Zoe Binder was born and raised in Germany. She is currently based in Berlin due to COVID-19.
Seven months ago, immediately after returning from spring break, USF students were faced with the choice to either evacuate our residence halls or stay in essential housing on a vacant campus. Undoubtedly, this sudden transition caught most students, including those living off-campus, off-guard, and caused an incredible amount of stress for many.
When I returned from break, I had one day to pack all of my things and board a flight to Berlin, Germany that I was not certain was even going to be allowed to take off. During my layover in Amsterdam, Netherlands, I learned that my connecting flight to Berlin had been canceled and there was a high chance that the German government was going to close the country off to the Netherlands within the next 12 hours. So, instead of waiting for the next potential flight home, I sought out a train station and took a total of five trains for more than 14 hours to finally arrive at my doorstep in Berlin.
The fear of being trapped in a foreign country and having to seek help from the nearest consulate was absolutely draining. I did not allow myself to relax until I was safely at home, and yet, I still wondered: was I safe?
On the day I arrived in Germany, the country had about 1,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases. This number increased to nearly 6,000 by the very next day, making me extremely self-conscious about the fact that I had just passed through two international airports, five train stations, and packed streets to get back home.
The spike in numbers was mainly due to Germans returning home from vacations and other residencies outside of the country. With these high case numbers came stricter citywide regulations: any person outside during late March and early April was subject to being questioned by authorities about their intentions. Only essential outings, such as grocery shopping and dog walking, were allowed, however, masks were not required outdoors. The only businesses that remained open were fast-food chains, and even they faced strict rules, only able to allow one customer in the restaurant at a time.
I was far from being the only international student affected by the uncertainty of the pandemic. Maya Ayed, a third-year business management and marketing major from Tunisia, chose to remain in San Francisco in order to complete an internship following the University’s closing. “This was actually the first time I felt homesick at college, so I started FaceTiming a lot more with my family,” Ayed said, commenting on how pandemic-induced anxiety made her miss the usual safety net of her home.
Despite the anxiety and homesickness Ayed faced, she said the sudden restrictions on her daily life in San Francisco actually drove her to be more organized, “I set time limits on my social media to help me focus and be aware of the present moment.” Ayed stayed in San Francisco because she expected that she would be able to work at her internship in-person by June, but was disappointed to find that it too would be remote. She began living a life restricted mostly to her apartment. Meanwhile, Tunisia began to ease its COVID-19 guidelines. “I saw all my friends living a normal life while I was still restricted in SF,” Ayed said.
After completing her internship remotely, and with the added chance that USF was going to be fully remote in the fall, Ayed decided to return home to Tunisia for the semester.
Tunisia’s response to the coronavirus started strong. From June 5-12, the country reported zero cases per day, and numbers remained low through June and much of July. But now, the country has reopened. “People were losing their jobs, and in Tunisia, we have a lot of poverty, so people needed to work,” Ayed said. Tunisia currently has a poverty rate of about 15%, which makes it difficult for the economy to stay closed even when facing health risks.
“Now cases are rising again, and my stepmom has been diagnosed with COVID,” Ayed said, explaining the grounding effect that the coronavirus can have when it hits close to home. “It makes you realize that you can be living in a bubble, and it’s scary when it becomes real.”
Ayed plans on returning to San Francisco in a week, at the time of print. She said that she “does not know what to expect from her flight,” adding that although she has completed all of the necessary paperwork, she still fears something could go wrong.
Concerns about returning to the United States are not the only stressors international students are facing. Javier Lugo, a third-year biology major from Puerto Rico, stated that one of his biggest fears about being home is the risk of hurricanes. “In my senior year [of high school] there was a big hurricane and we were without internet for a month and a half. That could really ruin my whole semester,” said Lugo. Lugo is referring to 2017, when Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricane Maria, which caused an islandwide blackout. Lugo added that if USF were to remain online next semester, he would consider applying for emergency on-campus housing due to the risk of losing internet access at home.
Lugo also expressed concerns about how being in Puerto Rico would impact his chances of receiving a potential COVID-19 vaccination. “The U.S usually prioritizes the mainland, and the territories like Guam and Puerto Rico usually get things last,” Lugo said, adding that even if a vaccine became available, he is not sure he could get it in time for the spring semester.
According to Lugo, a large number of COVID-19 cases in Puerto Rico were spread by tourists, including regular European cruises and vacationers from the United States. World Health Organization (WHO) data shows a spike in cases in the country in mid-June, around the same time many cheap flights were being offered to Puerto Rico from the U.S.
Sofia Chavez, a second-year international studies major from Mexico, saw a similar correlation between coronavirus outbreaks in her country and a rise in tourism during the pandemic. Chavez argued that tourists were being irresponsible by traveling to Mexico at this time because they could be potential carriers of the virus.
Chavez said financial hardship in Mexico makes combatting the coronavirus more difficult. “A [coronavirus] test is 3000 pesos, which are around $150, and most people can’t afford that.” The actual cost for government-issued COVID-19 tests in Mexico is 2,300 pesos, or about $100. She added that Mexican social security covers medical expenses, “but they are severely underfunded, so hospitals did not have enough masks and ventilators and people pooled money together to give to them.” In addition to being underfunded, some Mexican health officials were misled by false advice from their hospital managers, even telling nurses to avoid the use of masks.
Chavez said she did not enjoy the experience of transitioning to Zoom classes. “It was terrible,” she said. Chavez added that spending hours of her day behind a laptop screen made it exceedingly difficult to focus on academics, so when she heard USF was remaining online for the fall semester, she made the decision to take a gap semester.
Chavez said she is not sure if she would remain at USF if the University remained online for the spring semester, but “would definitely try to transfer to a school in Mexico or Europe if USF remains online.”
While Chavez contemplates transferring, Ayed is looking forward to being back on the Hilltop.
“Coronavirus has destabilized our [international students’] lives and our chances to take on new responsibilities,” said Ayed. “That’s why it’s important for us to get back and enjoy the four years while we still can.”