On the wall-length chalkboard in the International Student Programs (ISP) office located in Lower Beamer, huge letters read “Welcome back!” Below the large letters, smaller names of cities and countries echo the excitement of returning international students.
After a year when F-1 visa students, Third Culture Kids (TCKs), and missionary kids were forced to study abroad, the chalkboard message is hardly the only one to welcome students back to campus. This August, Jerry Woehr, director of ISP and Cheryl Margason, immigration advisor and ISP office coordinator, stocked the ISP closet with welcome gifts of snacks and toiletries for this year’s 91 new international students from as far as South Korea, Romania and Australia. They also saved welcome packages of water bottles and stickers for a few of last year’s 25 new international students who studied remotely and couldn’t receive those packages through international mail.
Woehr and Margason spoke of their excitement when they met sophomore business economics major Eunice Ra, a TCK from South Korea whom they had previously known only through Zoom.
When Margason and Woehr overheard Ra’s name, they jumped at a chance to hand over the package they had been saving for an entire year.
“Being able to welcome Ra in person was such a gift,” said Woehr.
Despite the ISP’s hospitality, a campus welcome has been bittersweet this year for international students still wrestling with the impact of COVID-19 on their home countries. Global disparities in access to vaccines has caused anxiety about family back home and complicated students’ arrivals in the U.S.
“It’s a lot more hoops [international students] have to go through,” second-year grad student Olivia Kusuma said, “compared to here [in the U.S.] where anyone can get vaccinated.” Many international students arrived in the area a month early to get fully vaccinated before school began. Some even brought their families along so everyone could receive a vaccine.
Kusuma, who serves as an ISP graduate assistant and stayed in the U.S. over the summer, said she had been looking forward to an in-person Student Leadership Training week. With off-campus outings allowed again, this August the ISP student leaders watched a minor league baseball game in nearby Aurora.
“We had a lot of fun, and we forgot to think about COVID protocols,” Kusuma said. But later on, the team was reminded that some of the students present weren’t yet fully vaccinated, so they needed to mask and social distance more cautiously.
Woehr said that in general, “The international student body [is] a model of how to follow COVID-19 procedures, because many of us come from places around the world where masks or social distancing during flu season is not uncommon.”
Kusuma hails from Jogja, Indonesia. Located between Thailand and Australia in Southeast Asia, the island country of 270 million was slammed in July by the Delta variant and a lack of access to vaccines. Kusuma said even though countries like Australia and the U.S. donated vaccines, Indonesia lacks healthcare workers to administer them. According to the New York Times, Indonesia has administered 37 doses for every 100 people, while the U.S. has administered 112 doses per 100.
The vaccine most available in Indonesia—Chinese-manufactured Sinovac—has an efficacy rate of 65.9% against COVID-19. Kusuma’s parents received both doses of the Sinovac, but after being trapped in the U.S. this summer due to travel restrictions, they decided to receive an additional shot of the Pfizer vaccine. “They got fully vaccinated twice!” Kusuma said. “They feel safer going back [to Indonesia] now, but obviously [double vaccination] is not accessible for most people back home.”
Esther Yao, a junior psychology major from Taiwan, is back on campus this fall after studying remotely for the 2020-2021 school year. She said of her decision to study remotely: “I just felt like [the campus] wasn’t safe. There were so many complications with not having the vaccine. My mom is a huge worrywart, and [my parents] didn’t feel it was safe for me to leave [Taiwan] yet.”
Yao signed up to receive a vaccine in Taiwan in early January 2021. But when the Delta variant began spreading in June and August, Yao was still waiting. “[Taiwan] ran out,” she said, “because everyone went into panic mode and started getting vaccinated.” Many who got a first dose are still waiting for their second dose four months later. According to sources at the University of Oxford’s Global Change Data Lab, the population of Taiwan is 48% vaccinated with at least one dose, but only 4.5% of the population is fully vaccinated.
With healthcare workers, the immunocompromised, and the elderly still waiting for their second doses, many Taiwanese international students studying in the U.S. and Canada were unable to get vaccinated, said Yao. Even if Yao had been able to get the dosage she joined the waitlist for in Taiwan, the more accessible AstraZeneca vaccine is not FDA approved for use in the United States, although it is on the World Health Organization’s approved list, which Wheaton uses as a basis for vaccination status.
Now things are improving in Taiwan, Yao says, with higher vaccination rates and fewer cases. Businesses are opening. This August, her parents took a walk outside for the first time since lockdown began.
As an American citizen born to Taiwanese parents, senior AHS major Enyi Liu, like Yao, felt the impact of his parents’ concerns about COVID-19. “In Taiwan,” she said, “there is a culture of fear about anything that threatens your health, so my family and my mom are super cautious about COVID-19.”
When Liu went home to California in March 2020, he had to self-isolate in his home. Instead of greeting him with a hug, his family quarantined him for 14 days. Even when his self-isolation period was over, he didn’t see anyone outside of his home.
“I saw my friends through the windows of my house,” he said. “That’s it.” At our interview, Liu sported two masks instead of the usual one.
In May 2021, junior business economic major Karen Bastian traveled home for the first summer since arriving at Wheaton as a freshman in August 2019. She spent her summer in Chennai, India, following lockdown procedures, not leaving her house for over a month. There weren’t many places to go during the height of India’s lockdown: even grocery stores only opened for two or three hours a day, a few times a week.
When she flew back to the States this August, Bastian took extra precautions against COVID. “Traveling is intense,” she said. “My flight was crowded, but I double-masked and had a face visor. I was suffocating.”
Bastian arrived on a campus in a country where debates flared over vaccination, even with a 78% campus vaccination rate. At times, the panic rises and Bastian’s hands shake.
“I feel like most people [in the United States] take the vaccine as a joke,” she said. “Every vaccine conversation gets on my nerves. My people are dying out there!”
As of September 15th, 2021, government data compiled by the Our World in Data Project reports that 13% of India’s population is fully vaccinated.
Woehr said greater access to vaccines in the States “was a relief” because a common question from international students this summer was about vaccine availability and whether the college would assist students in getting vaccinated.
Some students who are not citizens wondered if they would be eligible. “It was really nice to be able to tell them that in this area, anyone can walk in and get a vaccine,” Woehr said. One student’s parents started crying on the phone when admissions told them their child could easily get a vaccine in the U.S.
The Student Health Services vaccination clinic on August 23 also provided easy on-campus access to vaccines, which many international students took advantage of.
One student who arrived two days before the SHS clinic decided not to wait. She got vaccinated between leaving the airport and arriving on campus. “That was the first thing she wanted to do,” Margason said.
“It really is important for the campus community to be aware of [vaccine] disparity across the world,” Woehr said. “It encourages compassion, and it reminds us of the privilege we have in terms of the vaccine and accessibility. Our international students provide a glimpse into that.”
Wheaton College, IL