How International Students at UM-Flint are Faring in the Face of a Global Pandemic

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Santiago Ochoa

The majority of international students at UM-Flint find themselves unable to return to their home countries. For those who can, it’s uncertain when they’ll be able to return to UM-Flint to continue their studies.

Sara Alouh, Writer

While all students are facing complications right now due to the current COVID-19 outbreak, some, like international students, can be affected more severely than others.

An international student’s situation at the moment mostly depends on what country they are from. As of right now, Saudi Arabia and India have suspended flights into their countries. Most international students at UM-Flint come from Saudi Arabia and India, making up over 50% of all international students. They might have great difficulty getting home, if at all. 

“I think there’s a lot of stress and, you know, a lot of concern. They’re so far away from their families,” said Kimberly Butka, the international student and scholar program manager. 

International students also have to be mindful of rapidly-changing flight policies and time zones. Policies from different countries can be “different depending on the hour,” according to Butka. 

“I can imagine it’s probably scary and frustrating. I know, I’ve had a few students reach out to me and they were planning on going home and had flights canceled,” said Butka. 

About half of students living in the residence halls are international students, and with students being asked to move out, it can be quite difficult to up and move countries in a few days.  However, all students who have requested to stay on campus have had their requests granted. As for international students specifically, they have not been encouraged or required to go home. 

“I’ve made sure to advocate for housing if a student needs to … have a place to stay… and [make sure] their needs have been met,” said Butka. “I don’t think students have felt that they’ve been kicked out or anything. I mean, some people did go home just because they wanted to and their families wanted them to come home. But some students have stayed put and are just gonna do the best they can here until everything is over.”

Most students who are going back to their home countries are probably going to stay until the fall 2020 semester, according to Butka. 

“I think students are just getting flights home in any way they can. And you know, we’re giving them the precautions and the things to think about,” said Butka.

As of now, the International Center staff is making sure that students have made their travel arrangements, advising students to keep social distancing, all while working from home. 

“We’ve had a couple of virtual meetups with students and … they’re getting the emails just like any other students from the University about social distancing and all of those different things. But we also have been sending out emails about some of the immigration paperwork to make sure they’re staying in status,” said Butka. 

Some students, however, have chosen to stay in Flint. One of those students is Mia Alzubil, an international student from Saudi Arabia. 

“I feel like if I go back home everything is gonna be put on pause,” said Alzubil. “It’s gonna be unnecessary tension for myself … I want to do things where my university is located, so going back home is not an option for me personally.”

Her main reason for staying in the US is to have easier access to her professors and classmates. 

“If I go back home my phone service wouldn’t work so I have to rely on online service and not all of the people I know from classes use things like WhatsApp and other social media,” said Alzubil. 

Alzubil spends all of her time in her apartment, going out only once every couple of weeks to get groceries. Though she is doing everything in her power to stay as safe as possible, her family in Saudi Arabia is still concerned about her safety. 

“My family’s been really worried about me, like extremely worried about me,” said Alzubil. 

Students who were meant to graduate in April might have to rethink their plans. The commencement ceremony has been canceled with the earliest date being floated for a graduation ceremony in August. Many international student’s visas will have expired by then and only those who sign up for Optional Practical Training (OPT) have their visas extended so they can get training and work in the US.

For students who choose not to sign up for OPT, their student visas are only valid 60 days after graduation. If there is a ceremony held in August, they must obtain a visitor’s visa if they want to attend. 

Whether international students choose to go back home or remain here, the challenges they face during this time are unique.