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International students face extra hurdles, many staying home during pandemic

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (WISH) — Students coming to Indiana colleges and universities this fall are facing extra challenges during the coronavirus pandemic.

Dozens of students all over the world are staying home, either deferring their enrollment or starting online.

To understand the dilemma, imagine flying halfway across the world to a place you’ve never been as an 18-year-old to further your education.

For others, like Namrata Mahesh, who felt left campus in the spring in a matter of hours, uncertainty about the virus is keeping them from coming back.

Mahesh is an Indian national but grew up in Kuwait. The first time she came to America was to go to college at Indiana University.

Her senior year is going to start in yet another country: Canada.

“A little sad for sure. Online classes are not the same as physical,” Mahesh said. “I just wanted to be with family. I wanted to be with my sister.”

She caught a flight to British Columbia in March within hours of finding out IU’s campus was closing because of coronavirus.

With no transportation and no relatives in the United States, she’s worried about a repeat experience. So if online is possible, “if they are giving me that option and I don’t feel safe coming back, then I’m going to do that.”

Sophomore Arissa Maeyama is doing her online classes in her native Brazil.

“We thought it would be safer for me to stay home,” Maeyama said.

Because the country is a hotspot for the virus, she would have to quarantine for two weeks in another country before being allowed into the U.S.

“I have never gone to Mexico. I don’t know anyone there, literally in the middle of the pandemic,” Maeyama said.

John Wilkerson, executive director of international admissions at IU as well as assistant vice president for international services, says it’s a semester unlike any other.

“Busy would underdescribe what it’s been like,” Wilkerson said with a laugh.

There are usually about 6,000 international students on the Bloomington campus.

With travel restrictions different for each country, closed consulates and changing immigration guidelines, he said virtually all advice has to be individualized.

“The element of personal care has been increasingly important since March,” Wilkerson said.

He adds most of IU’s returning students have come back, but about 150 stayed home. Most of them are freshmen.

“Always we want students to share with us their first choice if the pandemic were not happening. ‘What would you like to do?’ We start the conversation from there.”

For Mahesh and Maeyama, that choice is Bloomington. They hope it can happen this spring, but they know there’s a long ways to go.

“I’m with my sister. She’s my pillar of strength,” Mahesh said. “Most of my memories are still in Bloomington, so I will definitely try to come back in spring.”

“I really want to go back during spring, but I’m not confident that I will actually be able to,” adds Maeyama.

Wilkerson said about 10% of the international freshman class has also deferred to spring so there are a lot of students spread around the globe waiting to see what happens with the pandemic.

Online studying doesn’t bring any break on tuition. They are paying full price, although some of the fees, like mandatory health insurance, are waived.