By Sudhiti Naskar
The pandemic situation has dealt a hard blow to the international student community of the University of Nevada, Reno. While most Americans are feeling the pain of quarantine, job loss, death, sickness and an overall sense of gloom, stories of what’s happening to some 818 international students at UNR have remained untold.
Many international students could not go back to their home countries because of closed borders. Many don’t have funding and cannot work because of visa-related complexities. This Is Reno got in touch with international students and the University to hear these stories.
Maria Sole Bonarota is a doctoral student in the agriculture department and is from Italy. She comes from a close-knit family living in the outskirts of Rome. The first time she came to the U.S. she was 16; a New York family hosted her as an exchange student. She learned to drive in 16 days. This year, she came back as a graduate student to experiment with the effects of salinity on tomatoes amid changing farming realities in America caused by climate change.
The last few months, Bonarota has pined for her family knowing that “they were under lockdown while everything seemed easy here in those early days.”
When the pandemic situation started in America, she said, “my two roommates left, and I was all alone in our apartment.”
She said she felt terribly isolated.
“It all happened so fast, so I just had to adapt,” Bonarota said. “One day I was so sad that I felt I could not move forward. That day I decided to do the things I would normally do in a week. I organized my things every day. I downloaded this yoga app called ‘Alo Moves’ and did yoga three times a day, ran, wrote a paper and studied. That was when my mind was feeling ‘OK, you are OK.'”
Little choice but to adapt
Adaptability is a skill that international students must have. In normal times, too, they are coping with cultural differences, change in food habits, heavy workloads, homesickness and financial concerns. Many incur costly loans on student debts in their home countries.
Dr. Maritza Machado-Williams, Executive Director of Office of International Students and Scholars (OISS) explained that, “many of the families make a tremendous effort to financially support at least one of their kids in this country for their education.”
For graduate students who are enrolled in both master’s and doctoral programs, there is competitive funding, which makes them eligible for in-state tuition and scholarships in the form of teaching and research assistantships. But students are witnessing a change in the funding scenario.
Gurlaz Kaur Mangat, a Ph.D. candidate in cell and molecular biology who’s from India said, “The funds are being re-allocated for COVID-related research, to develop a vaccine, to study how this virus affects the humans.”
Mangat is working at developing a technology aimed at eliminating the need for pesticides and insecticides on crops.
“There is a gene among insects that makes them hungry,” she said. “I am working on tweaking that gene so that the insects don’t feel the urge to feed and would eventually die. This is an alternative way to control the insect population so we don’t have to use chemicals.”
She does not have a scholarship at the moment. She said she has to “compromise” on her research to “wrap up with whatever” she has accomplished.
“The three years I have spent researching are not just my time, or my advisor’s time, it’s the time of the funding agency, too, that funded my work,” she said. “If I wrap up my research at this stage, I would consider those three years as fifty percent waste.”
With no assistantship, no health insurance (tied to the assistantship) she is left with little choice.
“I am trying to get a job. I am trying everything I can, but I may have to go back to my country for a semester or a year if the situation doesn’t resolve,” she said. “The hardest thing is having the mixed feeling that I need to leave, I should leave, this is enough.”
Limited resources, or none at all
Most students This Is Reno contacted said that the University has been highly responsive to the pandemic situation and OISS has been readily available in supporting them with their questions. However, there have been mixed messages about one crucial resource: the relief money. Last month, OISS sent out emails to every international student informing them that they may be eligible for funds through the federal CARES Act. OISS received 35 applications. Later, the office learned that international students were not eligible.
Machado-Williams explained, “The provisions for the CARES Act were so broad and general that we thought we would be able to help international students, and I was very happy because it doesn’t happen often. Then the knowledge came that international students do not qualify.”
At that point, OISS stepped up its efforts. “We wanted to help, so we started looking for external sources of funding for students who had to remain here and had difficulties finding employment,” Machado-Williams said.
The Institute of International Education responded by funding five students from UNR in the amount of $2,500 each for the summer. “Unfortunately, the University and the country [are] facing a tough financial situation,” said Machado-Williams.
A great deal depends on external agencies like the federal government, she said, and the University has to work with these realities. According to Machado-Williams, new federal rules are also “limiting” enrollment of international students.
On April 22, the Trump administration issued a presidential announcement aimed at suspending entry of most new immigrants and ordered a 30-day review to recommend new restrictions on temporary visa holders. On April 27, Chad Wolf, Acting Homeland Security Secretary, indicated that Optional Practical Training, which allows international students to have a job in the U.S., is an “administration target,” according to a Forbes report.
Machado-Williams said UNR is trying its best to safeguard international students, but she admitted that, “At this moment we don’t know. It’s complex, and everything has more than one answer.”
Stay here or go home?
The political climate has directly impacted the job market, too. Aritra Bera, an Indian master’s student studying computer science, said that he is applying to “30 to 50 jobs” every day but hasn’t had a positive result yet. Computer science happens to be one of the most desirable programs among international students because of plump job opportunities, but this field, too, is shrinking.
“Many recruiting managers have even asked me to pay a hiring fee,” said Bera. He is reconciled to the idea that he will go back and contribute to the economy of his home country.
Moe Kuwabara, an undergraduate exchange student from Japan, studied journalism at UNR. She moved back to her country in March as the dorms were closing.
“I wrote an email to them for clear instructions, but received no response; it felt like they wanted us to leave,” she said.She regrets not being able to say goodbye to her friends in Reno.
This Is Reno heard that some students have left the U.S. with no plan in place to come back anytime soon. However, the OISS could not confirm exactly how many students that includes. Machado-Williams explained that students get their visa signed by the OISS with future travel plans.
“It is not compulsory for students to inform the OISS when they exit the USA,” she said. “We know for a fact that if a student was stranded at an airport because of airport shutdowns, they have been able to get back. With the online classes going on we have no way of knowing who is logging in from where.”
On the other end of the spectrum, Sogand Tabatabei, a Master of Fine Arts student and a rising artist, can’t go back. She is from Iran, one of several countries to have a tense political relationship with the U.S.. She has a one-time entry visa, which makes it impossible for her to exit the country.
“I am scared for my parents; I am always worried if they are telling me the truth about how they really are,” she said.
Tabatabei makes art depicting political resistance by women in Iran against an authoritarian government. Now she feels like “everything is hanging by the thread. And it’s affecting my personal life and work. I miss my husband, and we are trying to make this long-distance marriage work. When I came here I knew I wasn’t going to be able to meet him soon, so I dabbed my husband’s perfume in a handkerchief. This was the perfume he was wearing the first time we met nine years ago. These days, I smell the perfume and feel happy; I feel that I am 17 again.”
A problem with many facets is the only way to describe the challenges international students are facing during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“The word we are going to come across often while interacting with the international students is uncertainty,” said Machado-Williams. “They are affected just like any other person in America, she said, but there are added layers.
“What’s going to happen to them? What will happen to their home countries and families? Uncertainty is a permanent reality,” she said. “You think you have everything together, and it’s going to work out, and then, oh my goodness, things just changed, what are we going to do? We know many students who originally planned to travel during summer are coming back to Reno because we emphasized if you are continuing your education in fall, please stay here because the situation is uncertain.”
Sudhiti (Shu) Naskar is a multimedia journalist and researcher who has years of experience covering international issues. In the role of a journalist, she has covered gender, culture, society, environment, and economy. Her works have appeared on BBC, The National, The Wall Street Journal, Marie Claire, Reno Gazette-Journal, Caravan and more. Her interests lie in the intersection of art, politics, social justice, education, tech, and culture. She took a sabbatical from media to attend graduate school at the University of Nevada Reno in 2017. In this period, she has won awards, represented her school at an international conference and successfully defended her thesis on political disinformation at the Reynolds School of Journalism where she earned her Master’s in Media Innovation.