Marla Holt
October 01, 2021

A Change in Plans

From long family separations to remote classes in the middle of the night, international students have been tested over the past 18 months. We talk with Beloit students from England, Nepal, Rwanda, and Vietnam about the challenges and surprising silver linings during this time of uncertainty.

When Covid-19 was declared a global pandemic in March 2020, Beloit’s international students were faced with a choice to be made quickly amid rapidly changing circumstances: Remain on campus or return home. Many had no idea that their decision would likely affect where they’d be for up to 18 months, due to travel restrictions and health and safety concerns.

“Our main focus has always been helping students make informed choices,” says Shannon Jolly, Beloit’s international student and exchange advisor. “As we’ve navigated the pandemic, Beloit has done a good job of consistently considering the needs of international students.”

On a suddenly quieter campus, the international students who remained adjusted quickly to online learning and lockdown restrictions, such as isolating in single rooms and eating meals alone. They missed their friends and families, many of whom they haven’t seen since the 2019 winter break or even earlier.

For those who were able to return home, challenges included readjusting to lost independence, attending classes remotely in the middle of the night, and dealing with technological difficulties while establishing communication channels with Beloit. Some have been away from campus for nearly as long as they were on it, something they couldn’t have foreseen when they chose to attend a U.S. college.

“Students have shown resilience, creativity, and determination in finding ways to make things work, even though their college experience has changed a great deal,” says Elizabeth Brewer, who recently retired as Beloit’s director of international education.

Beloit supports its international student community, both on campus and around the world, and has established an International Student Network of faculty and staff members who can help navigate ever-evolving travel policies, visa processes, financial concerns, and remote learning.

For their part, international students have remained positive in the face of difficult personal and educational circumstances. As Beloit returns to in-person learning for the 2021-22 academic year, they say they’re looking forward to spending time in their community on campus.

We asked four international students to reflect on their experiences as Beloiters during a global pandemic.

Christiane Umutoni’22

Christiane Umutoni'22 Credit: Greg AndersonComputer science major
Kigali, Rwanda

Christiane Umutoni has made the most of her Beloit education, despite a lengthy separation from her family in Rwanda and a few disappointments along the way. She was on spring break with friends in Orlando, Fla., in March 2020 when she heard that Beloit was moving to remote learning. She knew right away that she wanted to return to campus to finish out the year.

“I was applying for internships, which would have been difficult to do from Rwanda, had I chosen to fly back home,” she says. “I’m so glad Beloit supported us in staying here, because many colleges and universities didn’t give their international students that option, which created added anxiety in an overwhelming situation.”

Even in the face of a worldwide pandemic, Umutoni’s résumé has a global feel to it. She has interned virtually in technical sales at San Jose-based Cisco, and, in the fall of 2020, she joined the NextGen Coders Network, a 10-week virtual and collaborative computer coding project with teams of college students from the United States, Iraq, and the Palestinian territories. The experience helped strengthen her intercultural communication and design thinking skills.

“I learned to work with others in brainstorming and implementing ideas to benefit society,” she says. In spring 2021, she was a facilitator for the group, guiding others through the course. She spent the summer of 2021 in Madison, where she interned in IT at CUNA Mutual Group.

Umutoni is off-campus this fall at The Philadelphia Center, taking seminar courses and interning with a tech company in that city. She pivoted to that option for study away, as she’d been unable to attend her planned study-abroad program last year at Goldsmiths, University of London.

“I’ve been fortunate to have all of these experiences regardless of the pandemic,” she says. Like most of her classmates, though, Umutoni is looking forward to her senior year, when she’ll be able to return to interacting with others in person. She’s also anticipating a reunion with her family in Rwanda, whom she hasn’t seen since the summer of 2019.

“I really missed the personal interactions with my professors and classmates, and of course, being able to travel home,” she says.

Celia Edwards’24

Celia Edwards'24 History major on exchange from the University of York
Leeds, England

It’s common practice for university students in Great Britain to study abroad for a year to complement their degree programs at home. For Celia Edwards, a third-year student of history at the University of York, that meant coming to Beloit during a global pandemic, a nearly insurmountable hurdle at a time when very few international students were being allowed to enter the United States.

“I was excited to focus on museum studies and art history and to experience small college life,” she says.

Through sheer force of will and a bit of luck, Edwards became the only exchange student at Beloit during the 2020-21 academic year, as well as the only student from the University of York who traveled to a college outside Europe. She credits staff members in Beloit’s Office of International Education with helping her receive an expedited visa at the U.S. Embassy in London.

Edwards is remarkably positive and sunny about her time at Beloit. “Everyone made the needed sacrifices in order to have some in-person classes and events,” she says. “It was a valuable year in a community of people who cared about each other.”

Nicolette Meister, director of the Logan Museum of Anthropology, mentored Edwards in museum studies, helping her curate an online exhibit of the museum’s Kuba textiles from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“I spent a lot of time in the Logan, cataloguing textiles and researching their design and usage,” Edwards says. She also studied objects at the Logan and the Wright Museum of Art that complemented remote learning in her art history courses.

To stave off isolation, Edwards grabbed as many new experiences as she could. “I made amazing friends, and we made our own fun,” she says. She joined the Alpha Sigma Tau sorority and spent Christmas with a friend’s family in Washington state. Prior to returning home, Edwards visited several tourist sites, including the Statue of Liberty. She hopes to eventually attend graduate school in museum studies at an American university.

“My year at Beloit was a charmed existence, and I’m grateful to those who helped me get there,” Edwards says.

Sahil Rizal’22

Sahil Rizal'22 Credit: Greg AndersonEconomics major
Kathmandu, Nepal

With his family’s encouragement, Sahil Rizal chose to remain at Beloit when the lockdown began in March 2020, and he’s been on campus ever since. “I felt it would be best to stay, mainly because I didn’t want to attend class in the middle of the night,” he says. “Beloit has been very supportive of my decision.”

By summer 2020, Nepal had closed its borders, so Rizal’s planned summer internship with the Nepal Economic Forum went online. He studied Covid’s effect on Nepal remotely, while also working at Beloit’s Office of Residential Life and Housing. As a member of student government, Rizal joined other student leaders in developing guidelines for student behavior during the pandemic, including expectations for self-care and interactions with others.

With classes and events moved online during his junior year, Rizal longed for the days of social interaction with peers. “I missed having dinner with my friends,” Rizal says. “It’s one of those things you take for granted until you can’t do it.” He also notes the oddity of taking two classes with a professor he’s yet to meet in person. “Beloit’s profs are accessible, so it’s been strange to not see them outside of a screen,” he says.

During his second summer on campus, Rizal was a research assistant for economics professors Laura Grube’08 and Disha Shende, studying scalability in small social-science experiments with Grube and the economic implications of cost-based health provider reimbursement with Shende. He also has worked on the college’s Fact Book with the Office of Institutional Research, Assessment, and Planning.

When asked what opportunities came his way because of the pandemic, rather than what he missed out on, Rizal admits he hasn’t thought much about the positive impact Covid-19 had on his education. Upon reflection, though, he says the pandemic gave him time — time to explore multiple graduate school options through virtual visits and time to take on jobs that may have overlapped with school had they been in person. For example, he worked on housing issues with the city of Beloit through the Duffy Partnerships program, which required him to attend meetings during the school day.

“I learned creative time management skills,” Rizal says. “Having everything online allowed me to do more things. It was almost like being in two places at the same time.”

Nguyen Huynh’22

Nguyen Huynh'22 Credit: Greg AndersonQuantitative economics and environmental studies major
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Nguyen Huynh returned to the city of his birth, living once again with his parents and a few other family members while continuing his Beloit education from halfway around the world.

“It was a very hectic time,” Huynh says, referring to March 2020, when he was faced with the choice of heading home or staying on campus. “I initially didn’t want to go back home, because when you’re in your 20s, you want to grow independently of your family. But in the end, it was a better decision — financially, and for my mental and physical health — to come home,” he says. He remained at home throughout the 2020-21 academic year, reconnecting with Vietnamese family and friends. “As challenging as the pandemic has been, I will have a really great story to tell,” he says.

When he first arrived in Vietnam, Huynh was quarantined for 14 days at a “quarantine camp,” or locked-down hotel, and then for an additional 14 days at home, all while attempting to acclimate himself to online learning. “Vietnam has taken the pandemic seriously from the beginning, with a sense of ‘we will get through this together,’” he says, which has helped him make peace with his decision to leave campus.

Even so, Huynh felt suspended between two lives, trying to balance taking classes remotely with working as a content writer at an automated software testing company. “There is a half-and-half sensation of not living in either time zone,” he says. “At times, Beloit has felt like it’s on hold, waiting for me. It helps that the faculty have been very understanding of my situation.”

Huynh missed out on a planned study-abroad experience in New Zealand, but he took the news calmly. “Sometimes things just don’t work out,” he says. “It’s understandable that New Zealand’s government didn’t want students coming in from other countries. I’ll get there eventually.”

Huynh is back on campus this fall, rejoining his classmates for his senior year. “I’m very excited to see my friends in the United States again,” he says.

Marla Holt is a Minnesota-based freelancer who specializes in writing for higher education.

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