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OU opens Puebla campus for Brazilian students facing travel bans, students discuss OU's support during pandemic

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Brazil Puebla

A map detailing Brazilian students' journeys from their home country to the OU study-abroad center in Puebla, Mexico, to OU's Norman campus. 

Sitting at the desk in his room last semester, tired and unmotivated for his chemistry class, Felipe Avelino — an international student from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil — wondered if he would have to spend another semester taking online classes in Brazil while OU was proceeding with hybrid teaching.

Avelino, a biochemistry and microbiology sophomore, said the hope that borders between Brazil and the United States would open to students under the F-1 visa, like himself, hadn’t completely left his mind. With each passing day though, optimism faded as travel restrictions remained in place. 

Seven months have passed since former U.S. President Donald Trump issued a proclamation preventing any individual who had been within the Brazilian territory for a 14-day period prior to their entrance into American territory from entering the U.S. without quarantining in another country.

The presidential proclamation remains unchanged and without exemptions, despite the expectation of OU Brazilian students to be considered essential travel — in the same vein as American citizens, legal permanent residents, people traveling at the invitation of the American government and national interest travel —  by the U.S. government. 

Avelino knew he couldn't spend another semester away from his laboratory, where he conducts research and goes to class. He said his only alternative was to quarantine in a third country.

Even though he knew he would have to return to OU to resume his research and classes in the laboratory, Avelino said the stress caused by the international quarantine requirement was not easy.

“I experienced a mixture of feelings that involved fear, insecurity, abandonment and especially anxiety,” Avelino said. “The fear of becoming ill was too great, and the fear of not being admitted when arriving in the United States was even greater.”

To work around strict travel restrictions, OU has opened its Puebla campus as a place for students from countries barring immediate entry into the U.S. to quarantine for 14 days before entering the country, allowing them to fulfill in-person class requirements.

'If we could help them in this way, we would.' 

The OU College of International Studies organized a meeting with the Brazilian students, following an OU Daily article detailing the struggles of OU’s Brazilian student population, to discuss “the unique challenges they face in light of national travel restrictions.”

Associate Dean of Student Services Rebecca Cruise said hearing the Brazilian students’ concerns and experiences was the first step toward understanding how to better support them. 

To attend in-person classes in the Fall 2020 semester, thirteen OU Brazilian students attempted entry into the United States after quarantining in a third country, while eleven stayed in Brazil taking online classes, according to the OU Brazilian Student Organization.

Cruise said as the College of International Studies began discussing ways to assist Brazilian students and others impacted by the travel ban, one of the first things they thought about was offering the OU study abroad center in Puebla, Mexico as a temporary housing for students to quarantine for 14 days before entering the U.S. She also said though the Puebla campus was opened to Brazilian, Iranian and Chinese students, due to geography, Brazilians were the only ones to utilize the option. 

“This became quite an obvious option to the two-week layover requirement when students shared their stories of spending time in Mexico as they came to OU in the fall,” Cruise said. “And we had students who needed a place to stay before they would be able to come to Norman to start their semester. The students impacted are part of our OU community, so we knew that if we could help them in this way, we would.”

Cruise said the center in Puebla wasn’t being used at the time the students would need to quarantine, and the Director of OU Programs in Mexico Armando Garcia was “willing and able” to facilitate guests. She said the provost agreed, and the College of International Studies moved forward with the plan.

“We agreed to offer housing, while transportation and other needs were left to the students. However, we did provide a few necessities and a few meals,” Cruise said. “And the pandemic fund was available to assist students who had to incur these additional expenses to get to OU.”

Apart from the opening of the campus in Puebla, some Brazilian students also said they received financial help from OU through the university’s OU International Student Pandemic Scholarship.

Garcia said he received four Brazilian students in the campus of Puebla and was in frequent communication with the students to “make sure they felt okay."

Garcia said the students spent most of their time in the apartments, where they were able to cook or ask for food delivery, and connect with friends and family. 

Cruise said herself, OU-Puebla, the College of International Studies Risk Management and ISS, were in constant communication with each student before their departure from Brazil until their arrival in Mexico and at OU to make sure students were assisted. 

‘I felt like I matter.’

Eduarda Barros de Oliveira, a chemical engineering junior from São Paulo, Brazil, said she is satisfied with the assistance OU provided.

“I am really grateful OU welcomed us to the apartments in Puebla. When they provided this alternative, I felt more relieved and confident that quarantining in Mexico was really a viable option for me,” Barros de Oliveira said. “Not to mention that it also gave me a feeling of security, knowing that the university would be accompanying me during this quarantine period.”

Barros de Oliveira was one of the students who stayed in Brazil taking online classes in the fall 2020 semester. She said she decided to stay because “everything was still very uncertain.”

Besides financial factors, Barros de Oliveira said she didn’t know if students would be accepted into the U.S. after quarantining in Mexico, and she didn’t think in-person classes would last for a long time.

Guilherme Fonseca, an international business and economics sophomore from Minas Gerais, Brazil,  said he was also “very happy” with the university’s assistance. 

“At the time, I was still a member of (the OU Brazilian Student Organization’s) executive body and one of my responsibilities was to give Brazilians better opportunities as a community at OU, and I went to get this from (Cruise), and I felt very happy to have been able to open this possibility for both myself and other Brazilians,” Fonseca said. “The university got it right. They were very proactive about wanting to help the situation of Brazilian students, (and) it made me feel quite supported.”

He said he mentioned the idea of opening the OU campus of Puebla in the meeting of Brazilian students organized by the ISS, and contacted Cruise afterwards to reiterate the suggestion. He said she was very receptive about the idea. 

Fonseca said the confirmation that OU Puebla would open for students to quarantine took about two to three weeks after his exchange of emails with Cruise. He said he believed students could have been notified a little earlier, but he understands there were “bureaucratic matters” and necessary “approval by several people.”

Fonseca ultimately quarantined in Cancun with Avelino. Both Fonseca and Avelino said the financial expenses of going to Puebla were greater than staying in Cancun.

Avelino said the university took a long time to communicate with Brazilians on whether the Puebla campus would be open. He said he thought OU’s decision to open the campus of Puebla for students to quarantine was “interesting,” but somewhat ineffective. 

“Despite making me feel a little more supported, it was not effective for me, as one of the main problems involved the financial part, and I had to cut the maximum possible expenses so I couldn’t use this resource” Avelino said. “(On the other hand), I understand that it was done with a total intention of helping and for that I am grateful.”

Isabella Calvano, an international business and marketing senior from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, was one of the students who quarantined at OU Puebla last semester. 

Calvano returned to Brazil for the 2020 winter break due to personal problems and went to Puebla in the first week of January to resume her in-person classes and graduate. She said the university’s assistance was “really helpful” financially, as she would be quarantining for a second time. 

“I found OU’s attitude (to be) wonderful. I felt like I matter,” Calvano said. “And mainly because none of the Brazilians I know who study in the United States were lucky enough for their university to open a campus for them for free. I found OU to be very supportive in that regard. They really showed they care about us.”

'More than enough.' 

OU Brazilian students compared OU’s attitude toward Brazilian students’ situation last semester to now. Some said that OU's attitude changed this semester to a more exemplary and supportive one.

Brazilian students complained about the university’s response to their situation last semester. They said if discussions had been initiated earlier between OU and International Student Services, similar to when ICE’s policies were released, some actions could have been taken to properly advise the students.  

They believed if there had been more awareness on campus about their situation, their situation might have been simple to resolve.

Fonseca said he thinks OU’s attitude has changed “radically.” He said it “bothered” him at the beginning of last semester that Brazilian students communicated their situation to OU and the university provided “no response or help.”

“There was a one hundred percent positive change,” Fonseca said. “In this semester, they listened to our requests and did what I believe was all that was possible to assess the situation and to help us. I think the university's attitude is (exemplary). (Doing) more than that is very difficult. More than that, it is just forcing the government to open borders, which is not in their power. I believe they are doing as much as they can (for us).”

Allana Calvano, industrial and systems engineering sophomore from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, said she thinks OU’s attitude is “more than enough” in supporting Brazilian students.

“Before, those who had in-person classes that could not be transferred to the online platform in any way didn’t get any support,” Calvano said. “This time, they were able to help us find a way to do all the classes online if we wanted to stay in Brazil. Besides giving us the possibility to return with all the support, I don't think there is much more that they can do.”

Barros de Oliveira said OU is now watching each student’s situation “more carefully.”

“For example, when students from the Schengen Area were allowed to enter the United States, students from countries like Brazil were left out,” Barros de Oliveira said. “Now, with this more personal approach, the university has come to better understand the needs of each student and has done what it can to help us.”

Avelino had a slightly different opinion than his peers, as he said he didn’t receive an email from ISS about the International Student Pandemic Scholarship.

“My parents' financial planning for the semester was totally broken and I really don't know what the future will hold for me,” Avelino said. “A little help from the university would be extremely important for me and everyone else who had to make totally unexpected expenses with this trip.”

Avelino said OU’s attitude “has improved, but it is still far from ideal." 

“There are people who I can feel that really care about our situation and it made me feel a little more supported, but this matter of several possibilities to be discussed in meetings, and none of them actually being carried out — except the quarantine in Puebla — really hurt me a lot,” Avelino said.

As the travel ban imposed on Brazil hasn’t been lifted, Cruise said it is difficult to know what will happen in fall 2021, and what the capacity of OU-Puebla will be. She said if there is room and a need for another quarantine, ISS “will do everything in (their) power to make this a possibility for students hindered by a travel ban.”

“We will continue to monitor the policies and will do all that we can to continue communicating and advocating for those impacted by these or similar policies,” Cruise said. “Students from Brazil, China, Iran and South Africa, countries in the current ban, are part of the OU community. We will do all we can to support them, and all international students, in any way we can.”

This article was updated at 11:20 a.m. Feb. 23 to indicate the College of International Studies, not International Student Services, moved forward with the plan to open the Puebla campus. 

Gabriela Tumani is an international student from Brazil. She is majoring in journalism with a minor in international studies and works as a junior news reporter for The Daily.

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