Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
May 30, 2024

The journey home: the plight of the international student

By MICHELLE LIMPE | August 8, 2020



An unusually deserted John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Every country is battling the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in a different way, each at varying stages of protecting its citizens and eliminating the virus. With international students accounting for approximately 19 percent of the University’s student body, The News-Letter reached out to a few of them to hear about their journeys home during the pandemic and the current state of COVID-19 in their countries. From scrambling to book flights home, to weighing their options for the fall semester, international students have had to make many hard decisions in the past few months. 

The Journey Home

Rising junior Anh Tran, a domestic student now residing in Vietnam, flew home on June 15 after staying on campus until the end of the semester. In an email to The News-Letter, he shared that he chose to stay on campus because he thought that the University would reopen on April 12, as per its initial plan. Tran says that he would have flown home in March if the University had decided to shut down for the rest of the semester sooner. In the end Tran was not able to book a commercial flight but returned home through a repatriation flight organized by the Vietnamese government.

“The journey was a 20 hour flight. We had to wear protective garments, gloves and face masks for the entire flight. The very cramped seating was pretty much the only issue though. I slept most of the flight,” Tran wrote.

Rising sophomore Asimina Zoitou, an international student from Greece, also had a very stressful experience. She flew home on March 13 in order to reach Greece before the European Union closed its borders; the borders were scheduled to close at midnight the day Zoitou arrived.

“The experience of having to be more careful about hygiene and distancing was definitely something new, since it had been only a few days since the pandemic had hit the U.S. Also, suddenly having to move out, change my flight tickets, and the possibility of a cancelled flight increased my anxiety with the situation,” Zoitou wrote in an email to The News-Letter

Before flying home Zoitou contacted the Office of International Services for advice on her travel plans. While the office initially recommended that Zoitou stay in Baltimore, a senior consultant ultimately advised her to fly home early.

“The University was helpful but a quicker and more confident response would have definitely reduced the stress of the situation,” Zoitou wrote.

Rising sophomore Peter Huang, a Canadian student residing in Beijing, flew home on May 18. Huang flew from Baltimore to Detroit for a connecting flight to Toronto. From Toronto, Huang flew to Frankfurt, Germany, then to Copenhagen, Denmark. From there he was finally able to land in a small town next to Beijing.

“It took me 48 hours to get home. I transferred four different times. It was kind of crazy, but if I had not left then, I would have had to wait another month,” Huang said. “In order to plan my layovers, I contacted the German embassies in Washington and Denmark to make sure that I would not get detained when travelling through the Schengen zone.”

Both Tran and Zoitou had to complete a mandatory 14-day self-isolation period upon arriving in their respective home countries. During the two-week period, they remained in contact with a doctor who checked their temperatures daily to ensure that no symptoms of the virus appeared.

“The idea of non-optional quarantine camp may sound kind of grim, but honestly it was quite pleasant — besides the lack of air conditioning,” Tran wrote. “The living conditions were decent enough, and we were fed 3 times a day. The food honestly tasted better than Hopkins dining.”

Due to the stress of finals season and frequent air travel, Huang shared that he did exhibit some COVID-19 symptoms, such as headaches and trouble breathing, upon landing. As a result, he was separated from the rest of the passengers and shipped to the hospital to go through two days of testing. There, Huang had a CT scan of his chest, one blood sampling test to check for antibodies and two nucleic acid tests.

“Other than that, we were brought to do these interviews where they had little police cameras to record everything you said. They ask you very detailed information about your travel plans. It was a very detailed investigative report, and it took about 30 minutes,” said Huang.

After the hospital, Huang completed the rest of the two-week quarantine at a hotel. Though Huang had to pay for everything from the numerous tests to the hotel accommodations, he noted that the government supported those in financially difficult situations. 

“They even wanted to install a metal gadget to my door, so every time my family member or me opened this door, they would be able to track it,” said Huang. “But thankfully they did not have to do it because the government had pushed the emergency level down to Three, with Level One being the highest.”

Tran, Huang and Zoitou all shared that the COVID-19 crisis has been controlled well in their home countries of Vietnam, China and Greece, respectively. According to Zoitou, Greece is currently in a healthy state. Tran shared that there has not been a community transmission case of COVID-19 in two months in Hanoi, and that life outside of quarantine has gotten back to normal.

“Life is well, despite what some may think. A Hopkins professor actually tweeted doubt about the current condition here, which I found amusing,” Tran wrote.

Though there was a recent COVID-19 outbreak in China a few weeks ago, which changed China’s status from a Level Three to a Level Two emergency, Huang shared that the government has the situation under control.

“There is no curfew. We don’t have any major protests or anything going on,” said Huang. “People are very cooperative because they understand that what the government is doing is good for them. Even since the initial outbreak in Wuhan, people have been very understanding of the government’s actions.”

Concerns for the Fall Semester

Though the University recently released its final plan to move everything online, these three international students shared that it did not really have an effect on their plans since they had already chosen to stay in their home countries for the fall semester. 

Zoitou shared that she expected the University to eventually shift everything online since the COVID-19 situation was getting worse in the U.S. Despite this, she believes the University should have announced their final plans sooner. 

“I know many people who have already made plans to go back (ex. have signed leases, etc.),” Zoitou wrote. “It will probably be difficult for them now to choose whether to go back or stay home.”

A fully remote fall semester does bring up many challenges for these international students regarding online learning and future housing.

“It will be extremely inconvenient if lectures aren't recorded and posted online, due to the [13 hour] time zone difference between Vietnam and Baltimore,” Tran wrote.

One of Zoitou’s main concerns are the belongings she left last semester. She questions whether Housing will safely store them for a year if the situation still prohibits international students from returning in the spring. Zoitou is also worried about exams and final grading.

“The time difference is not that bad, as I have mostly morning classes. However, the online format they had last semester made it difficult to earn partial credit,” Zoitou wrote.

Huang noted that if adapting to the difference in time zone proves to be too challenging, he is considering taking a leave of absence, similar to what some of his friends are doing. 

“I’m experiencing grave financial difficulty right now, so it’s really not worth it to take online courses when we should be having the opportunity to meet with professors and collaborate with students,” Huang said. “If they’re sucking out our resources just to keep the University running, it is not right.”

Huang also spoke of an exchange program proposal that he and his peers presented to the University, which would have allowed international Chinese students to take classes at Chinese universities. However, the University denied the proposal, even though Huang had already received approval from some interested Chinese institutions.

“When our proposal was denied, we couldn’t help but get a bitter feeling from seeing other universities adopting Go Local programs. This is especially the case when it comes to Tufts University, as their petition was heavily based on the one we, Hopkins students in China, wrote,” Huang wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “We would really appreciate Hopkins giving us a shot on this.”

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