When the pandemic struck university campuses around the world closed, forcing students to choose whether to return home early if they were able.

For international students the decision was way more complicated and, in some cases, risky. Foreign students were left with limited support and many doubts.

Those interviewed in this article will tell you more about their current lives and reveal you can still stay positive, even in the hardest times

“I  have fallen in love with LA and wasn’t ready to leave at the drop of a hat”

Sarah Feil, 20, from Bedfordshire, UK
Sarah Feil

The geology student confirms that even though she misses her family, she’s glad she opted to stay away from home. Staying in Los Angeles makes life easier as Sarah won’t have to deal with an eight-hour time gap between England and the US during UCLA online classes.

Besides, being in LA allows her to meet with friends while staying “six feet apart” or talk on the phone with “best mates” in the same time zone.

Sarah says: “I’m still loving life in LA, the weather is way better than it is in the UK.” She celebrates the accomplishment of getting an internship in the US during the summer. She says something that has surprised her is how the sense of community has increased due to the pandemic. She says: “I’m speaking to my family more than I did before!”

“I feel like I’ve challenged myself and grown up a lot”

Esmé Finders, 21, from Croydon, UK
Esmé Finders

In the middle of March, French and sociology student Esmé Finders saw many of  her university friends and co-workers panic and leave France as soon as they could.

Esmé is part of a study-abroad programme that’s mandatory for her University of Liverpool course. She was supposed to live in Clermont-Ferrand, a town in Auvergne, while working in a local school.

When people around her started to pack, Esmé tells me she wasn’t feeling ready to abandon her life so suddenly.  There were many reasons for her to stay besides her desires, such as her father’s health condition, work contract and her tenancy that was agreed until 30 June.

Esmé was working in three schools before the French government announced they should all close to stop the spread of coronavirus. As everything was so unexpected, she didn’t have the opportunity to say goodbye to some of her students. 

Although she misses her loved ones in England, Esmé doesn’t regret her decision to postpone her return to the UK. On the contrary, she has found a value on staying alone.

She says: “I feel like I’ve challenged myself and grown up a lot by being responsible for myself out here and making it work. I am loving my independence”.

Esmé has also found more time to follow her own interests and to do the things that matter to her. Most of all, Esme has found herself amazed by how she feels about France. She says: “In the end, I feel comfortable in France. It has made me appreciate this country a lot!”

“I’ve found myself adapting to a ‘no-routine’ routine, like every day is different”

Karl Mark, 20, from Hong Kong 
Karl Mark, 20, from Hong Kong 

Karl is an undergraduate international student at the University of Birmingham. He moved from Hong Kong to the UK in an attempt to get a music degree. However, his last year was interrupted by the pandemic.

When things started to get bad in the UK, Karl had to choose between a long flight home or staying. He chose to stay. For him, that decision would be the best for his career.

He tells me he was uncertain he would be able to finish his degree away as travel policies could change between the two countries and he was afraid of not being allowed back. 

He also points out the slow response from the university made him insecure about leaving. The closeness of Hong Kong with China was also a major concern. 

He believes staying has been good for him. Regarding his plans, Karl says he was expecting to graduate happily with a ceremony but that has been cancelled.

He says: “In reality, things ended abruptly and, to be honest, I don’t think I’ll see my course mates again. We did say goodbye, but only online.” Karl says he is coping well with the situation and is creating his own routine according to his needs and desires. There’s no schedule any more but plenty of inspiration. As a music student, Karl is using the free time to write and produce new songs.

“When I came to say goodbye to him we decided we were going to stay here, so we changed status from dating to living together”

Raffaela Iuliano, 20, Rome, Italy
Raffaela Iuliano, 20, from Rome

Raffaela is an anthropology student from UCL, London, who went to UCLA in 2019 for a year abroad. Many of her plans went down the hole such as trips around the country and her social life on campus.

However, Raffaela was surprised at being able to find a new way to enjoy her exchange – moving from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara in a house with other students and her new boyfriend.

When things went chaotic in Italy, she worried about her family and couldn’t decide whether to stay or leave. In the end she said goodbye to all her exchange friends, which made things harder for her.

Although she misses her family, Raffaela feels returning to Italy might have been risky for her own health and that of her relatives. They all live together in an apartment in Rome so she wouldn’t be able to isolate from them once she arrived. She says: “At least being here, I know they are ok.” 

Even with all the difficulties, Raffaela admits she feels lucky compared with most people affected by the pandemic. She lives near the ocean and goes for walks every day. Her love life was affected by the outbreak and she went from dating someone to living together.

Although she was scared at first of breaking up because of all the time together, she says: “I thought the quarantine would make us go crazy and we would get on each other’s nerves. Actually, it brought us together.”

“The border to home is closed, they weren’t allowing anyone into the country so I had no choice but to stay in the UK”

Kassim Kassim, 21, Kenya, Qatar 
Kassim Kassim, 21, Kenya, Qatar

After three years living in Liverpool, Kassim had adapted to life with friends and his study routine for a major in aerospace engineering. However, when restrictions became harsher, his life changed.

All classes went online and the campus became empty. Kassim couldn’t return home as the borders were closed and he had to stay in the UK. He moved to Manchester where he now lives with his brother, a decision that helps him feel less homesick.

However, he says it is especially hard at the moment because of Ramadan, a time he usually spends with his family. For him, the positive side of this situation is at least he has been able to self-isolate, reducing the risk of spreading any virus to his parents.

For Kassim, this time has taught him a valuable lesson, to understand what are the important things in life such as health, family and friends. He has also started to perceive life differently.

He says: “I’ve been surprised by how things we thought were so important have become meaningless and we now realise there are definitely more important things.”

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