When Lehigh announced its plans to transition to fully remote learning in March for the spring semester, many international students chose to “wait it out” and stay at Lehigh.
What began as a decision to remain in the United States for a few weeks transformed into a five-month period of ambiguity and uncertainty as many international students are still unable to return to their home countries due to the COVID-19 crisis.
Bishop Pikinini, ’23, an international student from Botswana, contacted his country’s embassy in Washington, D.C. at the beginning of the outbreak and was advised not to travel internationally.
“It’s just disappointing,” Pikinini said. “I was really looking forward to going back at the end of the year.”
Pikinini said, just like other international students, he still isn’t sure when he’ll be able to return home.
Xinyi Cui, ’22, from Yangzhou, China, decided to stay in the United States due to the health risks of traveling by plane and has been living on campus since March.
She said being alone was one of the most difficult parts of her experience.
“My emotions were very down because my suitemate flew back to China, and some friends that I know also flew back, so I was kind of lonely here,” Cui said.
Anmol Shrestha, ‘21, from Nepal, said he’s experienced some struggles with his mental health during the past few months.
He said the stress and anxiety brought upon by the virus were difficult to cope with without the emotional support of his family and friends. He said he even remembers one moment in particular when he nearly reached his breaking point.
“I would say the biggest challenge was when the [Trump] administration came out with the mandate that if all classes were going to be virtual, international students couldn’t stay here,” Shrestha said. “I almost had a panic attack. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do … That was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
The Trump administration has since rescinded the policy directive.
For Pikinini, living in isolation at Lehigh meant spending more time than usual online. He said staying positive in the face of a nearly constant barrage of disheartening headlines was one of the most significant difficulties he encountered.
“Every day there’s breaking news: racial tensions, COVID-19, and I also had to check the situation back home,” Pikinni said. “I think that’s overwhelming at a certain point.”
He said he often channels his emotions into creative outlets such as rap music and poetry. He said he was lonely in the environment he was in, and poetry was the best thing to deal with it.
Over the past few months, Pikinini worked on various projects with a German talent agency and even recorded a song entitled, “Fallen,” which he wrote about the Black Lives Matter movement following the death of George Floyd.
Shrestha and Cui also took advantage of their time in quarantine to complete some personal projects.
Shrestha, an engineering student, switched majors during his sophomore year and felt he may have been a bit “late in the game” in terms of his career.
“I’ve been meaning to catch up,” Shrestha said. “I’ve been meaning to have some personal projects and build my portfolio. I really got that done. I took some time to not just sit around and do nothing, and I learned a lot of new stuff.”
Cui, who studies accounting, worked on an Iacocca Global Village virtual team project and participated in a case competition. She also began learning Japanese.
Cui said her quarantine experience was a period of personal growth and expressed hope for the future.
“I never thought I would experience this kind of situation,” Cui said. “The last time China experienced this kind of situation was 2003, but at the time I was kind of too young to face all of these things. But now I’m facing all of these things by myself. I think this is valuable. We’re not sure what we’ll face next time, but for now, I think I’ve become stronger.”