Alone Together

How Wheaton’s international students found community on an abandoned campus

By Grace Kenyon
October 10, 2020
Top (from left to right): Yeting Li '23, Meiran Liu '20, Harmony Zimmerman '22, Adele Yang '20, Angel Lin '23, Yashi Jiang '23. Bottom (from left to right): Zhenyu Han '23, Arthur Ren '23, Orey Xia '23, Alex Cao '23. Chinese international students who stayed on campus celebrated a birthday potluck over the summer. (Photo by Harmony Zimmerman)

When Wheaton College suspended in-person classes last March, international students were presented with an impossible choice: fly home immediately and risk not being able to return to the States, or spend the foreseeable future in Wheaton. That’s how psychology major Olivia Kusuma ‘20, an international student  from Indonesia, ended up spending the second half of spring semester and all summer with a fellow Wheatie and a host family with four young sons in Warrenville. 


As just one of the many international Wheaties who found themselves with unexpected living situations during the COVID-19 pandemic, Kusuma recalls some of the more memorable times she spent with her host family. “The dad and the oldest hunt,” she said, “and so one day there was a rabbit that ran in our backyard and he took out his gun and shot it and then he skinned it right away and we had it for dinner.” The family took her hiking and swimming in Wisconsin. She learned how to garden. Despite these experiences and the generosity of her host family, Kusuma said that for international students it was still a difficult summer. 

Olivia Kusuma '20 and Maggie Tan '22 with their host brothers on a weekend hike in the woods in Wisconsin. (Photo by Olivia Kusuma)

When COVID-19 first crept into the headlines, many Wheaton students felt no reason to fear a disease they thought could never touch them. But International Student Programs (ISP) director Jerry Woehr said that a large number of F-1 visa, third-culture kid (TCK) and missionary kid (MK) students—particularly those with family in China, where the virus is thought to have originated—were concerned about the coronavirus long before it landed in the States. 


“They were worried about family,” Woehr said.  “They were worried about friends and home churches. And that was one of the hardest things at that time: trying to rally their peers on campus to care about it, too, because it seemed so far away for so many people.” 


But the virus didn’t stay far away, and that’s when the email came announcing that Wheaton was moving classes online. As the student body scrambled to cram their belongings into suitcases and boxes, some international students packed with little idea of where they were headed. Residence Life granted students with international travel plans more time to move out, but skyrocketing ticket prices and impending travel bans forced many to consider staying in the States. 


Those who planned to stay on campus, a hodgepodge of international students and local Wheaton residents, convened virtually over GroupMe. The large group chat became a space to share resources, organize airport and grocery runs and get in touch with local families willing to host students.


When the shelter-in-place command descended on the weekend of March 21, Residence Life and the ISP office were still hastily arranging housing logistics for international students. With the start of B-quad, students found themselves far from home in a time of uncertainty, juggling new academic and social stressors. Some felt isolated, many felt homesick and all continued to worry about family back home.


“What if it gets really bad in Indonesia?” Kusuma wondered. “Maybe I’ll be safe here, but what if my family is not?”

Karen Bastian '23 (right) Karen Bastian with her cousin and aunt in Savannah, Georgia (Photo by Karen Bastian)

Karen Bastian, a sophomore from India, is simultaneously friendly and candid about the sense of isolation that she felt over the summer. This feeling stemmed from what she called a lack of “cultural belonging.” 


“I felt anxious and culturally lonely,” she said, speaking on a Zoom call from a cozy corner of her dorm, beneath a bunked bed. “Even though I have friends from other races and other cultures, I couldn’t really find a sense of belonging. Since it was my first year — it’s not like I’ve stayed in the United States before — I really needed some emotional support, a sense of belonging, and a sense of the same wavelength of understanding,” she said. A brief respite from this loneliness came when she visited her aunt in North Carolina, but returning to campus brought back a “depressing note” which she described as a “where do you go now?” feeling.


Junior Yashi Jiang spent the last seven school years studying in the U.S. Between semesters, she would often return to her home in China. As a result, she said she didn’t struggle with homesickness as much as some of her fellow international students. She was more worried about travel logistics later in the year.


“This is my first time staying here for so long, and it’s still really uncertain to me whether I really get to go home,” she said. “Is it financially reasonable to go home either for Christmas or summer? I even worry that the border will be closed. I can’t really come back and have the in-person experiences [once I leave the U.S.].”


Besides watching the occasional train roar past, Zhenyu Han, a sophomore from China, had little contact with the outside world while he was staying in his College Ave. apartment. Although there were other quarantined students just across the parking lot, he admits that he didn’t have much desire to seek out the company of others in the initial days of quarantine. “I think I forgot how to talk,” he said. 


Despite intense loneliness and prolonged isolation, junior Harmony Zimmerman, an MK from China, said that she felt as if her experiences living between cultures had somewhat prepared her for the unexpected. “I think international students, or at least MKs in general, are pretty resilient,” Zimmerman said, “because they’ve grown up moving around, saying goodbye to people and not knowing when you’ll see them next.”


ISP worked with other Wheaton departments to handle housing and meal logistics for international students, and Woehr said he was particularly grateful for the help from Residence Life, who had to bend over backwards to provide housing and moving help throughout the summer


“The community rallied around the students in the best way that we could and in creative ways,” Woehr said. Throughout quarantine, personalized notes with single-serving pizzas or Los Burritos appeared on doorsteps. When Easter arrived, the Alumni Office provided care packages with candy-filled eggs and more notes of encouragement.

ISP recorded 48 students living on campus during B-quad. Of the 17 who stayed for the summer, many had a connection to China, and Woehr’s face lit up when he described the “mini-neighborhood” these students formed while living in Wheaton’s College Ave. apartments.


“They celebrated each others’ birthdays,” Woehr said. “They would have meals outside together because they were basically living together, so they could safely be a pod that was able to be with each other.” Zimmerman helped lead regular worship nights in Mandarin Chinese with a borrowed keyboard. She also recalled scaling the fence between the apartments and Joe Bean Stadium at 4 a.m. to play soccer beneath the hazy Chicagoland sky during the coolest part of the night, a small act of rebellion against the monotony of quarantine.

International students who are staying on-campus and the Wheaton area posed on the staircase of the College Ave. apartments after a birthday potluck. In frame: Alex Cao'23, Arthur Ren '23, John Chu '19, Sarah Lam '21, David Pineda Reyes '22, Yashi Jian '22, Meiran Liu '20, Ada Yuan '22, Zhenyu Han '23, Orey Xia '23, Lucinda Huang '20, Angel Lin '23, Harmony Zimmerman '22, Yeting Li '23 (Photo by Harmony Zimmerman)

Despite their distance from loved ones and their isolation on campus, students were regularly reminded of the chaos and hurt that had enveloped the world, America included. Stranded in a country shaken by a global pandemic and racial injustice, some international students took quarantine as a chance to learn and listen to stories they wouldn’t otherwise get to hear.


“This summer, there were so many social issues that happened in the States that really brought my attention to try to listen to more voices from different backgrounds,” Jiang said. “I really appreciate that.”

Other students mentioned how being far from home allowed them to remember what brought them to the States for college in the first place.


“I’m far away from [my family] but the whole reason I’m here is to take care of them later,” said David Pineda Reyes, a junior from Honduras. “And they continue to be a big part of my life once I’m out of college and out in the world.”

Despite F-1 visa delays and travel bans, 68 out of 81 incoming international students arrived for in-person classes this semester. The remainder are studying remotely or have deferred their admission. “It’s a miraculous occurrence,” Woehr says. 


Han added that the time in quarantine and the community he found in his fellow College Ave. residents was a reminder to be grateful for the people around him and get to know them. He  spent some of his extra free time reading scripture and developing a more nuanced perspective on those difficult days. “Before this summer,” Hand said, “I had a lot of plans, but now I feel like maybe God has a better plan for me.”

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