‘I’m praying the borders stay open’: We spoke to the international students facing tough decisions amid COVID-19 pandemic

Some are struggling to find last-minute flights

Natalia Lee is currently in government-mandated, 14-day quarantine in Paraguay, having taken the difficult decision to fly home from Cambridge rather than staying in the UK over the break to study, as she had previously planned. Natalia, a first-year HSPS student at Downing College, is just one of Cambridge’s many international students caught up in coronavirus travel panic.

Speaking to The Tab Cambridge, several of these students outlined the challenging dilemmas they’ve faced in light of impending limitations on movement. Some are desperately trying to source last-minute flights, others are stranded in Cambridge indefinitely, and others – like Natalia – have managed to return home.

Natalia discusses the unique predicament faced by Cambridge’s international students: whether to consolidate the UK’s policies regarding COVID-19 (and, by extension, the confusingly variant email instructions of the University and its colleges), or to listen to the policy of their home countries. Natalia notes the disparity in these stances, and she is concerned by how slow Cambridge has been “in giving out information”. Her friends in the US had a lot more time for decision-making, as American universities shut down quickly and instructed everyone to go home. Cambridge, by contrast, is yet to send out an official instruction about whether students should leave the city.

Quarantine in her home country “definitely feels strange”, Natalia says. “Paraguayans are very social and under normal circumstances, there’d be welcome-back parties for everyone studying abroad, and my friends and I would’ve been visiting each other to catch up. But 1. I can’t leave my room, and 2. Some of them might not be able to come back. I only talk to people when they’re bringing me food.”

As international students have to rely on the University and the colleges for issues such as accommodation, safety, and welfare, it has been confusing for overseas students like Natalia. She remembers “receiving the chain of news (US blocks Europe, Argentina blocks Europe AND the UK, Paraguay blocks Spain) and panicking, knowing how quickly things are changing and facing the very real possibility of not being able to return home.” She says that she’s “extremely privileged” because her family had the financial stability to book a last-minute flight for her.

Other students have also chosen to travel home as soon as they are able to, although many found the process of deciding whether to go home – and then sourcing flights – extremely stressful. Sophia Kjeldbjerg, a first-year HSPS undergraduate at Robinson College, is originally from Denmark, but now lives in France. She, too, has decided to fly home – although, she says, she is “praying that the borders stay open”. Sophia explains that she was “quite worried about whether or not to stay in Cambridge”, but eventually decided that it was best to stay with her family. She’s planning on flying back to France today, and she says that, if airports are unexpectedly shut, she is lucky as she would be able to stay with her grandparents. She points out that a lot of international students don’t have that “to fall back on”, with many potentially stranded in the UK.

Sophia Kjeldbjerg, a first-year undergraduate who lives in France

Many students are unable to travel back to their home countries, and this has proven understandably stressful. Maria Victoria Rodriguez Noci, a first-year Medicine student at Newnham College, lives in Spain. However, she has been forced to remain in Cambridge over the coming weeks, and likely months, as the number of COVID-19 cases in her Spanish city are particularly high, so there is a risk of her leaving Cambridge and being unable to come back. She says there is a “state of alarm” in Spain, as flights and airports are being blocked, people are banned from the streets, and schools are being closed. Although her family would love her to return home, the risk is too great, she says. Maria is currently waiting to see what the university decides to do with exams and with Easter term, and she will then decide if and when to leave the UK.

Maria Victoria Rodriguez Noci, who will not be returning to Spain

Max Fischer, who is reading for an MPhil in Development Studies at Pembroke College, is from New York. With no official instruction from the University, Max, too, was forced to decide whether to go home or remain in Cambridge. For Max, the biggest question was: “If I know I’m going to be locked in my bedroom for at least two weeks but as long as a month, would I rather be in Cambridge or at home in New York as I complete all the work that I’ve pushed off until the end of term? While I know I’ll be less productive at home with all the distractions, the uncertainty of being kicked out of college, potentially not having access to food/necessities, and feeling more isolated from family and friends without the comfort of playing (or even watching) sports to keep me sane all came together to convince me that home in New York is the best place for me right now.”

Max says “the hardest thing is definitely going to be the goodbyes (virtual and in person) to people who [he] might not see again for a long time.”

Max Fischer, who is travelling home to New York today

Emmanuel Angelidakis, a third-year Chemical Engineering student at Homerton, is leaving for Greece today. Although he was planning on leaving the UK anyway, as term has officially ended, Emmanuel says that Greek friends of his that were planning on staying in the UK are also returning home. There are tighter measures in Greece than in the UK, he points out. He adds he’s not sure how flying home will affect him in the long-term, as he doesn’t know how the situation will progress.

Emmanuel Angelidakis, who has chosen to return home to Greece

One Cambridge undergraduate, Robinson third-year medic Christopher Cheng, has been collecting and coordinating information on how Hong Kong students like himself have approached the decision of whether to leaving or stay. Christopher and his peers have even collated an information pack detailing the pros and cons. This, he says, is compounded by the Hong Kong government’s announcement that all Hong Kong students from US and UK will be quarantined for 14 days upon arrival.

Robinson student Christopher Cheng

Christopher set up Facebook poll, headlined: “Can I have a show of hands of who is staying in Cambridge, who will be returning to Hong Kong or already has, and who is still deciding at the moment?”. Over a hundred students responded, with most (48 students) saying that they were “returning to HK next week/week after”. 39 said they were planning on staying in Cambridge, 27 replied “unsure at the moment”, seven will be returning to Hong Kong “ASAP”, six are already back in Hong Kong, and one is staying “somewhere else in the UK”. However, Christopher points out: “On this poll, as time went on, the staying in Cambridge and unsure had gone down and the returning in a week/next week has gone up […] More people are moving onto ASAP.”

The poll created by Christopher Cheng

Christopher explains how gruelling it has been to find a flight home. He says: “My parents and I had to queue on four hotlines simultaneously for four hours, followed by four hours of back and forth with an agent yesterday. I am now returning to Hong Kong via an overnight layover in Singapore. Direct flights are fully booked until April. Indirect flights, especially through Asian countries which have airports with lower risk, are scarce. We were terribly lucky to find anything at economy class. I am thankful for all the friends who have helped me pack and sort last minute admin. There are not sufficient protective equipment and supplies for the journey.”

He adds: “Most who have changed their mind recently, like me, are desperately trying to book connecting flights despite a significantly higher risk of infection on the criteria that the layover is short, and in an Asian country with good infection control and hygiene awareness.” He also notes the that the colleges’ “U-turn” from “students who want to stay can stay” to “students should only stay if this is their one true home” happened “so quickly”. It was only when multiple colleges changed their policy that international students like himself really felt the pressure to change their minds.

Like Max, Christopher says he is “somewhat emotional” about the prospect of leaving somewhere he was so ready to call home, where he has been “so well supported by so many lovely people.” He is “shook” by having to leave, and is left disappointed by the lack of information and coordinated approach from the University and the colleges.

Raiyan Khan, who is studying for an MPhil in Public Health at Queens’ College, is flying home to Australia this evening. He says: “It’s certainly an interesting time to be studying public health with a background in medicine. Over the last few weeks it’s been a marathon to try and absorb information from a range of sources – including health ministries and colleagues who are at the coalface of this pandemic.

“Because of the frantic pace at which changes have taken place, I have made the decision to return home and remain in self-isolation for 2 weeks. It’s likely that we will be contending with the situation of our European neighbours in the very near future. If the university and colleges are in lockdown, I’d rather be spending it at home with family. From a coursework point of view, I am yet to be informed (understandably) by our department about how and when this will be completed. I anticipate I will be completing assessments remotely and remain home until there is clear instruction to return. The rapid escalation of this pandemic has left a lot of uncertainty in our lives.”

Raiyan Khan, who is returning to Australia today

As of today (16 March 2020), the University is yet to ask all students to return home, although Vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope said in an email: “Other than students and staff returning home, I would strongly discourage overseas travel that is not essential.” There has been widespread criticism of the University’s lack of direction, which has meant countless international students have had to make important and delicate decisions alone. Individual colleges such as Churchill, Queens’, and Trinity have already been directing students to leave Cambridge, but the rest are yet to follow suit.

As it stands, the UK Government’s advice remains that universities should stay open “for now”.

The University has been contacted for comment.