International students adapt to isolation during the pandemic

Tuan Kiet Trinh, a biochemistry and pre-pharmacy sophomore from Vietnam stands inside the Integrated Sciences Building where he conducts daily research and visits with other international friends. International students have experienced added stress during the pandemic and have learned to adapt after sudden isolation.

Kelly Krabill Reporter

Celebrating the Chinese New Year alone in his quiet apartment was not what international student Tuan Kiet Trinh had anticipated for his sophomore year at Kent State. Cooking traditional Vietnamese food and talking to his parents virtually helped after the Vietnamese Student Association cancelled in-person events because of the pandemic.

“[I’m] a little bit homesick right now because my parents sent me a bunch of pictures [of] how they celebrate [the] Vietnamese New Year,” he said.

Some international students returned home last March when classes went to an all-virtual setting, but others had travel restrictions in their home country and could not leave the U.S. Some of the students who stayed in Kent found it difficult to take care of basic needs, such as buying groceries.

After leaving his home country during his second semester to study biochemistry and pre-pharmacy at Kent State, Trinh spent three months stuck in his apartment because he was “worried about the virus,” he said when the pandemic began.

From March to June of 2020, he had food delivered to his door and only left his home to do laundry.

Trinh’s parents were worried about his safety and wanted him to return to Vietnam, he said. But Vietnam is not open for international travel without an extensive application process.

Trinh wasn’t the only international student struggling with daily tasks.

A Jordanian Ph.D. translation student, Tasnim Al-Naimi, had minimum contact with people during the one-month break when the spring semester ended, so she relied on online shopping.

“I was most of the time feeling very depressed because I didn’t have [a] car at that time, so even the basic needs were really hard to get,” Al-Naimi said.

In May of 2020, she watched Netflix, read Arabic novels and talked to her parents on the phone. But the time difference limited conversations.

“I’m not used to that [not talking to people] because before the pandemic I used to spend all my daytime on campus in the Ph.D. room, so I was all around people,” she said.

Because of the sudden onset of isolation during the pandemic, Counseling and Psychological Services in the DeWeese Health Center has seen heightened symptoms of loneliness and anxiety in international students, said Jayita Datta, a psychologist with a focus on international students in the DeWeese Health Center.

An abrupt halt to one’s social connections and inability to travel home to see family has posed mental health challenges, particularly with those international students already experiencing mental health issues, she said.

Many international students are hesitant to receive counseling services at Kent because they are not sure if counselors can relate to their situation of living in a different country, Datta said.

Al-Naimi didn’t use counseling services when the pandemic began, but she did when she first arrived at Kent.

She was in her second semester when the pandemic first began. She didn’t know if she wanted to continue her studies or put her Ph.D. on hold.

“It was very uncertain because I didn’t have the scholarship [through the translation program] at that time, and I didn’t even know whether I would be able to continue the Ph.D. or not,” she said, “because if I don’t get the scholarship, I have to go back home because there is no way I would pay for remote classes.”

Financial stress has increased for many people across the world since 2020. While millions of Americans filed for unemployment, college students were deciding to pay for all-remote courses or wait until in-person classes started back. 

International students had added stress, Datta said.

According to some students, banking services were shut down in other countries preventing their families from sending money. Even if banks had been open, some students had family members who lost their job due to the pandemic and had no money to send.

While some students struggled with basic needs and financial struggles, other students like, Noor Agustina, had to change even more things in their daily lives.

Agustina, an international student from Indonesia, had a different isolation experience.

She came to the U.S. with her husband and two daughters to get her Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

Before the pandemic, she spent her time at home with her family, cooked dinner and cleaned the house. But the worldwide shutdown forced her to make changes.

When the lockdown happened, Agustina’s daughters were at home more and she had to help them with their schooling needs and take care of them. She was a full-time student which brought a lot of reading and homework to do, but she was also trying to juggle everything she had to do as a mother.

“I felt sick because I just cannot handle this. I usually go to the library and that’s the time I can really concentrate,” she said.

The university’s library closed for studying, so Agustina had to study in her home.

She managed to keep up with her classes by studying alone in her bedroom, but many international students struggled more and even requested a reduced course load, Datta said.

According to requirements from the Homeland Security in-regards-to student visas, international students have to take at least 12 credit hours to maintain their visa status in order to continue studying in the U.S. The counseling and psychological office assesses students on a case-by-case basis to see if they qualify for a reduction of credit hours due to stress. 

Once the recommendation form is completed by a medical professional in the office, it is sent to the Office of Global Education and an advisor authorizes a reduced course load in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System. The Department of Homeland Security can then access the form to see that the student was authorized for less than full-time credit hours during a semester.

Trinh was able to manage his classes better at home because it was easier for him to watch the lectures a second time since English is not his second language. 

He also reflected on his career goals during the three months in his apartment and the pandemic opened a new chapter in his life, he said.

He started going to the research lab every day in the Integrated Sciences Building on campus and has been able to spend time with other international students.

Through the International Friendship Program at Kent, Trinh was also paired with a local family in the Kent area known as a friendship family, which is similar to a host family. 

Trinh said he doesn’t “feel lonely here” since they have him over for dinner. They were the first people he met last June after getting out of his apartment.

Al-Naimi also reflected and considered her options last March.

She re-applied for a scholarship through the translation program, which she originally was denied for when she first applied before leaving Jordan to study at Kent. After applying a second time during her second semester, she was given the scholarship, which includes an assistantship and a stipend.

Al-Naimi said “it was a good opportunity” and decided to pick her studies back up because she felt she could finish her Ph.D. with the financial help. 

Agustina made changes and created a space in her bedroom where she studies.

“I have a study corner in my room. I make myself comfortable as much as possible there, and I can study there every day from morning until noon, and then [I] take a break and start to study again at night,” she said. “I’m happy that actually I can adjust.”

International students have experienced isolation differently than domestic students in some ways, but they have learned to adjust to their situations.

“International students are very resilient, and they are highly adaptable during this difficult time,” Datta said. “They are the ones taking the pledge, leaving their home country, coming to this new country and learning to adapt.”

Kelly Krabill covers administration. Contact her at [email protected]