University of Washington transfer student Shenlan Guan was waiting at a bus stop earlier this year when she was approached by a stranger. “You should go back to your country,” she remembers him telling her, “that’s where the virus come[s] from.” In the moment, Guan, who is Chinese, told him it was none of his business. But on the bus ride home, the driver noticed her crying, offered her a tissue, and told her she should stay on the bus until she felt calm.
Guan didn’t tell her parents about her encounter at the bus stop. They had always advised her to lay low in America, so she thought they would blame her for attracting attention by wearing a face mask. The confrontation scared her enough that she questioned her decision to come to the U.S., where she’s been studying at the UW since September.
“I was so hopeful…. I have a Husky shirt, I try to blend in,” Guan said. “[I thought] it would not happen to me, and it’s not supposed to. But I choose to wear a mask and that’s what happened.”
Seattle college students have all experienced upheaval as classes have gone remote and campuses have emptied. But for international students, the coronavirus pandemic has created problems and uncertainties different from those of their peers. Some, like Guan, experienced an uptick in racist encounters when the coronavirus crisis began. Many are worried about losing jobs and summer internship opportunities—concerns exacerbated by recent fears that President Trump will curb the OPT program, which gives international students a temporary period to gain work experience in the U.S. Travel limitations, financial worries, and fears about an uncertain future—especially as the spring quarter comes to an end—have all impacted Seattle’s international students as they cope with being far from home in the middle of a global pandemic.
Saka Davaajav, a student from Mongolia in her junior year at the UW, has been stranded in the U.S. since Mongolia suspended international travel in March. Her 70-year-old grandmother, who came to visit her in mid-December, is stuck here as well. The two of them are confined to Davaajav’s apartment in the University District, only getting fresh air by going up to the roof—her grandmother can't risk the potential costs of seeking healthcare in the U.S.
“I feel like I have no authority over my life,” Davaajav said. The suspension of inbound travel to Mongolia, originally set to expire on March 28, then later on May 31st, was recently extended another month to June 30th. She is still holding out hope that she will be able to take a charter flight home.
But not everyone feels secure returning to their home country. Kalkidan Yekuno, an Ethiopian student at Seattle Pacific University, decided not to go back to Ethiopia out of fears that she wouldn’t be able to reenter the U.S. for school in the fall because of pandemic-related travel restrictions. She’s concerned that going back to Ethiopia will risk her visa status in the U.S., so she plans to stay with relatives in Seattle this summer. Now, she worries about her family back home, where she says medical services are limited. She also worries about the cost of tuition—her parents aren’t working during the pandemic. “I don’t want to be a burden for them,” she said.
Financial concerns are a common thread for international students—Guan said that catching the virus is her “biggest fear,” because a hospital bill in the U.S. would be hugely expensive.
And though she’s used to returning home to Guangzhou, China, every summer, she doesn’t know when she’ll be able to again—probably not until winter of this year, if not later. “I’m really homesick,” Guan said. “I’m graduating next year. I really wish I can go home. And I don’t know if that can happen smoothly.”