“It’s like, you think you’re one step ahead, but you’re actually two steps behind,” said Amber Neal, a college freshman from Abu Dhabi, talking about the struggles of being an international student amid constant change and uncertainty during the COVID-19 pandemic.
While 2020 was a whirlwind for most, living abroad adds a new dimension of difficulty when it comes to the pandemic. Neal shared how living abroad without her family has been especially challenging. “The… emotional part is the stress of seeing if I can actually get home. It is scary if last minute I’m not able to get on my flight. Where would I go?”
Simply arriving at campus was an ordeal for these students. Prior to their arrival all students at Baylor were required to send in a negative COVID test. But for international students, it required a little more time.
“I got three COVID tests before I even came here,” said Neal, but she ultimately did not have to quarantine in Waco once she arrived.
However, Jack Carey, a freshman whose family is in Japan, described his time during a two-week quarantine in a hotel near Baylor’s campus: “It wasn’t particularly wonderful just because of the isolation aspect of it. FaceTime, school work and NBA playoffs kept me busy enough though.”
2020 was wrought with the cancellation of in-person education for many schools, weddings, travel plans and more. Many Americans have lamented and even protested these restrictions. But many of these international students are actually recognizing how much more freedom and opportunity they have had while following U.S. protocol.
Neal said in Abu Dhabi they were in a strict lockdown from February to June. People were required to wear masks in the car if there was more than one person inside and gloves in the grocery stores. Additionally, if someone had more than six people inside of their home they were subject to a fine of 50,000 Dirham (about $14,000).
Before she returned to Abu Dhabi, Neal explained how restrictions would escalate even further. “When I go back I need to have a tracker on my wrist and I have to quarantine for two weeks,” said Neal. “And my parents just told me that they’re starting to take people to these camps and you have to quarantine there.”
To put the situation more in perspective Neal compared quarantine in Abu Dhabi to quarantine in the States. “If they start to take me somewhere [for quarantine] I have to listen to them. It’s not like in the U.S. where I can say, ‘My parents are going to be here’,” and avoid being sent to a government facility. “They’re like ‘you’re coming with us, COVID is a big deal’,” Neal said.
Neal also acknowledges that she is not the only one struggling while abroad over the course of a global pandemic. To other international students she said, “This isn’t easy on our parents, especially because they’re more concerned about our health and safety right now.”
In spite of the complications that come with deciding to enroll in college in a different country from family, especially during such an unprecedented time, Neal feels grateful for her experience as an international student. “I’ve had so many amazing opportunities and experiences to travel and live abroad. It makes me a stronger person mentally,” Neal said. She feels so strongly that her experiences living abroad have been positive that she wants to continue doing it. “I want my future kids… to experience what it’s like to live abroad. I want them to learn about other religions and cultures and social norms,” she said.
Even after such a difficult year, Carey said he ultimately finds it all to be worth it. He said that if he was online at Baylor, “[I would have] had the same great education, but none of the meaningful experience or personal connections,” he has gotten from being on campus.
At the end of it all Neal stated that, “It’s a wild journey. But we will be the class of 2020 and 2024. We’re going to be in the books. We’re making history.”