Coping with a pandemic while far from home

UND’s support helps, but international students who’ve stayed in Grand Forks face special challenges, the students and their advocates say

From left to right: Sivi Andre, Mohammed Boukhsheem and Chialin Chang.

Sivi Andre paused. The 26-year-old – who’s from Angola and is a petroleum engineering major at UND – had been asked how he’s doing, given that he’s sheltering-in-place in Grand Forks, half a world away from home.

“I feel like I’m fine,” Andre said.

“But I’m still missing a lot.” And by “missing,” he means missing his friends, missing his family and missing his face-to-face campus life at UND, the life that’s been upended by the University’s – and world’s – response to the coronavirus.

So it goes with the other international students who’ve stayed in Grand Forks for the spring semester and who were interviewed by UND Today.

Mohammed Bouksheem

To a person, the students have high praise for Interim President Joshua Wynne and other UND leaders. The administration made smart decisions early on, and then – just as important – kept the University community very well informed, the students say.

“I think UND did a very good job of telling us about the situation,” said Mohammed Boukhsheem, a student from Saudi Arabia who’s majoring in airport management.

“They are basically sending us emails every other day, if not every day. They’re always giving us new information about the changes and the decisions that are being made. … Those early actions and the way the University is still communicating have given us a sense of feeling safe.”

‘Time to pay attention’

Andre agreed. “I have been very happy with how they’ve kept us informed,” he said.

“Many students, like me, were not paying attention to the coronavirus in the beginning. So when the University started notifying us and saying, ‘This is serious,’ I was like, ‘OK, it’s time to pay attention.’”

Chialin Chang

Similarly, the students are grateful that UND has responded to students’ situations with compassion — for example, by keeping residence halls open for those who need them and making counseling, advising and other services available.

“I’m a member of the UND International Organization, and we still hold our regular meetings on a weekly basis,” said Chialin Chang, a graduate student from Taiwan who’s pursuing a doctoral degree in educational foundations and research.

“Now, of course, the meetings are held on Zoom. Still, it helps a lot to see people, to talk with them and get to know how everyone’s doing.”

That being said, the students admit that they’re “missing a lot” – that remote learning and virtual conversations are only partial substitutes for the full campus experience.

And it doesn’t help that – unlike most other residents of Grand Forks – the international students are hunkered down in a foreign country, far from their homes.

“My life – it’s a bit lonely,” Andre said.

Sivi Andre

“Everything is so different. Plus, I had taken only one online class before this – and the exam for that class was actually given in the classroom,” he said with a laugh.

“I love meeting people face to face. I used to be a very shy guy, but coming to UND, this was one of the things that got me out of my comfort zone.

“Now, I just love going out and making friends.” But these days, that’s much more difficult because of the coronavirus, he said.

The Internet helps

Chang is in Grand Forks with her husband, so that helps with her situation. “And the Internet also helps, especially for international students, because we’re much better able to keep in touch with our families than international students used to be,” she said.

“In my case, I’m also glad because I have a community outside of campus. I play board games, and there’s a group called Grand Forks Board Gamers that now plays online board games. So, I have a bunch of friends with whom I’m chatting online frequently.

“You can tell that people still want to connect,” Chang said. “That means we have to find alternative ways of doing so. I think it’s human nature to want to be social.”

The comments echo those heard from other international students, said Amy Senger, assistant director of the International Center at UND.

“Overall, aside from disliking the isolation, our students have been pretty resilient, I believe. No one is panicking,” Senger said.

Amy Senger

The International Center recently sent out a survey, asking UND’s 400-some international students for updates on their status. The survey gave students the option to tell how they were feeling, Senger said.

And among the students who responded, the biggest concern they reported was academic. “That’s especially true because a lot of our international students are aviation students,” she said.

“The fact that the University had to shut down flight training is going to push back the students’ programs, which means the students won’t be able to finish on time. So that has been a huge frustration.”

Meanwhile, the International Center has remained open, with advisors having virtual meetings with students to help with academic, immigration and other questions, Senger said.

Special challenges

Katie Dachtler sees students’ situations from a unique perspective. A student records specialist at UND, Dachtler also is advisor to the UND International Organization and a member of the Grand Forks City Council.

Katie Dachtler

“First, I want to mention that I’m really grateful for President Wynne, because he was very forward-thinking in addressing COVID-19,” Dachtler said.

“His message always was, ‘Yes, you need to social distance, but that doesn’t mean you need to be socially alone.’ From the beginning, he had his eye on that mental health piece; and that’s why I believe a good majority of the students feel supported in this situation,” she said.

“There are a lot of unknowns. There are a lot of things that people are struggling with. But when the head of your organization cares enough to say, ‘We’re here alongside you’ and ‘Don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any questions,’ it’s huge.”

Second, the UND and Grand Forks communities should recognize the unique challenges that international students face, Dachtler said.

“When you’re alone – literally, physically alone – it’s hard to feel a part of something larger than yourself,” she noted. “And even though they can Zoom, even though they can FaceTime, there’s still something about not being in the same country as their families. It’s harder to be sure that your family’s really safe.”

International students also face financial challenges, given not only the economic shutdown, but also the students’ ineligibility for key government aid programs. For example, because most on-campus employment has gone to remote work, many international students have not been able to keep their positions.  Those students also may not able to work off-campus (unless they have specific authorization to do so), and they’re not eligible to receive funding through the federal CARES Act.

A great way to help support international students financially is through the UND Angel Fund.

“You know, I keep hearing people say, ‘This is the new normal.’ But let’s be honest: This is not normal,” Dachtler said.

“So when international students reach out to me, I try to say, You are not alone. Everybody is feeling these insecurities right now, and you mustn’t feel ashamed if you need help. Let’s get you connected and supported the way that you need, so you can stay safe and healthy and finish your school strong.

“And at the same time, understand that eventually, we’ll be able to interact with each other again,” she said. “You’ll be able to hug your friends again, go to coffee again, go to class again.

“There may be different rules or strictures put in place; but eventually, we’ll go back to something closer to normal. And that’s being able to talk to one another in person, and have that community aspect which the students are missing” – that same word that Sivi Andre used – “right now.”