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OU amid coronavirus: International students face unique challenges in college, during outbreak

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Nayifa Nihad

Nayifa Nihad is an international studies OU senior from the Maldives and Miss OU International 2020.

When Behin Sanei first arrived in Norman from Iran, her cousin and her cousin’s Iranian friend — who both live in Oklahoma — picked her up from the airport, invited her to stay at their house for a week and helped her settle down. 

Another Iranian couple who were OU students gave Sanei, a graduate student from Tehran, a ride to Walmart to get food, kitchen and bathroom utensils, hangers and a vacuum cleaner for her new house.

“Because everything was new, I was not familiar with the brands here,” Sanei said. “I feel like it's my responsibility to do the same for the newcomers next semester. 

Sanei is one of OU's many international students who has to face increased struggles as a result of the ongoing campus lockdown during the coronavirus outbreak.

The Iranian community at OU maintains a schedule of new Iranians arriving in Norman, including their flight information. Usually, the new students reach out to the community, not the other way around, Sanei said.

Older students are matched with incoming Iranians to establish communication before the arrival and to welcome the newcomers. 

The Farzaneh family, whose name is now associated with the building of the College of International Studies, not only donates to the university and supports its Iranian students, but also funds ceremonies and holiday celebrations like Nowruz, the Iranian New Year. 

Sanei is a recipient of the Farzaneh Family Scholarship for Iranian Students. 

“They are our support here,” Sanei said. 

She said she received her bachelor’s degree in urban planning back home and worked for a couple of years as an urban designer and an exterior architecture designer for low-income neighborhoods.

Then, Sanei said she decided to resume her education. She came to OU in spring 2019 for the master’s program in city planning.

She had searched through universities in the U.S. for city planning programs focusing on social justice as she said she hopes to work on resolving issues for disabled people in Iran.  

“I got admitted to OU and another school, but because of the visa issue I had to defer my admission,” Sanei said. “I had to wait for one semester, so I asked both schools to defer my application.”

Only OU agreed to postpone her enrollment for half a year. 

“They were really understanding, especially for Iranians, I guess,” Sanei said.

Due to the international sanctions imposed on Iran, Sanei said the high currency inflation rates have made it much harder for her to afford education.

“My father could support me for one year, maybe,” Sanei estimated. “Now he has to spend three times more … and he's supporting me for a year and a half already.” 

Sanei said she has had a graduate assistant job at the university for a year now. She also works as a student food services employee at the college of law’s Amicus Cafe. 

“That has been a huge help from the regional and city planning department for me,” she said. “After the U.S. sanction against Iran, I would never be able to pay for my fees and tuition without a GA position.”

So far, Sanei said she does not have much experience besides the university. But on campus she feels like home, she said. “Everyone is understanding and friendly — no unpleasant experiences.”

Sanei said she had been considering going back home after graduation if things don’t go well here or if she didn’t find a job. 

“Now I think I like it more here,” she said. Those several years of work experience back in Iran, including work for a governmental agency, “weren’t that much pleasure,” Sanei said.

After moving to the U.S., she has studied law and how city planning is done here in cooperation with the public. 

“I liked it better, and I feel like I can do better here,” she said. 

Although Sanei said the Iranian community at OU was of big help to her, she also said she is grateful for all the support she received from non-Iranians at OU.

Sanei’s job at Amicus Cafe has recently been paused due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Her GA position hours reduced have been reduced, too. 

She said she flew to San Diego to quarantine with her boyfriend but still pays rent in Norman.

“Moreover, I am worried about my family in Iran,” Sanei said. “The worst thing is, if god forbid something happens to my family or relatives, I cannot even go back home because of the visa issue.”

“People don't know and don't care”

During the ride with two classmates on the way back to Norman from a conference, Magdalena Schaffernicht, a fifth-year OU architecture student from Chile, said she kept checking Facebook for more news from back home.

As her friends were listening to a new Frank Ocean album, Schaffernicht said she tried to share her feelings and impressions of the developing social outburst in Chile that had started two days before.

“Let’s just leave the real world outside. And let's just, like, enjoy it here,” they said.

Schaffernicht said she finds it hard to leave “the real world” outside, since she comes from a politically active family. 

Her dad is German and her mom’s family members were Chilean refugees during the Pinochet dictatorship in the 1970s and the 1980s.

Schaffernicht participated in a social upheaval in Chile, too, which started last October when people felt the need to change the constitution that dates back to the times of the dictatorship.

Chileans call this new wave of protests “The Awakening of Chile.” It’s not only about economic or political issues anymore, but rather an all-inlcusive advocacy campaign that promotes acceptance of trans people, female body positivism and fighting rape culture among other things, she said.

Schaffernicht said despite the international perception of Chile doing well economically, many Chileans are “dirt poor.” 

Even the road from the capital city of Santiago to the airport is reminiscent of favelas, or shantytowns, “and that is how most Chileans live,” Schaffernicht said.

She went back home for Thanksgiving and said she could smell tear gas in Santiago’s downtown on the way to her uncle’s place.

She said her aunt, one of more than a million Chileans who participated in the recent protests, witnessed police ignoring a pharmacy robbery and then unleashing violence onto the crowd of peaceful demonstrators. 

Schaffernicht reached out to the Daily for an interview because she said she believes the international students at OU do not have a strong platform to express their voices and establish their own agenda.

After she came back to Oklahoma after Thanksgiving, Schaffernicht said she realized “most people around here don’t even know where Chile is.”

And the students who do know about Chile’s current struggle seem to misunderstand a lot about it she said.

“I think the main thing for me here is that people don't know and don't care,” Schaffernicht said.

Some of her American friends, Schaffernicht said, talk about the Chilean protests “like that's so cool.” Many of them, she added, are unaware of the important historic context — the dictatorship and the U.S. role in it.

“With this whole ‘immigration crisis’ that's happening, Americans are really not wanting Latino people here," she said. "But the reason Latino people have to move here is because of all that [the U.S.] did to us.”

She said she often explains to her friends that corrupted politicians are only half of the story. Perhaps, it's worth exploring why they were corrupted and by whom she said.  

“I think people take interest in a very superficial way,” Schaffernicht said. “They're interested for like five minutes and if it starts getting political or more complicated, they stop being interested.”

The Chilean protests have paused due to the virus spread in the country. As of April 30, Chile has 16,023 confirmed coronavirus cases, according to Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center website

This has already had a negative impact on the protesters’ efforts. In light of the virus outbreak, the Chilean Congress rescheduled the national referendum asking the voters whether they support adopting a new constitution. 

The referendum, also referred to as a national plebiscite, was moved from April 26 to October 25, 2020. 

Schaffernicht’s personal plans have been affected, too. Upon graduation in May, she planned to travel, go home and then come back to find a job in the States.

“Now I will probably not be able to travel and doubt that I will get a job,” Schaffernicht said. She said going back home is not an option either, since this may complicate her re-entry to the U.S. 

Asking questions

Adrian Rotela is an OU senior electrical engineering student from a small town of Valenzuela in Paraguay. 

“It’s kind of painful being from a small, not very well-known country because they confuse you with other countries,” he said.

He said sometimes people tell him, “Oh, you're from Paraguay! You're from Montevideo!”

Some, Rotela said, will not get interested in his country because they haven't heard of it. Others, he added, ask general “super cliche” questions like “What’s the food like in your country?” and “What's life like over there?” 

Those questions, Rotela said, cannot be answered either sincerely or concisely. He underlined the need for narrower, more specific questions on historical context or current issues grappling the country. 

However, asking questions is important, he said. When a friend from the Latin-American studies program reached out to him to ask about the revolt in Paraguay, he said he felt “super appreciative for someone to take interest in [his] country.” 

Rotela said he also noticed, when his coworkers talk to him, they often simplify their vocabulary and try to speak plainer English. 

Besides, he said, he can hear that his accent differs from those of the people who surround him.

“That makes me a little bit uncomfortable, to be honest,” Rotela said.  

In his experience, he said it gets progressively harder for people to understand accents as you leave the campus bubble. Rotela said he doesn’t feel like OU is “a real American experience that represents the general Oklahoman or American culture.

Those moments of misunderstanding, he said, often make him “feel like an outsider.” 

“How do I talk to someone who is not going to understand where I'm coming from?”

Some of Nayifa Nihad’s American friends who dealt with mental health issues took a couple of weeks off from college, got help at hospitals in their hometowns and visited their families before returning to OU.

“We don't have that privilege here,” Nihad, an international studies OU senior from the Maldives, said. “The internationals still have to go to class, do the readings and assignments.” 

Nihad is a Davis United World College Scholar. Students like her must maintain their GPA and cannot afford to skip classes if they want to retain their funding and visa status she said.

Nihad, like many international students at OU, was automatically enrolled in the OU Student Health Plan. This makes Goddard the only affordable place she can refer to for healthcare, including mental health support.

But every time Nihad approaches the clinic, she said she wonders, “How do I talk to someone who is not going to understand where I'm coming from?”

Her fear of being misunderstood, Nihad said, stems from the lack of counselors with international background and few counselors of color.

Moreover, Nihad reports a substantial lack of platform for international students at OU to voice opinions and be heard. “We also don’t have that safe space to vent around or talk,” she said.

Some of her OU professors keep their doors open, hear the students out and do their best accommodating for the varying needs she said.

Nihad said she is positively surprised by the way OU, particularly the College of International Studies and the OU UWC Scholars office, is handling the ongoing virus crisis. 

“I know it’s a big transition process, and the fact that they have been keeping the international students in their thoughts means a lot,” she said.

Nihad currently remains in Norman because of the financial reasons and the closed borders. Additionally, she would have to Zoom into classes in the middle of the night because of the time difference if she left, she said.

 “It gives a lot of reassurance that I can still stay on campus and still use the Couch Restaurants,” Nihad said.

She said the OU food pantry and the release of the Sooners Helping Sooners emergency fund are also a big help to the international students who currently remain on campus. 

“But then we also have the professors who completely disregard (the international perspective at OU,)” Nihad said.

Nihad said when the professor and other students talk about gender roles in her global inequality class, they often discuss the conventional U.S. gender roles as if they are representative of the global state of affairs.

She told her classmates how, back in the Maldives, the gender roles are different, to say the least. At her house men eat first and women eat later. 

“And everyone started laughing,” Nihad said.

Nihad said she thinks Americans often forget to consider their experience with any specific issue on a wider scale. This is one of the common misjudgments that tend to offend global-minded foreigners she said. 

“If you focus an entire course on the American society, then don't call it a ‘Global Inequality’ class,” she said.

Students have to go through diversity trainings; but professors have had several diversity-related incidents.

Nihad said she believes OU brings international students to campus to increase diversity. “But it is hard, having to take on that responsibility to represent the whole region,” Nihad said. 

“I feel like I carry a lot of emotional labor to keep on talking about the same things,” she said. 

Like many first generation college students, some international students work when free from classes to support their own expenses and send money back home.

Nihad said she hopes to focus on women’s and environmental activism after she graduates in May. 

 As a Maldivian, Nihad faces the possibility of becoming one of the first climate refugees in just a couple of generations.

Every time someone in her class says “global warming is happening but it's not as bad as people say it is” because they don’t observe the impact in Oklahoma, she said she wants to ask them, “Okay, can I live at your home then, when my country sinks?”

“It's not even just losing a country,” she said. “I'm losing everything about me — my identity, my people, my language, my home.”

As a climate activist in the U.S., she said she often feels anxious to participate in demonstrations. “It’s something we have to think about if we don’t want to get deported," she said.

Nihad said she doesn’t “expect all of her American or white friends to consider everything” when dealing with foreigners. 

“I'm learning just like they're learning too, but I really appreciate friends and faculty who ask me questions instead of assuming things.”

Reporter’s Note: The reporter for this story is an international student whose struggles at OU stimulated him to examine other OU international students’ experience at the university. 

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