Op-ed: International students face unique challenges when deciding to return to campus during COVID-19


Pavithra Rajesh

To return home, many international students must pass through busy travel hubs, like Dubai International Airport.

Pavithra Rajesh, contributor

Like my peers, I’ve contemplated returning to campus by weighing issues of health, travel, cost and more. But as an international student, the decision was even harder.

When Northeastern University closed dorms mid-March, I was forced to rush home within three days. I booked an expensive flight home to India, packed up my entire dorm, arranged storage and informed my professors and friends about the situation — all under the assumption I would return in September.

Alas, September has arrived. The pandemic has only worsened, and I will not return to Boston this fall.

Since returning to India in March, until the moment I officially canceled my housing for next semester on July 13, my decision to return to Boston changed at least 20 times. I still want to go back to campus, but my desire to return to a normal college experience is not a priority.

In the United States alone, over 5 million people were infected with the coronavirus, and more than 160,000 people have died. The virus will likely thrive on college campuses, and Northeastern is no exception. Although Northeastern’s safety measures look great on paper, what if they fail and we must return to remote learning?

My journey home is excruciatingly long, taking about 16 hours, not including layover time. Boston to Bangalore is two long flights through three busy airports, which poses significant risks. It would also be incredibly difficult for my parents to drop everything and travel to the United States if I were infected.

Furthermore, lockdown measures required the Bangalore airport to suspend international travel until July 31, with scarce clarification of when it would reopen. While the airport ultimately reopened on Aug. 1, the deadline to cancel on-campus housing was July 15, meaning I had to make my housing decision without knowing if the airport would even be open, and risk losing my $3,000 deposit.

To add to this uncertainty, I was among the unlucky few with a selection number automatically assigned to PAWS for housing selection. Being placed in PAWS meant I didn’t know my housing assignment, nor if I would have a kitchen. I would be more comfortable returning to Boston if I knew I wouldn’t have to rely on external food sources.

As an international student, not only did I have to make arrangements in accordance with Northeastern’s rules, but I also had to follow government visa guidelines. The sudden change in visa policy for international students was another wrench in my plan, although it was soon reversed. The change mainly impacted international students already in the United States. However, due to the lack of communication from Northeastern, there was confusion about whether my visa status would remain intact if I took a full course load online from outside the United States. The rule was announced July 6 and revoked July 14, yet Northeastern still did not change its July 15 housing deadline.

It’s not easy or cheap to suddenly pack up and travel halfway across the world, and it’s not a situation I want to experience again. However, in the event that the university returns completely online and the infection rate in Massachusetts gets worse, I wouldn’t want to be 8,122 miles from my family.

I’m grateful I can continue my education safely from home, with resources like Wi-Fi and the comfort of my own bedroom, but I’m still in for a rough semester. India is about 10 hours ahead of Boston, which means my synchronous classes will take place from 6:45 p.m. at the earliest to 2 a.m. at the latest, not including time for office hours, virtual extracurricular events, etc. Not to mention, we experience occasional power cuts in my apartment, which could disrupt online classes.

I want to be on campus. I enjoy college. I enjoy being in the city, I enjoy interacting with other students and professors, and I will greatly miss all of this in the fall. However, for the reasons above, I could never justify my decision to return to Boston.

Pavithra Rajesh is a second-year journalism major with minors in theatre and musical theatre. She can be reached at [email protected] or @pavirajesh1071 on Twitter.