Indiana Daily Student

Learning remotely, away from home: IU international students reflect on college experience during pandemic

Sean Han, president of the Malaysian Student Association, poses for a portrait May 2 in front of the Indiana Memorial Union. Han has not gone home to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, since coming to IU in 2019.
Sean Han, president of the Malaysian Student Association, poses for a portrait May 2 in front of the Indiana Memorial Union. Han has not gone home to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, since coming to IU in 2019.

Many IU international students have been thousands of miles away from home over the past school year. They have experienced homesickness on top of trying to protect themselves from COVID-19 and adjusting to remote learning.

IU junior Devanshi Goenka spent her fall semester at home in Kolkata, India, taking online classes only and returned to Bloomington this semester. She said although all her classes are still online, she prefers being back in Bloomington.

“I think the overall experience was better, because there was no time difference, and I could be with my friends,” she said. “I could study with them, do group study sessions and stuff like that, which I didn't have back at home.”

Goenka said she misses her time at IU before March 2020 when she could party, eat out with friends and go to IU sports games. She said she feels her campus experience is missing and is excited for next semester’s return to in-person instruction.

IU freshman Susan Tang said one of her disappointments this school year is not knowing her classmates or building new friendships. She said remote learning has made building connections difficult.

“Freshman year should have been a year when it’s easiest getting to know friends and classmates, but it feels like my classmates and I are separated far apart from each other geographically,” she said.

Tang said she has been cautious in Bloomington to not be infected with COVID-19. She said she rarely goes outdoors and always wears a mask when she does. She said she’s also refrained from dining in at restaurants with her friends, instead ordering pickup to bring home and eat.

“What I think is I can’t control what other people do, so all I can do is take the necessary precautions to protect myself well,” she said.

Tang went to high school in the U.S. before coming to IU. She said her American host family’s grandmother caught COVID-19 and passed away in a nursing home. This made her feel the pandemic was not just on the news but something near to her, she said.

“It’s like what they say during the Great Recession, that it hits you differently when you watch the news versus when you see people around you going broke and losing their homes,” she said. “When you see your neighbors, people around you and those close to you being hurt because of it, you feel it’s really near to you.”

IU sophomore Sean Han, Malaysian Student Association president, said he hasn’t been home in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, since he came to college in fall 2019. He said he won’t return this summer either because of high ticket prices for international flights and uncertainties with international travel restrictions.

“Knowing that I miss home and I can't do anything about it was the toughest thing I've experienced,” he said.

Han said it has been scary to see the racial discrimination and violence against Asian Americans as an international student. He said his parents have tried to convince him to go home, but he knew going back would be difficult and told them not to worry.

“There are so many factors that just didn't allow me to go home,” he said. “The last thing I want to do is to make my parents worry from the other side of the world.”

Han said he has tried to stay optimistic during a period of uncertainty with COVID-19 and international traveling. He said he appreciates IU’s weekly mitigation tests because it’s comforting to always know whether or not he has been infected with the coronavirus. 

He said the pandemic has allowed him to focus more on himself and be appreciative of small things in life.

“Even though we are all stuck in a pandemic, there's always going to be good things,” he said. “And I really hope that all students keep their hopes up and never give up during a time like this.” 

The interview with Susan Tang is translated from Mandarin Chinese.

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