Boris Tsang/Sun Senior Photographer

Some international students said they worried they would be exposed to the virus on their journeys back home.

May 14, 2021

International Students Navigate Travel Restrictions, COVID-19 Safety Concerns

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For many international students, going home this semester means planning out a web of flights, navigating ambiguous travel and vaccination requirements and having to quarantine all over again.

The uncertainty of the pandemic has left these students with mixed feelings of anxiety and excitement about going back home. With the semester coming to a close, international students are not only studying for finals but also considering if and how they are going to get home and what requirements to expect as they leave Ithaca. 

To return home to Kingston, Jamaica, Aliya McFarlane-Sweeney ’23 will fly from Syracuse to Chicago. From there, she will fly to Miami, where she will take another plane back to Kingston. Though both McFarlane-Sweeney and her parents have received their second vaccine doses, she said she still worries about traveling during the pandemic. 

“It’s kind of scary,” McFarlane-Sweeney said, “knowing that I had been in three airports, sitting this close to someone else and then I’m going to be home with all of my family.” 

Rudra Kamat ’24 was weighing whether to stay in the United States or return to his home in Mumbai, India — but he ultimately decided to return home. India currently has the second highest number of COVID-19 cases in the world. 

“This semester has been too stressful and there’s no point staying here, because there’s literally no family I have here in the U.S.,” Kamat said. “It’s probably a better idea to go back to India where at least it’s safer psychologically, emotionally speaking.” 

Kamat described the challenges of traveling internationally. The last time he was home was January. 

“Even taking a flight is like a Herculean amount of effort for me,” Kamat said. This time, he will be traveling with another student returning to India. 

As students travel with shifting COVID guidelines across the world, some students are uncertain of what to expect once they land.  

Ami Adachi ’24 said she’s unsure whether her vaccination card is enough documentation for her return to Seoul, South Korea, where she said  the guidelines continue to change based on the number of cases. 

“I don’t know if it will be enough for the Korean government to approve, just like the small piece of paper,” Adachi said. “The laws around the vaccination process are fairly grey.” 

Adachi booked her plane ticket a year in advance — but even with this planning, traveling comes with hoops to jump through, from finding hotels to navigating shifting flight times. 

“Sometimes airlines change the date or time of their flights, so the date that I initially booked was different than what it is now,” Adachi said. “I’m not 21 so I can’t book a hotel. I need to find a hotel or Airbnb that can book for maybe one night or something in New York City, so that was a little bit hard.” 

But other international students said they expect smooth travels back home from New York. Emir Polat ’24 will be flying back home to Istanbul, Turkey, despite the country currently being on a nearly three-week lockdown since April 29. 

Polat said he doesn’t anticipate many difficulties for his return. “It will probably be smooth,” he said. “[I] don’t have any mandatory quarantine requirements while traveling back to Turkey right now.” 

Though Polat said he has heard that many students living in different countries have been experiencing challenges returning home, he said he feels lucky that he does not have to worry. 

“Turkey’s pretty flexible about [returning], so it’s a great advantage not to be stressed.” Polat said. “I’m pretty lucky.” 

Justin Lowe ’23 also plans to return home to Kingston, Jamaica — but as he waits to hear back from an internship, Lowe said he may not return home because he would face more restrictions, such as curfew. 

“One of the reasons why I’m worried about going back is that it’s going into a situation where I’m going to be a lot more restricted,” Lowe said. “I’m going to be under all these restrictions that I kind of got out of by coming here.” 

Normally, Lowe flies from Ithaca to Philadelphia to Miami and then to Jamaica. But if he returns home this time, he will fly from Ithaca to Charlotte to Jamaica to reduce the risk of potential exposure to COVID-19. 

Some students anticipating harsher restrictions when they arrive said they know what to expect when their plane lands. This summer, Jimmy Jiang ’22 will be returning home to Hong Kong.

“Hong Kong is extremely conservative when it comes to COVID restrictions,” Jiang said. While he is fully vaccinated, Jiang said he must test negative 72 hours before boarding the flight and  will quarantine for 14 days when he arrives.  

As May brings finals and sunny weather to Ithaca, the planning and long journeys home are common to many international students each year — travels home made even more complicated by lingering restrictions across the globe.

“It’s so easy for most of my friends to be like, ‘I miss home, let me visit home real quick,’” McFarlane-Sweeney said. “That’s not a reality for me.”