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OU international students to face additional hardships amid shift to online classes

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Scott Fritzen

Scott Fritzen, dean of David L. Boren College of International Studies, speaks at the rally for international students July 13.

When Ahmed Hamed stepped onto a plane to travel to the U.S., he couldn’t have  imagined the current global scenario that would extend the time away from his home in Egypt to more than a year. 

With its unexpected arrival, the coronavirus pandemic has prompted many airports to close, airlines to stop selling tickets and cancel flights and countries to close their borders to foreigners in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus.

Hamed, an economics and international studies sophomore at OU, had a disappointing Ramadan. Hamed traditionally spends Ramadan — the holy month of fasting, introspection and prayer for Muslims — with his family, cooking traditional food at home. This year, he spent the holy month quarantined in his dorm room with “very horrible food and nobody,” he said

While surviving the loneliness of last summer, Hamed did not expect a new concern on top of his list during fall 2020: an extended winter break. 

All courses will move online after Thanksgiving break — from Nov. 29 to Dec. 18 — and OU students will return to campus at the start of the spring semester Jan. 25, 2021. OU administration removed next semester’s spring break in order to avoid a COVID-19 surge during traveling, extending winter break by one week. 

The Daily spoke to OU international students who expressed their concerns about extended breaks after the OU administration made modifications in the Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 academic calendar. For those who are not able to travel back home, it will be two months of living on a mostly closed campus. 

"If I go back, will I be able to come back again?”

The Daily collected opinions from members of the OU international community on the extended winter break through a voluntary survey. Most community members said they couldn’t travel back home during the break because of COVID-19 or conflict with the U.S. 

Hussain Al Balushi, geology senior and vice president of the International Advisory Committee, said he believes the main concern of international students in traveling back home will not be fear of COVID-19, but fear of a travel ban or finding flights.

“So when COVID-19 started in March, many (international students went) home. They were scared of COVID-19, they did not care about the travel ban,” Al Balushi said. “Now, the mentality has changed. Now, ‘If I go back, will I be able to come back again?’ That's the question.”

Hamed said he’s not thinking of traveling back to Egypt over winter break because it is “too risky.”

“I don't know if I'll be able to come back,” Hamed said. “I don't know if (coronavirus) would come back in the winter, hit hard and everything will be closed, and (we'll) be doomed.”

According to the Health Data website, the current projection for Oklahoma is an expected surge from November to March, and 3,942 COVID-19 deaths by March 2021. 

Itzel Bernier, a psychology senior and president of OUr Mental Health, said the organization is concerned about the mental health of OU international and domestic students who are staying on campus during the extended winter break due to “traveling and financial” issues.

“Students who stay on campus typically get lonely, since a lot of their friends and/or acquaintances have left. Additionally, we recognize (they) might be missing their families a lot because they don’t have the opportunity to see them this break due to many factors,” Bernier said. “This often leads to feelings of loneliness, sadness and possibly anxiety.”

Al Balushi said many students will get depressed because they will not have a reason to stay in Norman, and since many don’t have cars, they won’t have anywhere else to go. 

He said students will also be at risk of being exposed to COVID-19.

“Cases will go up and up because if you see people around, they don't care that much,” Al Balushi said. “Every two weeks, whenever we have a home game, people go crazy. And they party (at) Campus Corner bars. (International students) will just sit there and observe. They cannot do anything.”

He believes OU should have a therapist available to international students so they can have someone to talk to when they feel depressed or homesick. The Daily reached out to Goddard Health Services for comment on available counseling during the break, but have not received a response. 

Al Balushi said he thinks the university should provide international students with assistance funds and resources, such as not having to pay to eat in the dining halls during the break. He also added the Bizzell Memorial Library hours should be extended for students who are staying on campus.

“Many students will need to use the library (because) they will take intersession classes. Many prefer to stay and study late,” Al Balushi said. “I am sad they (now) close at 11 p.m. It's supposed to be at least (until) 2 a.m. Why are you closing at 11 p.m.? It doesn't make any sense,” Al Balushi said. “Many students cannot study at all in their room or in their apartment. They need a place like (the) library to study (which) is one of the best places.”

Sarah Robbins, the Senior Director of Public Services and Strategic Initiatives at the library, said in an follow-up email with The Daily that reducing hours in the libraries gave them “more flexibility in scheduling,” yet they noticed a 75% drop in the number of visitors in OU Libraries in comparison with the same period back in 2019. 

“Bizzell changed its hours because we were having difficulty keeping it staffed until 2 a.m. with the number of student workers entering quarantine at any given time,” Robbins said in the email. “When we looked at the number of people in the library, we saw that we had more people leaving than entering at 9 p.m., and in the hours between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m., few people remained in the space, and very few items were checked out in pre-COVID times.”  

Al Balushi said the students who are going to be most financially affected are those who have scholarships and part-time jobs. 

“What if they cannot afford the tickets to go back? They will have to stay here,” Al Balushi said. “Many of them will no longer have jobs, part-time jobs where international students work on campus (because) many places on campus would be shut down. So as a result, many students will have to count on their savings. And they will have to ask parents back home to support them, or they will count on using the money they got through an internship or something outside the university.”

In an International Student Town Hall, College of International Studies Dean Scott Fritzen said International Student Services is aware international students are at risk of losing their jobs.

“We’ve been working on this issue, and it appears to be the case that far fewer students will lose their jobs because of the pivot online in post-Thanksgiving as compared with the spring,” Fritzen said in the meeting, “(But) that’s not an absolute guarantee because employment is in many different areas.”

In the town hall, he advised students to reach out to their supervisors to find plans for continuity and said that, if students believe they will lose their jobs, ISS can try to find alternate positions. 

Robbins said in the email that Bizzell Memorial Library, along with its branch libraries — Youngblood Energy Geology Library, the Grant Fine Arts Library and Architecture Library — will have modified schedules during the extended winter break, although they are not yet “solidified.”

“Usually there are fewer hours available for scheduling, so some students may not be scheduled for as many hours as they would like,” Robbins said in the email. “However, some students usually choose to travel or visit family, so there are fewer people to schedule. I think it typically works out where those wanting to work can, and those not wanting to work do not have to.”

While Robbins said in the email they cannot guarantee OU students who remain on campus over the break will be scheduled for the same amount of hours, “if students work with supervisors, sometimes it is possible for students to pick up shifts in other units.”

Fritzen also said in the town hall the International Student Response Task Force is working on a pandemic fund for international students.

“If you are experiencing any hardship financially related to the pandemic, we do have some funding available,” Fritzen said. “We’re trying to raise more funds as we speak for that. It is capped at $1,200 as it was in the spring. We encourage you to contact us and put in an application.”

Second stint of struggles?

Some international students fear they could once again be faced with the challenges they experienced months ago, during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has continually forced international students to make last-minute plans.

Hamed, like other international students at OU who couldn’t go back to their home countries, spent summer on campus.

“The first few months, it was honestly horrible. We did not know anything. We did not know what coronavirus (was), and how it (was) going to affect (everything),” Hamed said. “We didn’t know if the university (was) going to be open or closed. We didn't even know whether we (were) going to be able to live in campus housing, or whether the restaurants will be working. We (also) lost our jobs. Basically, we were terrified.”

Hamed said he purchased a plane ticket for May 13 to Egypt, but the airline canceled.

“I tried to contact my embassy, and they have not responded,” Hamed said. “One time the respondent (answered me and said) ‘We actually have a flight but it's for diplomats, and we have very few seats. If you want we can make a seat available for you.’ But it was like $2,000 for one seat — it was a crazy amount of money.”

Duozon R. Gaye, a biology and pre-med sophomore and an international student from Liberia, said he couldn’t go back home after classes went online in the spring semester because he didn’t have enough money to buy a ticket. He was also afraid he would get infected with the virus and pass it along to his family.

Gaye said OU promised international students an emergency fund back in the summer, but he never received any assistance.

“I applied for the emergency fund because I needed help with getting daily necessities. However, I didn't receive the fund,” Gaye said. 

Even though OU didn’t deliver an emergency fund, he said it lent him a computer for the rest of the spring semester and over the summer. 

Gaye said the hardest time for him at OU during the pandemic was being unemployed.

“I was afraid I wouldn't have the money to take care of my daily necessities,” Gaye said. “I was saving to pay for MCAT tests, so being unemployed for a very long time got me terrified.”

Hamed said most on-campus jobs were canceled in the summer. He said OU provided students with a free paycheck in the first couple of weeks but it didn’t help much.

“There were very few online jobs, if you were a lucky person. But we were freshmen, so most of the jobs you can do online were not available for us,” Hamed said. “Most people were working in Housing and Food Services, and since all restaurants closed, we did not have a job.”

While Hamed and Gaye reflected on their struggles from summer, OU chemical engineering junior Abdi Mohamoud from Somalia said his loneliness on campus began before the onset of COVID-19 — during last year’s winter break.  He remembers the break in classes was “not pleasant” for him since it was “quiet” and “dead.”  

"I had the opportunity to relax. However, the campus was not (active). Many activities or events do not happen during winter break, thus it was kind of boring,” Mohamoud said. “Winter break is fun if we decide to make it, but honestly OU doesn’t provide much.”

Mohamoud’s main concern was the decline in OU resources during the last winter break, such as the closure of the OU Sarkeys Fitness Center and limited food options at the OU Dining Halls, especially for individuals with food allergies or dietary restrictions. 

“The closure of the main gym (was) really hard on students last winter break. Working out is a stress outlet and a healthy routine for many, (but) If OU decides to close the gym like last year, it will be hard to get that stress outlet,” Mohamoud said. “More than ever, the closure of (OU) during breaks poses an opportunity for (the university) to direct some effort and finance to food.” 

“We do empathize and listen”

According to The Daily’s survey, OU international students expect the university to offer more accessible resources during the extended winter break including healthy diverse options for people with dietary restrictions, pocket money to buy necessities for those under scholarship, regular operations for counseling and healthcare and access to a kitchen for the students living in the OU Residential Colleges.  

Hamed said he would like OU international freshmen to have access to “better housing” — accommodations for freshmen who are living in the Towers, dining halls and other facilities working for international students — during the two-month-long winter break. He asked the administration to bring back the Couch Markets — a temporary market that was open over the summer that sold groceries and was available for students to use their points in case they didn’t have funds to go to a grocery store, according to Hamed.

Considering his experience over the last breaks, Mohamoud suggests those OU international students who have not stayed on campus before “find personal goals” that keep them “sane and rolling,” such as finding a group of close friends to plan activities during the break in which social distancing is possible. 

Bernier said in the email OUr Mental Health doesn’t “necessarily have all the resources possible to help” OU international students during the break, but the organization will offer spaces to talk about hardships they may face during the break. 

“We think OU faculty and staff can help by reminding students that they are loved and welcome to the OU campus at all times. If there is a way to bring students staying on campus over the break together in a way that doesn’t risk people’s health, we feel that it would help alleviate some of the loneliness students might feel,” Bernier said in the email. “We can’t promise we will be able to 100% understand the situation, but we do empathize and listen.”

OU Senior Director of Student Life Quy Nguyen said in an email with The Daily it is important to create a sense of community among students who cannot go home during the break. In fact, he said they are already working on “finding ways to engage students” since they acknowledge going home for some students “is not even an option.” 

According to Nguyen, some of the programming and resources provided by OU Student Life in partnership with the OU College of International Studies, the OU Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and OU Student Affairs include a “combination of virtual and in-person events” with masking and social distancing policies such as “off-campus excursions to areas around the metro and trips to specialty and international grocery stores.” Regarding the holiday season, Nguyen said they “are looking forward to finding ways to celebrate during this time and continuing to provide essential resources for students.” 

OU Student Life recently launched a survey for the university to “better gauge what students need during this time,” Nguyen said in the email. 

“The survey may be one of our most valuable tools as it allows all students an opportunity to share their thoughts and concerns with OU administrators regarding this time,” Nguyen said. “We also recognize not every student may fall into certain categories and so we encourage students to reach out to Student Life/Student Affairs or their support systems for additional assistance if they do not want to take the survey or just want to elaborate more on their needs.”

Lastly, Nguyen said in the email he hopes the OU community will continue to advocate for those “they might not work with directly on a day-to-day basis.”

“I know the factors of the pandemic, local and world events, and the natural stress of pursuing a degree has caused a great amount of stress, uncertainty and anxiety among our student community. This on top of what may be going on with a student’s personal life,” Nyugen said in the email. “I am hopeful the work we have done and will continue to do will provide a sense of comfort, safety and belonging for students during the extended winter break.”

Marien López-Medina is an international student and United World Colleges alumna from Nicaragua. She is majoring in journalism with a minor in public and nonprofit administration and works as a news reporter for The Daily.

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