L.ily Cao dances in one of the cave-like performance studios at Mount Holyoke College. The floor-to-ceiling windows cast shadows on the honey floors.

Outside the studio, late winter ice glazes the trees around Lake Superior, but inside there is warmth and camaraderie. Students gently tease each other to take a misguided step or a combination of false feet.

Ever since Lily, a senior citizen, came to Mount Holyoke, ballet has been a way of relieving the stress of studying. As the companion sits at the piano, Lily stretches her limbs and lets the music envelop her.

Then she wakes up.

She is no longer on the New England campus, but back in her nursery in Lanzhou, a city of three million people in west-central China. When Covid-19 spread in the United States last spring and closed campus, Lily moved here. Now her dreams and her computer are all that ties her to American college life that she had to give up. Late at night, when her parents are asleep, she signs up for class.

The coronavirus pandemic was enormously disruptive for all students. For the more than one million international students enrolled in American colleges, it was a whirlwind that hurled them to all parts of the world.

Some – bound by academic commitments or banned from returning home due to travel restrictions – have remained in the United States. But they too are, in a sense, dislocated and cut off from support from family and long-time friends.

The challenges that international students face are academic and financial, logistical and mental. The change in visa policy has unsettled students at home and abroad about their future. Learning in a language other than your own, often – for those overseas – in the middle of the night, exacerbates the challenges of distance learning. Some international students unable to legally work in the US have turned to pantries to make ends meet.

The severity of the problems faced by international students led the American College Health Association to identify them as a population group particularly vulnerable through the pandemic.

After Lily dreams she is at Mount Holyoke, back in the dance studio, the sadness lingers; It is a persistent pain that is not easy to shake. Why am i still here? she asks her mother sometimes.

When students come to America to study, they understand that they will span two countries, two places, two worlds. However, the pandemic has only destroyed them in one case. You are stranded.

T.To make one of the most important decisions of her young life and go abroad, Khuslen Tulga had years to prepare. She studied hard and won a scholarship to a prestigious Mongolian high school that serves as a feeder to top American universities. When the admission offers came in, she carefully selected Hamilton College, a small liberal arts institution in New York State.

The other big decision of whether to stay in the US as a global pandemic was made by Khulsen, nicknamed T, only had hours.

News of a strange new infection in the Chinese city of Wuhan reached Mongolia, which shares a large land border with China, in early 2020, and T's family told her the news during a phone call home. But the threat seemed far away in America, where T, a freshman at the time, found attitudes to the disease to be casual. When she caught a cold that winter, she wore a mask like she would have done at home, but her classmates stared strangely at her. "There is a saying in Mongolia," she said, "in a place of the blind you will go blind." She took off her mask, embarrassed.

However, soon there were Covid cases in the United States. Suddenly the pandemic was on Hamilton's doorstep. First, the college extended the spring break. On March 17, President David Wippman announced that face-to-face classes would be canceled for the remainder of the spring semester.

T had a choice to make: she could queue up for students to apply for permission to stay on campus. Or she could try navigating the many airports to fly home. This would put her at risk of contracting the virus from other travelers and infecting her grandparents with whom she lived. That is, if it could get there at all – Mongolia had closed its borders and allowed only a few commercial flights. If she left America, could she come back? She had worked so hard to get into college and after just over a semester, she feared the opportunity might be missed.


Mustafa Hussain for the Chronicle

Khulsen (who goes with "T") Tulga, a sophomore from Mongolia at Hamilton College

Other international students faced a similar calculation, and in the first few months of the outbreak the majority chose to stay. Up to nine out of ten overseas students stayed in the United States as of the spring of 2020 survey from the Institute for International Education.

There wasn't a single reason to keep her here. Few international flights meant that many students couldn't book a ticket. Some feared that visa restrictions and travel bans would prevent them from returning – such as American bans on travelers from China and later from Europe and other countries. Those close to graduation feared that once they graduate they might lose their chance of a job in the US, while others did not want to give up the research projects they were in. The unreliability of the local Wi-Fi, IInternet censorship and firewalls, the difficulty of Take lessons from many time zones – All of them resulted in the students staying. And many, especially those graduating, had made a living in America. Suddenly leaving would mean breaking leases, withdrawing children from school, and even separating from American spouses.

The result was excruciating for T, but in the end it was clear: she would stay. "I just had to convince my family that it would be better if I didn't move," she said. “And that was very, very difficult to do. It took me all to make this decision. "

It was a lonely spring. Less than 5 percent of the Hamilton students stayed, or about 40 percent of the college's international students. Even though T was one of about 60 students on campus, strict coronavirus protocols meant she saw little of the others. In her “little dorm bubble” she registered her presence by the noises that occasionally seeped through the walls: the melody of someone practicing the saxophone, the staccato tapping of bongo drums, the murmuring of class discussions about Zoom.

Sometimes she put her own classes on loudspeakers and put her cell phone on her desk so her grandmother, a retired school teacher, could listen to the lectures. It was a little mercy of the pandemic that T & # 39; s grandparents got that glimpse of their far-off college life, a broken window to peer through.

T is close to her grandparents, who raised her after her mother left to find work in California when T was a toddler. She respects her mother's determination to teach herself English for the US visa interview, but she has only seen her once in 16 years when T arrived in America the summer before college. It was her grandparents who had cared for her all along, investing their savings in her education, when she showed an early appetite for learning.

In lockdown, T phoned her grandparents in Ulaanbaatar four or five hours a day, 13 hours in advance. In her spare time, she tried to keep busy, drawing, playing the piano, and watching TV shows like Sherlock Holmes, Black mirror, and the anime series Hunter x Hunter. However, sometimes the loneliness was too persistent and she could only cry. Her homesickness, she told herself, was a "beautiful pain". It showed how much she loved and was loved.


Courtesy Khulsen Tulga

T (left) with her grandmother in January 2019 in their camp a few hours outside of Ulaanbaatar

Recognizing the particular fragility and isolation of international students during the pandemic, the colleges have tried to offer them special programs and organize zoom happy hours, online game nights and mental health support groups. Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida even called all 1,700 overseas students to check-in in the weeks after the virus spread.

Within 48 hours of the campus shutdown, Hamilton had recruited volunteer mentors for every student who stayed behind, a group that included a few Americans. Vige Barrie, senior director of media relations at the college and host mother of T, regularly brought meals from local restaurants like Shawarma Kebab, a favorite; together they took socially distant walks through the campus valley. T's boss, Chau-Fang Lin, assistant director at the Institutional Research and Assessment Bureau, stopped by when she was walking her dogs. The dean of students sent each student a care package with toiletries and boy scout cookies.

Prior to college, T had worked with underserved students in the United States for a year ger Settlements, traditional Mongolian nomad communities that often lack water pipes or running water. She knew that her life in the monastery during the coronavirus was one of comfort and privilege. That helped her to collect herself in her deepest moments, for example when the number of cases fell home and people went to concerts, to cafes – freedoms she did not have.

"If I weren't hopeful and didn't realize that it was all temporary, I might be mentally in a worse situation than I am now," she said. "It's not just international students. At the moment, everyone is having a hard time."

L.ily did not return to China at first. When Covid struck, she was spending the semester at Harvard University. She had an off-campus apartment and a plane ticket for May. She could wait, she thought, until the panic and maybe even the pandemic itself subsided.

Lily, whose Chinese name is Jingyi, felt at home in America. She'd first come as a high school freshman and spent four years in a California boarding school before going to Mount Holyoke. Most international students come to college in the US, but the number of middle-class students has been growing in recent years Attending high schools here – because they hope it will prepare them better for American college, or because, like Lily, they prefer it to their home countries.

But something changed. Stories of discrimination against Asians and Americans from Asia related to Covid's origin in China have become more common. Since the outbreak began, the group has Stop AAPI hatred has registered more than 2,800 incidents of anti-Asian bias. The then President Donald Trump repeatedly called Covid "kung flu" and the "China virus".

As before the pandemic, Lily felt confident in public wearing a mask and was afraid of being singled out. An elderly woman came up to her in a grocery store. Do you have coronavirus? she asked Lily. The welcome mat was frayed.

"Covid really scared me," she said. "I just thought, oh, that could really happen to me as an Asian person."

As the weather warmed up, there was another shift. Case numbers fell in China, the first epicenter, although the disease was spreading dangerously in the United States. On WeChat, the Chinese social media app, parents shared daily statistics on outbreaks in American university cities and developed strategies on how to provide their children with masks and other protective equipment that is in short supply in the United States. In one Pew Research Center survey Of the people in 13 countries, a median of just 15 percent gave America good marks for dealing with Covid.

Cases were few in Lanzhou, Lily's hometown. She began to feel that she would be safer there.

However, returning was not easy. Like the United States, China had banned foreign travelers and severely restricted international flights at times. Lily's May flight has been canceled. She rebooked for June, but this trip was also scratched. Finally, her third attempt in July was a success. After a two-week quarantine in a Shanghai hotel, she made it home.

Such late departures are not uncommon. Data The U.S. Department of Homeland Security reveals that the number of student visa holders in the U.S. fell nearly 25 percent from the pre-pandemic January to December. In one Autumn pollColleges told the Institute of International Education that 80 percent of their international students were in the US, down from spring 2020.


Yuyang Liu, Redux, for The Chronicle

Lily Cao (left) walks with her mother along the Yellow River that flows through Lanzhou, her hometown.

Being at home with her parents felt a bit like a vacation for Lily. It was most of the time they'd spent together since she was a young teenager. Every evening after dinner and before class began, Lily and her mother took a walk, sometimes along the Yellow River that meanders through Lanzhou.

She was also able to reconnect with childhood friends. Because of the differences in the Chinese and American academic calendars, their breaks were seldom coordinated, and Lily had often spent summer vacations in Beijing or Shanghai. They had kept in touch through WeChat, but now they could hang out.

Soon, however, the excitement of renewing old acquaintances subsided. Much of the conversation stems from events that happened when she was 12 or 13 years old when they had last been together. This is no longer who Lily was. She missed her college friends, the people she knew now.

Online courses were also a disappointment. She knew the professors tried very hard, but distance learning wasn't the same thing. As a biology student, she took up the anatomy of vertebrates. The instructor sent samples to students in the United States for preparation. Lily and her overseas classmates got along with watching videos of sections.

And Zoom couldn't capture the close ties with her professors and other students, the feeling of being part of a learning community – exactly what she loved about American liberal arts education.

“When I'm taking lessons for myself, I open my laptop and talk to the computer. At the end of the class, closing the computer and closing Zoom will mark the end of the class, ”she said, mimicking the movements during a video call. “It feels very different from personal experiences. Taking online lessons at home doesn't feel like going to school at all. "

Mount Holyoke had been completely isolated in the fall, but in November the college announced that up to 60 percent of its students could be on campus for the spring semester. Lily started to think that maybe she could be one of them.

T. had been looking forward to the winter break. Autumn had been a challenge. To reduce the spread of infection, Hamilton finished classes before Thanksgiving. The professors extended the lessons or planned Saturday lessons to cover all of the material. While T, a computer science major, had started the semester with three of her four courses in person under tents, cold weather had forced her online. Although most of the students were back on campus, socially distant rules made it difficult to rest.

T was exhausted and fed up with the four walls of her dorm. "I've been alone in this room for a long time," she said.

Only about two dozen students would be left during the two-month winter break, and Hamilton placed them in two long-stay hotels, also because the campus would be completely closed for several weeks. They were excited – they could talk freely in their little quarantine bubbles. Each of the rooms had a kitchen, and T, who would be an assistant, planned cooking classes and game nights. For the group, she designed hoodies, a complicated drawing that takes up the animation film Soul.

Hamilton had offered T an RA position to help cover her room and board expenses. Combined with a full academic scholarship, it freed them from the financial worries many international students faced during the pandemic. US visa regulations prohibit students from working outside the college environment, and campus jobs have been difficult to get at many institutions. The loss of the expected summer work at home worsened the financial plight. Some colleges, like Michigan State University and the University of Pittsburgh, have set up emergency funds to help international students during Covid.

The RA job matched T.'s personality. Friendly and sociable, she was happiest when she was helping others and learning about their stories. Sometimes she would randomly knock on doors to make sure no one felt isolated or left out.

When she got into college, she hadn't thought of being an international student who was central to her identity. But in winter, as in summer, most of T's stranded colleagues were international students, and she was beginning to feel a greater kinship. International students had to get together for their voices to be heard, she believed. Hamilton administrators had done well through the pandemic, but they could do better, communicate more proactively, and better understand their specific needs. T worked with a group of foreign fellow students to set up the international student union.

Even so, these efforts were not enough to suppress their own loneliness. On New Year's Eve, she videotaped her family and was reminded of everything she'd missed the past year: holiday gatherings, summer camping trips, meeting old friends. She leafed through her grandfather's Mongolian literature collection. The sophisticated metaphors of nature and sense of place appealed to them in ways that English-speaking authors could not. Sometimes she feared that she was so focused on the present and the future that her past, the feeling of where she had come from, disappeared.



T attends a virtual meeting at her New York state college. She also spends a lot of time video calling her family in Ulaanbaatar.

When would she return? asked her grandparents. She was only 19 years old and at home she would be a child again. Her grandparents fixed her meals and told her when to get up and when to go to bed. She had to grow up alone; Your quarterly crisis came ahead of schedule. That was something she knew she had to hide from her family. Admitting how deep she felt would only make her more insistent that she was coming home. It would make her worry worse.

T lay in bed late at night, listening to Mongolian songs and leafing through old photos. "This is not the brightest moment of my day," she said, flicking the phone down.

"I can't speak for every international student, but I think that's a feeling that there really is nothing you can do about it. And you just have to pick it up and know that it will eventually go away. And I don't know when to go after Go home. Just thinking about how I don't even remember what home feels like. "

T.The new semester began and Lily continued to take classes away from Lanzhou. She had to admit that returning was not possible. The American ban on travelers from China had still not been lifted, so she had to fly to a third country for 14 days and be quarantined before she could enter the United States. Tickets were hard to come by and cost five times or more than before the pandemic. And few of her friends, many of whom were international students, had returned to Mount Holyoke.

"It's all about the people who make the place special," said Lily. "And if none of my friends are around then I don't think it's worth the energy to go back."

The decision had been emotional at first, but now she accepted it. She was too tired to feel much anyway. In the fall, her class ended at 2 a.m., but now her school day was from 8 p.m. because of a particularly intensive immunological course until 5 a.m. She slept restlessly in daylight, but even on her days off she was afraid to change her schedule because it was difficult to reset. Her body was in Lanzhou, but she lived in Eastern Standard Time.


Courtesy Lily Cao

When Lily was on campus at Mount Holyoke, she and a friend had a temporary "MHC" tattoo on their arms to celebrate the college's Mountain Day.

For the first time since leaving the United States, she was home for the Spring Festival or New Year Festival. It's the biggest Chinese holiday and one like Thanksgiving, which is all about bringing families together. Lily went to dinner with her parents and grandparents, but she had had half time the night before and almost dozed off during dinner. After dinner, she excused herself and went upstairs to start class. The traditional New Year fireworks sometimes drowned out their Korean classes.

As with Mount Holyoke, the ballet was their release. Three days a week, she rolled a portable bar into the guest room where she was studying and unsteadily balanced her laptop on a pile of books for online dance classes. Due to unstable internet connections, the music sometimes lagged and Lily and her classmates danced out of sync. In other cases, her teacher's screen froze and Lily could only hear her disembodied voice calling the footsteps.

Nevertheless, she welcomed the discipline of dance and how it could transport it. When she danced, she didn't think about her Covid exile. "I forget everything that happens around me," she said. "It was really something that brings me joy and peace."

The rest of the time, however, her life was ruled by where she wasn't. During the classroom breakout sessions, she was with newbies or sophomores and felt jealous of everything that lay ahead of them. You would be able to return to campus.

Lily didn't mind that she missed graduation, although she felt some regret for her parents, for whom it was a big deal to see them walk in their hat and dress.

Instead, it was the little things that made them feel lost. There would be no more nightly study sessions on mozzarella sticks and french fries, no more buses to Amherst on the weekends, and no more coffee breaks before early morning classes. There would never be another day in the mountains when the ringing of the bells on an autumn day signals a spontaneous campus vacation.

And orange chicken. Lily laughed. “When I first came to the US, everyone said, oh, orange chicken is so good. And I said it's not even a real thing in China. We don't have this dish in China. But now I miss it so much. "


Yuyang LIU, Redux, for The Chronicle

Stranded at home, Lily is taking her online dance class at Mount Holyoke. Although she is physically in China, her life is in Eastern Time.

While she was still mourning what she missed, Lily thought about her future. She was hoping to start a public health graduation program in the United States that fall. This hope depended on many ifs – if the lessons were personal, if American consulates in China were issuing visas again and, of course, if they were even accepted. Still, Lily allowed herself to think about when – when she would be back in America.

As T started the spring semester, she felt part of her funk begin to lift during the winter break. She too began to think ahead again and make plans for the summer and beyond.

But one thing did not appear on their horizon: go home. The fog of uncertainty kept her from even imagining her return.

Whenever she dreamed of going to America, she only thought of the freedom she would have to study, to live life the way she wanted to. Instead, that choice turned out to be an obligation to go it alone.

(tagsToTranslate) China (t) America (t) Lanzhou (t) Hamilton College (t) Mount Holyoke College (t) Institute for International Education (t) Mongolia (t) Shanghai (t) David Wippman (t) Ulaanbaatar

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