Thanks to COVID-19, I Was Almost Stranded. Now I am an Exchange Student in My Own Country.

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I first heard about the COVID-19 disease in January or early February, before many folks were talking about it. I was sitting down in class at 110 Myron Boon Hall, when professor Jeffrey Keith mentioned it during one of our Global Studies class lectures. I recall him saying that we should not worry about it, but that we should be attentive to the news. As an international student from Colombia, I was unsure how serious it was back home as there had been no reported cases and wouldn’t be until March 6. 

By early March, every piece of information I was getting about the disease was either through Instagram or the memes that people were posting on Facebook. However, if I’m being honest, I had not realized the severity of the situation. It was not until we came back from spring break, once we were told that we had to leave campus, that I realized it was something big. I found myself in the crossroads of asking myself: 

What should I do? 

Should I leave the country? 

Should I stay here? 

How would this affect my education and my visa status?

When am I coming back? 

Will I ever come back?!

All of these questions kept spinning in my mind. In just a matter of two days, however, I had to pack everything up and leave campus. Although I was extremely happy because I was going to see mi familia again, I felt sad because home was not home anymore. My parents had recently moved to another city in Colombia, about 15 hours away from my hometown, which meant that I was not going to be able to see any of my friends, who mean a lot to me. 

I tried to keep positive about the whole situation, but I knew that it was just a matter of time before the government shut down the country: malls, cinemas, pools, churches, and any type of place where I could socialize or even try to make new friends. I knew that being just with my family was going to be okay, and I needed that feeling of togetherness to help me get through the rough times we were about to step into.

So, just three days after being told that I had to move out of my dorm, I was at the Greenville, SC, airport on my way back to Colombia. As I was waiting to board my plane, I checked my phone, I read the news: “Colombia’s government has decided to lockdown the country due to the COVID-19 pandemic.” At that moment it hit me, international traveling had been banned. Therefore, even though I was about to start my trip, I was not sure if I was going to be able to make it. I had multiple connections before taking the flight that would finally bring me home. 

My 44-hour itinerary was set to look like this:

Saturday, March 14: Drive from Asheville to Greenville, SC; Stay with host family;

Sunday, March 15: Stay with host family; 

Monday, March 16: Flight from Greenville, SC to Charlotte NC; Flight from Charlotte, NC to Miami, FL; Flight from Miami, FL to Cali, Colombia.

Every time I got to a new airport I had to ask if my flight was going to take off. I was tense the whole trip inside the U.S. and I had never felt so uncertain about the future. When I finally arrived at the Miami International Airport, I learned some shocking news: the last flight from Miami to Colombia was about to take off that very same day; flight 921, which was my flight. All future flights would be suspended, indefinitely. I felt so blessed that I had not decided to delay my trip two days more. I really do not know if I would be here, in Colombia, with my family had I bought the tickets for Wednesday, two days later.

However, it was not the same for others. Since the Colombian government had banned international travel, only Colombian citizens or residents were granted access to the country, and even WE had a limited amount of time to come back home. I still remember the voice, and even the sad tone, of that flight attendant calling non-Colombian residents to come near the boarding stand. 

“Your attention, please,” she said. “If you’re neither a Colombian citizen nor a resident of the country, please come over to the boarding booth as soon as you can.” 

I felt like I was in a movie, I had never experienced such sad scenes. I saw a lot of people crying and upset after learning that they could not step onto that plane. For some, they just needed to take that flight as a connection to their final destination in other countries throughout South America. I overheard a man talking to his wife, saying that he would not see her soon since he did not have a Colombian passport. I did not know where home was for him – maybe Argentina, maybe Chile, who knows – the only thing I knew was that he needed to go through Colombia and he was not going to be able to do so.

After a couple hours of waiting, the boarding process started, and I was one of the first people to step onto the plane. Three and a half hours later I finally arrived at Cali’s airport. My sister and brother-in-law picked me up. So many things were happening at the same time. The police were there and I did not even know if I was allowed to hug my loved ones. I just said ¿cómo estás?, put the baggage in the trunk and got into the car. 

Once we got home, my mom and dad were waiting for me. I wanted to hug them so badly. However, since they are elderly people, I did not want to risk it. That was such a hard moment, I had not seen them in months and when I was finally reunited with them, I could not even kiss or hug them. I felt like the beauty of that reunion had been stolen.

After two weeks, when my mandatory quarantine was over, I finally was able to be with my family the whole time. I really enjoyed being with them amid the craziness that we were living. However, the effects of being quarantined for such a long time quickly struck. I was back at home with people I had not lived with in seven months, and with some, even in years. Much had changed and I was not the same person. 

The opportunity to study abroad had changed my perspective, and I simply did not see life as I did before. My mom wanted me to behave in a certain way, however, I was not the same son who they dropped off at the airport seven months before. There were a lot of confrontations that fortunately led to long conversations about how we could improve our coexistence. This experience made me realize how important it is for people to see the world with different lenses, and to respect and understand their stories and perspectives. I can now say that living with my family is not as hard as it used to be, and I’m so grateful for that.

After finally being settled at home and feeling resigned to the fact that I was going to take online classes at Wilson for the fall semester, another challenge came my way. Over the summer, President Trump said that all international students (ISS) who were taking online classes during the fall would have their visas revoked. Even though we know the “rules” of being ISS in the U.S., I thought that being amid a pandemic would soften the already-strict regulations. However, it did not.

I could not believe that Trump could do such a dirty move. His government only wanted to take advantage of the suffering we were living, and disguise his real aim of deportation. This unprecedented event worsened the already bad situation that we were facing, even more, because it happened just four weeks prior to the start of the fall semester. Therefore, international students did not have that much time to make a decision that would truly benefit our education and college experience. 

In my case, it was even worse. I already knew I was not going to be able to travel back to the U.S. in August, due to my country’s international travel being banned indefinitely. Besides, if I’m honest, I did not want to leave home at that moment; the U.S. had not made a lot of progress in controlling the pandemic, and people were not following the regulations. 

Consequently, it was a really stressful time that almost made me drop out of school. I thought about just staying home and restarting college. However, I did not want to lose the opportunity of getting a U.S. degree. Moreover, I did not want to waste the whole year that I had already completed. Thanks to the good work of the Global Engagement Office (shout out to Anna Welton and Rachel Kerr) I was able to do an “exchange” semester here in Colombia, which allowed me to stay in a good visa status. Thank God I was blessed enough to have this opportunity. However, it was not the same for others, like some Brazilian students who the U.S. government restricted from entering the country. 

Even though I was about to do the semester “abroad” at home in Cali, I had to go through the whole orientation/introduction process, once again. I had to meet professors, faculty, staff, and the hardest part, make new friends. Moreover, the semester was offered entirely online, which meant that I was not even able to get in-person interaction with my professors and classmates. For me, human interaction is a huge part of the learning process. I strongly believe that we communicate more efficiently with each other when doing it in person. Even though online tools are great and we know how to work with them, they are not that successful when trying to learn and grow in knowledge. 

It has been about four months since I started fall semester as an “exchange” student at home. I can say that, even though this whole year has not gone the way I planned it to go, I have learned valuable lessons that will last forever. It was not easy at all to be an international student in times of COVID. I know that I talk for all of my fellow ISS when I say that the pandemic has made us reevaluate the importance of family and friends in our lives. I know better now the value of being at home and feeling safe, and how meaningful it is to have people around us who understand where we come from.