of additional concerns. Fernanda Nunes ’21, from Brazil, had no trouble in returning home, but was fraught with worry once she got there. “The first week I was back [in Brazil] my parents and I went back and forth a billion times on the decision if I should stay … and risk not being able to go back … or go back … but risk being far from my family.” Nunes currently remains at home in Brazil, reassessing her future while knee-deep in online research and MCAT preparation.
Others returned home in a frantic rush. Andrea Gomez ’22, of Panama City, “had to leave campus after [her] mom texted [her] that Panama’s borders were going to close the next day.” She arrived in Panama with less than three hours to spare.
Na had no race against time, but still arrived home to a surreal situation. “I had to get a location tracking bracelet at customs as I entered Hong Kong … I haven’t left my room or been in contact with any people, (including my family) [for two weeks] … If I test positive [for coronavirus,] the government would require I stay at a medical facility.”
International students are facing concerns completely unlike those we’re facing here in the United States. We’re trying to take this crisis day by day, but for many, the future already looms. For international students, future travel between the U.S. and their home country is a growing source of worry.
“[My friends] are not sure if [they] can go back home or not,” says the anonymous Chinese sophomore. “We are worried about our [student] visa status if we leave the states for too long. Those of my Chinese friends who stay in Ithaca feel lonely, don’t know what to do and [feel] unsure about the future.”
I took my stable situation for granted. Gomez wonders “when and if [she’ll] be able to go back to the U.S. to start [the] fall semester.” I’m sure you’ve heard a lot of people say that they’re thankful for the stability of their personal situation. I’m sure you’ve become somewhat immune to the barrage of gratitude. I was too, until I talked to these students. I encourage you to ponder these anecdotes, and seek out more. They are representative of but one demographic experiencing hardship in these times, but I can guarantee you that their stories will make you think differently about what we’re going through.
Christian Baran is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Honestly runs every other Friday this semester.