After a year that was both exhausting and demanding, many of us have resorted to an exasperated search for options as we navigate changes in every aspect of our lives. What started as a temporary solution to our study plans has turned into a reality that both distresses and worries many students and their families as well. As a sophomore student, I got to be at NYU Shanghai for a semester before the pandemic changed my plans, and since then it has been a process that has left both a physical and mental strain for the past year. Many students have had problems with having classes at 4 am in their local time, or having to change their whole routine in order to keep up with overwhelming amounts of work. It is not new that many of us have felt exhausted and anxious about what is coming, and this Spring semester seems to bring a lot of hope, coupled with uncertainty. As of January 6, 2021, NYU Shanghai has seen two hundred international students come back to China after a year-long process with local authorities to ensure their safe return. For many students, this was (and still is) the best option, given they can reunite with their friends, and continue to experience everything this campus has to offer.
With a rather enthusiastic start, myself and many other students got over the hurdle of getting a visa in order to enter China when the time came; but for many of us, experiences with our return have been varied and difficult in general. When I was ready to go back to China from Bogota, Colombia, my flights got cancelled and pushed back three times. Regulations regarding the entry of internationals to China changed on what seems to be a weekly basis, and my return was postponed to the next semester. Many students have had this experience of having little to no option but to stay in their home countries due to various reasons.
João Gabriel – Class of 2023: Travel Restrictions and Difficulties Finding Other options
João Gabriel is a sophomore at NYU Shanghai, and due to the fact he is currently in his home country of Brazil, and due to China’s travel restrictions, he cannot enter China in the foreseeable future, and saw his options as very limited. Even though he wanted to be able to be in New York or another campus, he wasn’t able to do so given that he would need a visa to be able to study in New York. He felt that students in Latin America in general had nowhere that they could actually go apart from Buenos Aires, which was a small campus, and also needed a visa process in order to stay for a longer period of time. Part of this frustration is because of the fact that he felt the options given to him were limited and rather unrealistic, given that he could go to any campus, as long as he did not need a visa.
For many Latin American students, as mentioned in the case of Gabriel and mine as well, our nationalities would bind us to stay in our home countries given the fact that we would need visas for virtually any place NYU had a campus in. Many of these situations that affect students based on where they are located are often out of any institutions’ hands, but as Gabriel continued to note, it seemed as though there was more of an emphasis on getting students back, and not helping those who could not return for more options regarding classes or further explanations as to why they could not pursue other options.
Rodrigo Reyes – Class of 2022: Embassies and Flight Options
For other students, returning to Shanghai was a reality after many hurdles and difficulties in their way. Rodrigo Reyes, a junior at NYUSH was able to have his visa issued after weeks of uncertainty and apparent change of plans from the embassy in Mexico City. He states that “My embassy was not responding to emails and they never notified those who were trying to issue the visa that they resumed the issuing. Then, the embassy had a list of places that were approved for COVID testing nationwide, but it was my job to look for every single one and ask for information regarding if they were close to the city I live in, whether or not they did the double testing (IgM and PCR), and on top of that if they could have the results in 24 hours. I cannot say this is a duty that the embassy should or should not be responsible for; nonetheless, it was a process that was incredibly time-consuming.” Given the amount of changes that were happening at a very fast pace, it is no surprise that many students had to go through painstaking processes mostly on their own in order to get back to Shanghai safely. According to Rodrigo, the help given by Student Mobility was very effective, as they monitored every step of the process in order to see how they could help. Even though he went through many hurdles, including an extended period of self-monitoring given he had contact with an infected person in his flight, he states that it was worth it.
However, it is safe to say that uncertainty still lies in everyone’s conscious, given that even though Rodrigo was able to get back, next semester is still a big question mark given that “living expenses [are] much higher this semester given the extra requirements, like paying for the hotel for the two-week quarantine (about 1k dollars, the many testings for COVID which cost around 400 dollars) and the unusually pricey flights to Shanghai, it is likely that I will not be able to return home this summer. Additionally, leaving Shanghai over the summer or even next semester could potentially mean I might not get another visa to return to China.” For other students, the process was also painstaking, and decisions were taken in a rather rushed way given the rapidly changing circumstances.
Will Howard- Class of 2023: Decisions on Coming Back to Shanghai
Will Howard, a sophomore at NYUSH who also decided to go back to Shanghai states that this decision was taken mainly because of a conversation he had with Dean Pe, where he decided to leave in a flight that other students were taking in order to get back. Very much like Zineb, (a student whose story will appear later in this article), he wanted to be able to take the chance (however risky it may be to some) to go back to the experience and life he wanted to live since he started at NYUSH, reuniting with some of his friends, and being able to enjoy the experience if he could. This decision did cause his family to be quite puzzled, but nevertheless supportive of his decision. Although it is a bit tough to tell from a quarantine hotel at the moment, for Will it was the right choice and he feels it was the best decision for him to take.
The hardest part of the process was the length of the trip, which went from New Jersey to Denmark to Shanghai, which took about 48 hours. The layover in Cophenagen was both lengthy and tough, given that the Health Declaration form had to be reviewed by the embassy in a timely manner. He feels that information could have been more accessible and that some aspects were left unanswered by emails, and sadly most of the information Will got was through group chats other than other more “official” means. This led to complications given that things moved so quickly; he felt the school could have been a bit more direct and clear, other than referring from other emails or forms that were hard to find. The trip itself is difficult, especially if students would take connecting flights, because that would mean extra testing and a nerve wrecking waiting period between these flights.
Zineb Dasdafaa-Class of 2023: Difficult Decisions and Sacrifices
Every single experience is very personal and also difficult to generalize. Zineb Dardafaa, a sophomore at NYUSH wanted to be able to come back to Shanghai for what many of us chose to attend to when we applied, which was to be part of a body of students who interacted with each other and with the faculty itself, who lived in a city that offered an array of opportunities and experiences. Even after spending just a semester online, she was sure that she wanted to go back, given that although it was comforting to have our families close to us, this is a time to be in an environment of studying, and of university life that many have been deprived of around the world. This decision for many students and even parents is one that may cause different opinions, as Zineb points out. When she took this decision to go back, her parents were very aware of the time differences and the difficulties she was going through both physically and mentally in order to cope with the demands of her classes. Zineb also cought COVID while being back home, and felt that the support of her family made things easier compared to being in another country. When it came to obstacles, it seems that Zineb was encountering many, especially when it came to finding flights. There were a lot of constraints to be respected, such as testing in the countries she would land in, and finding laboratories within airports that would be accepted by the Chinese government. She felt that one of the hardest parts was to find the flights, especially due to her citizenship constraints. She tried to minimize the length of her trip, even though she ended up travelling for about five days, which was the shortest time period she could find. She felt that there were sometimes difficulties in having effective communication with the school when it came to finding flights; however, she recognizes that while each person’s circumstance and experiences are extremely different, it was understandable that the school had to have some difficulty in accommodating every student. Despite this remark, she really appreciated the effort that was made to get the international students back into the country (considering NYUSH students were the only international students who were allowed to get back into China).
When asked about any advice she could give to the students who are currently having difficulties with this decision, Zineb feels that her experience can hopefully be of help to other students who are or will be going through in the near future. Her advice would be to be sure if students would like to come back for the right reasons “not because you saw stories of people coming into clubs, or because you saw stories of Shanghai that looked pretty.” The process to come back is a fight against a lot of hardships and unexpected turn of events, Zineb continues, so it has to be a conscious effort in order to feel that it is the best option for you as an individual. The issues you could face include the health codes and the possibility of them being denied, or a certain problem coming up that is essentially out of your control in the end. She encountered surprises where tests would come back positive for the Immunoglobulin tests, and negative for the PCR tests, so she had to go to a hospital and endure 7 days of extra testing (given that people who have had COVID before go through a different process). As she looks back at these experiences now, she feels that both strength and resilience are what helped her keep trying to go back to China. As a community, other students feel that by sharing their personal experiences, they would help others avoid certain situations and feel that they are not alone in this whole process. Although at times it all seems a little too much to handle, Zineb is one of the many examples of how resilience and strength go a long way when it comes to pursuing certain goals.
These students all share a common struggle, which meant that their decisions came in hand with the responsibility of bearing immense amounts of stress and paperwork in order to return to Shanghai. Other people have had to take painful decisions to stay back for various reasons, which in the end are all understandable given the precarious situations many of us face at the moment. It is inspiring to hear of such resilience from many students who decided to take an enormous risk to be reunited with their community, and there is no doubt that it takes a lot of work and patience in order to make this work. For many, this decision might be too risky or isn’t supported by families who fear the risks, which is as well, a valid option depending on many factors. These experiences should also show us that while the world is often finding new ways to adapt and improvise, so should we as a community. Both students and faculty have found certain mistakes and improvements to be made, which has shown that adaptability and patience are key factors that have helped us as a community to thrive. Although a lot has to be done in order to return to reality, it is crucial to understand that because all experiences are incredibly different, we should seek to take the decision that best suits us based on many factors. Our situations are particular, and should be treated as such.
This article was written by Camila Matamoros currently based in Bogota, Colombia. Please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch.
Photo Credit: NYUSH Twitter Account