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International Students Grapple with the Pandemic, Abroad and at Kenyon

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Cristina Montiel Sánchez ’21 was sitting in the living room of her North Campus Apartment (NCA), scrolling through Instagram, when she read the news that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had released new guidelines which put her at risk of deportation. It was July 6, in Gambier, and COVID-19 cases soared across the South of the United States and parts of the Midwest. A scorching mid-day sun weighed down on the Hill. Sanchez, alongside a handful of other international students, were among the only inhabitants of Kenyon’s empty campus.                       

At first, Sánchez did not think the Instagram post was serious, but, upon checking the news, she realized how dire her position was: The Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), a subsidiary of ICE, had issued a new statement mandating that international students on F-1 or M-1 student visas would not be permitted to stay in the country if they enrolled in virtual courses. In other words, international students would have to take in-person classes at their schools or they could be deported. Kenyon had already decided that, for the fall 2020 semester, it would conduct virtual courses for juniors and seniors, like Sánchez. She faced “immigration consequences including, but not limited to, the initiation of removal proceedings,” according to the ICE website.

The outrage was loud and swift. Within an hour of the new guideline announcement, Raul Romero ’21, a political science major from Caracas, Venezuela, wrote a viral tweet condemning the new ICE regulation:

“Venezuelan students have no home to return to. Cancelling visas and putting thousands under risk of deportation is insane. Thank you ICE, let me pack my things and go back to a humanitarian crisis while continuing my liberal arts classes in Caracas online.” Romero’s post gathered over 2,800 likes and over a thousand retweets. 

“I was furious,” he told me. “For many internationals, including myself, we don’t have other places to go.” 

The day after the ICE announcement, International Students from Kenyon organized, virtually, to petition the College’s administration. In the petition, international students demanded that the administration protect them from deportation at all costs; it also called for Kenyon to serve as a sanctuary campus (a college campus that does not allow ICE to arrive unannounced) as well as form a comprehensive plan for international students in the case that a COVID-19 outbreak emerges on Kenyon’s campus, resulting in all classes being held online. In the span of three days, the petition gathered over 2,000 signatures and multiple donations.  

The administration, however, did not respond as quickly as some international students would have hoped. It took four days for Kenyon to announce, via email, that it would do its best to protect international students — but they did not specify how. Five days had passed, and many internationals still scrambled for answers. The administration refused to respond to their petition. 

John Ortiz Vargas ’22, a student from Costa Rica, is still upset by how Kenyon handled those few weeks last summer.  

“We sent [the petition] to Kenyon. They never replied,” he said. “They never replied to the petition or any of the demands we made. They devised their own plans. They never took our own voice for consideration. That really pissed me off. Not even listening, not even addressing them, when we are making a colossal effort to communicate with them, is discriminatory. Being silenced in such a way is pretty discriminatory.” ” 

President Sean Decatur held meetings with international students to discuss the ICE directive. However, according to Sánchez — who is also president of International Students Association of Kenyon (ISAK) — the administration gave students vague information and refused to answer the questions they asked. They were not allowed to unmute themselves over Zoom, and questions from the chat were ignored.

“The administration did a poor job, but the CGE [Center for Global Engagement] tried,” Sánchez said. “The two or three meetings with Decatur, they completely ignored us.”

Thankfully, due to the rise in pressure from students and faculty and a joint lawsuit from Harvard and MIT, ICE reversed the regulation a week after their initial announcement on July 14. International students were allowed to remain in the United States for their fall semester if they took virtual courses. Additionally, Kenyon allowed international students to enroll on campus regardless of their class year. But the fight was far from over: COVID-19 had completely upended internationals’ relative safety and stability on the Hill. The discommunication with the administration was the beginning of a long line of bureaucratic tussles between students and the College. Some international students would go back to their home countries, struggle with connectivity issues and sometimes lack hot water to shower. Some would leave, graduate online and be banned from entering the U.S. due to travel restrictions; others would even choose to leave Kenyon completely due to the high risk of infection. 

As the United States made up over 30 percent of COVID-19 cases in the world, many international students began to question: Why had they decided to land on the Hill?

Sánchez, a modern languages and literature and international studies double major from the south of Spain, had been living in Gambier since the start of the pandemic. In February of last year, she was supposed to study off-campus in China, but her program was cancelled relatively early in January, forcing her to stay on campus her second semester and through spring break. When cases began to rise exponentially in March, it became increasingly difficult to find flight tickets to Europe. While most students returned to their homes for spring break (and for many, to never come back) and experience the most challenging months of the pandemic with their families, Sánchez and other internationals were trapped, alone, at Kenyon. She recounts those days with frustration and despair. 

“I really really wanted to go home,” she said. “But all the flights kept getting cancelled and I had nowhere to stay.” Some students were there due to travel restrictions, while others had nowhere else to go. From Facetimes and frantic news-binging, Sánchez had to watch from afar as the pandemic worsened in her home country of Spain — one of the first European epicenters of COVID-19. 

“I felt tension that I had never felt before,” she said. Her parents were unable to work, and could not receive their full salary. In May, her cousin died from COVID-19.

 “I couldn’t see any of my family members. It was hard to not be in Spain, all the uncertainty. My parents had to stop working for the time, we didn’t know how long they would be not working, that also made it bad economically,” she said. “I was just scared for them, but not being able to be there or help in any way was really hard.”

In addition to the stress of not being home during the most traumatic months of the pandemic, the Kenyon administration moved international students to different dorms and apartments throughout campus. Sánchez felt as though international students’ needs were being ignored once again. 

“They moved all of us from Mather to McBride so they kept moving us around,” Sánchez said. “There was also drama with food. At first, they were giving us cold tuna sandwiches for lunch. People complained about the tuna sandwiches — it’s pretty terrible to just eat tuna sandwiches every day for weeks.” Luckily, the food improved. After two weeks, AVI began to deliver grocery boxes to every student.  

Rebecca Eckart, the CGE director for international students, said she was relatively happy with how the administration took care of international students in those precarious months. “So [students] moved into summer housing, and I don’t remember exactly what housing spaces they used… but this summer, AVI was really helpful in getting grocery boxes for students each week. That was a really helpful partnership. ResLife, CGE and AVI all sort worked on that together, but obviously AVI did the heavy lifting in getting the grocery boxes together and ready for delivery each week. From my perspective it was a quiet summer.”

One positive support network for international students has been the Kenyon Students Workers Organizing Committee (K-SWOC), a student workers’ union that has been struggling for recognition from the administration since the summer of last year. Members of K-SWOC, made up and organized entirely by Kenyon students, were among the first to reach out to international students when ICE announced the new regulations in July. Vargas, who has worked as a Community Advisor for his three years at Kenyon, says K-SWOC helped him “through the worst summer of [his] life.” 

“As the July 6 guidelines happened, more and more people from K-SWOC wanted to support us,” he said. “They did their best to help us… I started going to the meetings, because they were so helpful. There was a lot of uncertainty on what was going to happen to Community Advisors, and I got really into labor organizing and before I knew it I was one of the organizers of the Community Advisors at its early stages.”

Since then, K-SWOC has fought an uphill battle against the administration, demanding recognition and job security for student employees — internationals and domestics alike. In fact, a large number of international students depend on the work they receive from Kenyon to support themselves, including Vargas. “My job as a C.A. makes or breaks my financial situation,” he added.  

Similarly, Sofia Alpizar Roman ’21, an international student from Alajuela, Costa Rica, says K-SWOC has not only provided her a reliable safety net as a student worker, but also a much-needed sense of community. “Thanks to K-SWOC, we were able to have a platform to get more signatures on the petition,” she said. The future for K-SWOC, as it stands, remains up in the air.

When travel restrictions began to loosen up in the summer, Sánchez was finally able to buy a plane ticket back to Spain and see her family. However, her experience at Kenyon had left a wound on her mental health and sense of stability. Even though she had the opportunity to be on campus, Sánchez nonetheless chose to remain home for the fall semester. “I was just so exhausted from the summer,” she said. “I couldn’t go back and do it again.”

The problems did not end in the summer. International students who remained on campus in the fall faced loneliness and isolation in the cold Ohio months. They missed their families and home countries. Others, who were not on campus, struggled with remote courses; if virtual classes are grueling and mind-numbing for domestic students, then they are a logistical nightmare for internationals.

Due to the time difference, Thao Nguyen ’21, an international student from Hanoi, Vietnam, has to wake up at one in the morning to attend her virtual courses, which can end at three or four in the morning. She, like most other students, lived with her family in the fall semester and has to be quiet so as to not wake them up. 

“Sometimes I want to speak in class but I don’t want to wake up my family,” she said. Her contributions are reduced to a chat box. Once her classes end at three in the morning, Nguyen wakes up at 10 A.M. to work on assignments throughout the day. She misses the social life that Kenyon afforded her, because she can’t see her friends from Vietnam. 

Nguyen, a senior, chose to remain in Vietnam for both semesters of her final year. She will have graduated her senior year held entirely online. “In the fall, I couldn’t go back because there were still travel restrictions,” she told me. “I would have had to buy a flight to a different country and quarantine there.”

 In other words, Nguyen would have to spend twice the amount of money to purchase flight tickets, which are already expensive on their own. The rising number of cases in the United States, also, did not beckon her to fly to Ohio. Vietnam, a country of 96 million inhabitants, has only tracked a total of 2,501 positive cases; meanwhile, the state of Ohio recorded 7,636 daily as of November 2020.  

In China, where cases are also dramatically lower than in the United States, Chinese international students have had the luxury of living relatively normal lives. Bangyhan Zhang ’21, told me he feels grateful to be in Beijing — his home city — where he can see friends, go to museums and not constantly worry about getting himself or his family sick. “Life is basically 75% back to normal,” he told me over Zoom. “Stuff is open: movie theatres, restaurants, shopping malls, etcetera. Masked, of course.” In Cleveland, Ohio, where I was calling from, the situation wasn’t so different: Indoor dining, movie theatres and museums were all open.

The one difference was, of course, the number of cases and the safety precautions that citizens were taking. As of writing, there are only about 20 daily new cases in Zhang’s native city of Beijing, a city of over 21 million people. Speaking to Zhang over zoom, I felt a sense of envy: why can’t the U.S. do the same? 

Still, Zhang reminded me, he would much rather be at Kenyon. Not only are virtual  less personal than Kenyon’s regular in-person classes, but they also force Zhang to keep a taxing sleep schedule. Like Nguyen, Zhang often has to be awake until three in the morning to attend our remote senior seminar in English literature; one day, I noticed him dozing off the screen while our professor gave a lecture on Frederic Jameson. On top of it all, because the Chinese government has strict regulations on how its citizens use the internet, Zhang must use a Virtual Private Network (VPN)  to connect to Kenyon’s remote classes, leading to issues with his connection. Despite these hurdles, Zhang is still committed to finishing the semester and graduating in the spring; by that time he will have spent only two years on Kenyon’s campus. 

Most of all, Zhang misses the little things about Kenyon: running into a friend on Middle Path, socializing in Peirce, studying with classmates. “It’s that kind of atmosphere, spending all afternoon chatting and working on assignments in Peirce. It’s a really happy time, so I miss it,” he said. 

Some students have fought hard to return. After the fall semester ended, Nguyen was determined to return to Kenyon in the spring, but her parents still clung to fears regarding her safety and COVID-19.

“At first I thought that going back would be okay, because I thought that it would be pretty safe in Gambier, because there’s like no one there,” she said. “And then I talked to my parents and they were like, ‘what if you get COVID, and what do you do,’ because, I don’t know if we have health insurance… I know that [Kenyon gives] health insurance, but I’m not sure if it actually does anything, to be honest. It’s just super risky to go back, even though I really want to. Because I want to finish the semester, and all my friends are there, too.” 

Healthcare has been a consistent worry among international students. Most students abroad are used to a highly functional federalized healthcare system. In the United States, however, international students must purchase their own plan.  

Sofia Alpizar shared a similar concern as Nguyen. She decided to stay in her home country in the fall semester because she didn’t feel safe going back to Kenyon — where the risk of getting sick and going into debt are much higher  “My parents didn’t think it was a good idea. There’s universal health care in Costa Rica and I could go get treated if I get sick. There’s social security and medical attention here, and it doesn’t exist for me in the US. Medical help is incredibly expensive in the US in my view.”

Vargas echoed their sentiment. “I feel so safe back home knowing that if I get really sick I can get treated. Here, I might have to go into debt if I get [COVID-19] because there isn’t any [federal] healthcare.” 

International students who I’ve spoken to describe the CGE as a bureaucratic intermediary or bridge between them and the administration; often, the CGE advocates for international students, but as a branch of the College they must also take a position that compromises the student’s needs. Students complain that the CGE hasn’t been prioritizing students since the pandemic; Eckart, for example, displaced blame when I asked her about Kenyon’s paralytic decision-making in the summer. 

“Sometimes we’re just waiting on government agencies to give us more information,” she said. “I would say that the government policy of course applies to all schools. Schools have to look at what the government policy is, and what the school’s policies are, and make sure that the school’s policy is meeting the government’s policies. So in some ways we don’t have a lot of wiggle room.” 

Since the pandemic, ISAK and the CGE have held less and less meetings. Sanchez and other international students aren’t demanding herculean amounts of support from the CGE or the administration. Sanchez even admits that there are some things outside of the College’s control. “Like with ICE, or if the US government decides something,” she said, “obviously the CGE can’t change that.”

However, they would just enjoy a more open form of communication. Many small events that the CGE used to host have discontinued since the pandemic, leaving international students to flail on their own.

“In previous years, [the CGE] would have workshops, where they would literally do the taxes with us. We would literally all be there with our laptops, and they would be walking around helping us, and now they stopped doing that, and I understand we can’t do it in person but now they offer nothing for us. They just send us a link to the software that we have to use. And they’re just like, ‘do it yourself,’” Sánchez said. 

This year was incredibly challenging for everyone at Kenyon. International students, in particular, have had to bear the brunt of Kenyon’s COVID-19 policies and suffer the pitfalls from the administration’s mismanagement and neglect. As we move out of the pandemic, it’s crucial we don’t forget about international students’ perspective. Near the end of our last conversation, Sánchez was surprised this article would even be published. “I feel like people don’t usually hear from international students,” she said.


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