Stress, boredom and postponed family reunions: Covid’s international student impact

Alyson Galvan-Lara shares one of the meals she typically eats at home in Mexico with her Japanese host family over the summer. 

Sarah Michels

When Alyson Galvan-Lara hugged her family at the airport after a year apart, she felt like crying. 

It has been a long year for international students. Travel bans, overpriced tickets and the stress of potentially losing their student visas kept most in Kentucky throughout the summer and fall semester until November, when the relief of Thanksgiving and the extended winter break came. 

Galvan-Lara, a junior neuroscience major from Mexico, said her family reunion was “a really good shock.” She talked to her family over FaceTime throughout the pandemic, but it didn’t fully prepare her for how much some things had changed.

“In one year, my little brother wasn’t as little as I remembered anymore. He’s my height now,” Galvan-Lara said. “The way he expressed his thoughts it was like, ‘Who are you and what did you do with my brother?’”

Galvan-Lara originally planned to go home in July, but had to cancel her flight for fear of being unable to return. International students in America were worried that if they left the country or took all online classes, they would lose their student visas and ICE wouldn’t allow them back into the country.

In mid-July, however, the ICE directive was reversed after Harvard and MIT sued the Trump administration, buoyed by the support of many other schools and groups. 

“I was so scared, but I’m so happy MIT and Harvard helped us, and now international students were able to keep their status, even if they went back home,” Galvan-Lara said. “The thing is that it was already too late for me to go back home.” 

Pallavi Ashok, a junior management major from India, also barely missed her chance for a summer return. She said the weekend of Spring Break was the last flight out, and while she couldn’t get on it, her roommates did. 

Ashok typically goes home every summer and winter. While she was upset, missing that flight turned out to be a hidden blessing.  

“My roommates thought they could come back for fall, but (India’s lockdown) just kept extending and extending so they got stuck for the entire year, pretty much,” Ashok said. “So, part of me was glad I couldn’t, I didn’t come back then. Because just time difference and all of that, it’s hard to study.”

India’s time zone is 10.5 hours ahead of Lexington, forcing Ashok’s friends to stay up all night, often from midnight to 5 a.m., to complete their schoolwork and log hours working at the Study. 

Ashok booked her return flight for winter break. She said traveling was weird with the masks, but otherwise, wasn’t too different. This trip’s tickets were her cheapest set yet, she said, because she had multiple inconvenient layovers. 

She was also originally supposed to fly on Air France, stopping in Europe before returning to India, but her plans were deterred when France enacted a complete lockdown, banning flights. 

“I had to switch up my whole ticketing and all that,” Ashok said. “It was a pain.”  

Despite the difficulty of travelling, Ashok and her sister, a UK alumna who lives in Louisville, eventually reunited with their family.  

“It was weird, like my sister and I walk through the doors at the airport and we’re just like are we actually home? Like it just didn’t feel real,” Ashok said. “It took like a week for me to realize like, oh I’m actually home now. The transition was kind of hard.” 

Others, like Jaixun Bei, a UK senior from China studying dietetics, are still waiting for their reunion opportunity. 

“Chinese government has a policy to kind of restrict the number of people who can go back to China,” Bei said. “Also, the flight ticket can always get cancelled. And then they sometimes don’t refund you as soon as possible. So, you have to wait.” 

Bei bought three flights home over the summer, for a total cost of approximately $5,000. Each one was cancelled, and the refunds haven’t come yet.  

“I’m kind of a little bit bankrupt,” Bei said. 

Some Chinese students were able to return home, but at a much higher price. “Normal” tickets, as Bei called them, usually cost from $1,100 to $1,300 round trip. But during the pandemic, the “normal” price tickets inevitably get cancelled, and students are left waiting for a refund that seems like it may never arrive.

However, some students, including two of Bei’s friends, found more expensive tickets—from $1,000 to $6,000 one way—that successfully got them home. Meanwhile, Bei has been stuck in Lexington since June 2019.

Bei said he has gotten some financial help from UK, but not without effort. After talking to one of his teachers, Bei found out about an emergency grant offered by UK that paid for two months of his summer rent. He also applied to a scholarship he knew about from his time working at the International Center, which helped offset his summer tuition costs.  

But Bei said he hopes to see UK and the International Center do more to help international students financially in the future. 

“So, I think the thing is, they don’t really help us. We have to like, look for them,” Bei said. “If you don’t reach out to them, they won’t reach out to you.” 

Galvan-Lara echoed this sentiment. She received a $1,000 scholarship in August after seeking out financial help over the summer and writing an essay about why she needed the assistance. She said that while she appreciates the International Center’s efforts to check in with students, she thinks they could do a better job of raising awareness about available financial assistance for those struggling. 

“They gave me a scholarship,” Galvan-Lara said. “But only because I applied to that scholarship. Maybe if I didn’t know about that scholarship now, I wouldn’t have received any help.” 

Due to the CARES Act, Ashok said she received $1,500, which nearly covered her whole summer. She appreciated the help, since she didn’t have to depend on her parents during a difficult time for everyone. 

For the 1,367 international students enrolled at UK during the 2020 fall semester, the International Center offered multiple resources. 

During winter break, International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS) launched a weekly check-in program and the International Hospitality Program  distributed care packages and letters to international students. As part of the International Student Leadership Team, Ashok helped host virtual events every Thursday for freshmen during the pandemic.

The International Center also focused on providing regular opportunities for connection among its students throughout the fall semester, said Lindsay Piercy, information specialist for public relations and strategic communications. 

“We regularly partner with the Center for Support and Intervention and the Office of Financial Wellness to support our international students when they are facing financial hardships or have basic needs concerns,” Piercy wrote on behalf of the International Center in an email to the Kernel. 

There wasn’t much to do over the summer and winter breaks due to pandemic restrictions, but international students found ways to stave off the boredom.  

During the breaks, Bei said he drove around and explored Lexington. Over the summer, he took two classes and spent time with other students in his position. This winter, he focused on applying to graduate school for public health and taking his final GRE exam.  

But he misses his family. He FaceTimes his parents, and sometimes grandparents, on WeChat, a Chinese messaging application, four to five times a week. Bei said that when he finally gets home, he just wants to relax and visit his cousin and grandparents in Hainan Province, a sort of island vacation locale.  

Galvan-Lara spent her summer getting closer to her Japanese host family, playing games with the kids and improving her language skills. She said she signed up for multiple Zoom events organized by the International Center, but they were often cancelled due to a lack of interest.  

“Of course, I missed my family a lot. I wanted to be with my family,” she said. “But it was really nice to be with this Japanese family, because they were just very fun to hang out with.” 

Even when she arrived home, Galvan-Lara wasn’t able to fully relax. She worried about something happening and the U.S. government deciding to not let students like her back in for the spring semester. 

“Like you are always thinking, ‘What is the government thinking?’” she said. “’Am I going to be safe? Can I still go back to their country? Are they going to make any type of restriction? What do I do, what’s happening? You are always checking what is going on with the government.”

Ashok said she was most anxious about contracting COVID-19 over winter break, since she noticed people in her city and country weren’t treating safety measures like mask-wearing as seriously as they should. While her family went to the mall a few times and attended a very small family friend’s wedding, they have mostly been watching movies and Netflix and cooking Ashok and her sister’s favorite Indian foods. 

“My family and I pretty much try to stay inside as much as possible,” Ashok said. “We’re just spending time with each other.”