Photo compilation of photos of Fabiana Gabriela Irigoyen Jimenez, Aayush Mokate and Kayele Silue

Connecting from afar: International students reflect on their experiences during COVID-19 pandemic

When Case Western Reserve University moved to remote learning in March to help slow the spread of COVID-19, the change resulted in many uncertainties for students, faculty and staff across campus. But for international students, their experiences sometimes included exceptional challenges, from having to secure and complete international travel on an incredibly tight timeline to needing to stay on campus because travel restrictions or other circumstances required it.

When the switch to remote learning was announced, the Center for International Affairs’ Office of International Student Services (ISS) got in touch with international students to provide support, answering questions about immigration status and signing documents for those returning home. The office has continued to be available to students for virtual meetings and to take care of documents.

“It was important to us to provide a seamless transition in our services for our international students because support from ISS is something they can always rely on, and as we faced a global crisis and all the changes that came with it, we wanted to make sure that support was consistent,” said Marielena Maggio, director of International Student Services in the Center for International Affairs.

Additionally, to help support international students, the university community, led by the Center for International Affairs, has underscored its commitment to the #YouAreWelcomeHereCWRU campaign. The center is compiling positive messages from faculty, staff and students for a video to help promote connection while many international students are away from their traditional support system.

We caught up with three undergraduate students to see how they transitioned this semester, how their home countries have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and what remote learning has been like.

Fabiana Gabriela Irigoyen Jimenez

Year: Sophomore
Home Country: Bolivia

Photo of Fabiana Gabriela Irigoyen Jimenez with a dog

As concerns related to COVID-19 mounted and with uncertainty of when her home country of Bolivia may close its borders, Fabiana Gabriela Irigoyen Jimenez had 24 hours to pack up her belongings and head home. Every moment since that day in March has stood out to Irigoyen, a sophomore studying human nutrition.

Since she arrived home, Irigoyen has lived under the restrictions in Bolivia; for example, individuals aged 18-65 are only allowed out once a week to go to the grocery store from 7 a.m. to noon, she said. 

Irigoyen has had to keep up with her schoolwork and life in the U.S., while also, like many students, resuming roles and responsibilities at home—an experience she said she hadn’t considered previously.

Remote learning was another challenge for Irigoyen. She and other students had to quickly switch to a new way of learning, including taking notes and solving math problems using her computer. Additionally, she felt that her internet connection was slow at times. But, she felt her faculty members did a good job adapting and the support she received helped the transition.

“I am proud to say that I have professors who made the transition as smooth as possible,” she said. “The Department of Nutrition, my academic advisor and navigator provided me the support I needed to keep up with this style of learning.”

Irigoyen has also been sure to connect with her friends—even if that means finding a time that works for her friends to talk across time differences of up to 10 hours. 

“I have been in touch with my friends, and being at home with my family during these times has been a blessing,” she said.

Aayush Mokate

Year: Sophomore
Home Country: India

Photo of Aayush Mokate

With India’s suspension of all international and domestic travel, Aayush Mokate, a sophomore majoring in biomedical engineering, couldn’t get home when Case Western Reserve announced the move to remote learning for the remainder of the semester. Instead, Mokate, who is a resident assistant in Tyler House, has been on campus ever since.

While some of his residents who are international students were initially still in his hall, some were moved to other halls to allow for greater social distancing.

Mokate noted that the social distancing has, at times, left him feeling isolated. “However, CWRU has been really supportive of international students. CWRU allowed us to stay on campus, provided a safe way to get meals, and continuously supported us through these tough times.”

He said remote learning has been challenging for many students, including himself. 

“It’s really hard to stay focused in a time like this, and I hope everyone is doing the best they can,” he said.

To keep in touch with friends while maintaining social distancing, he  plays multiplayer games online and uses video chats. He also talks daily with his parents, and encourages others to try to reach out to those they haven’t talked with in awhile. 

Mokate has been grateful for the staff in the Custodial Services department, who have continued reporting to campus to keep buildings clean. Additionally, he recognized first responders and other essential workers.

“Things would have been much worse without the sacrifices and effort these selfless people put in to care for others,” he said.

Kayele Silue

Year: Senior
Home Country: Cote D’Ivoire

Photo of Kayele Silue

Kayele Silue wanted to finish her last semester as an undergraduate abroad. Although she had already spent one semester in Madrid, Spain, in 2018, she met her required credit hours and wanted to immerse herself in another culture before beginning her master’s program at the Weatherhead School of Management in the fall.

In January 2020, Silue settled into her new residence hall at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, excited for the new experiences ahead. What she didn’t realize was how quickly the COVID-19 pandemic would escalate, and the impact the virus would have on her plans.

While on a school trip to the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi at the end of February, Silue and her classmates received an email that canceled all school trips, outings and gatherings. Three days later, all in-person classes transitioned to online courses. The break was intended to only last a few weeks, with students returning to in-person classes at the beginning of April after the university’s spring break.

As the virus developed during those weeks, the university announced the cancellation of in-person classes through the remainder of the semester. While most other students traveled home, Silue—an international student from Cote D’Ivoire—made the decision not to return to Cleveland or her home country, and instead finish her online classes on campus at the University of Sharjah.

“Campus is definitely emptier than it used to be, but every once in a while, you’ll see people out for walks or riding their bikes. Sometimes, in the dorms, I’ll see another student filling their water bottle or throwing something in the trash, and I’m like, ‘Oh! Here’s another human being,’” she joked.