COVID: International Student Reflects on Recent ICE Decision

by Sonja Robinson

July 7, 2020


Let me start by saying that I hate writing about myself in any capacity. I love flying under the radar, and would for the most past rather sit back, watch and learn. However, with everything that has been happening recently (COVID-19, social unrest/racial injustice) I have found myself needing to get involved, to speak out. Therefore, when approached with the opportunity to share my experiences as an international student, and how the recent decision by ICE impacts me, I agreed.

In 2016, I made the decision to pursue my Ph.D. and afforded a place in University with the United States. I was thrilled but then started the process of applying for a student visa, ensuring that I had sufficient funds to cover (mandated) tuition, housing, books, food, health insurance (also mandated), and any and all miscellaneous expenses. This amounted to $54,000 USD for 5 years. With an exchange rate of JMD, $125 to USD $1 in August 2016 translated to roughly $6,750,000 JMD. I was not able to secure funding for my first year but because I saw this as an investment in my future I moved forward with my plans. I secured an apartment and made arrangements to move in upon my arrival to the States. I sold my car and requested a leave of absence from a job as a teacher at a local community college in Jamaica.

In August 2016, I entered the US via Newark airport with plans to move into my new apartment and attend new student orientation. After a week of buying items I would need for school and my apartment, I made the journey from New Jersey to Pennsylvania with my cousin, her husband, and her youngest child. When I got to the apartment that night I was horrified, the pictures on the website were not what was as advertised. When I spoke with the housing manager, I was told it just needed to be ‘cleaned’. I asked why that ‘cleaning’ had not been done before my arrival and was never given a response. Had my cousin and her husband not been with me, I would not have known I had the option of getting out of my lease. With this new development, I now had to find somewhere else to live, which happily I was able to however the new apartment was more expensive than the first. My first year’s tuition was roughly $26,000, the cost of housing was $14,400, all of which ate into the $54,000 that was allotted for the five years of study. Luckily, my mother allowed me to use her house in Jamaica as collateral to secure a loan to the shortfall, which allowed me to continue with my studies. In addition, during that first year, I worked as a part-time (with permission from the international student office) as a part-time reservation agent, and then a part-time assistant. That first year was hard, I spent most of my time when not in a class, at home. I was isolated. Whenever I could I made the journey to New Jersey.

At the beginning of my secure year, I was able to secure partial funding which certainly made life easier. The years passed and I am now entering my fifth year. The journey has been filled with many highs and lows. Highs: I have and continue to learn from experts in my area of study. I have done well academically, securing all As’ in every course, I have taken. Lows: I spent an entire semester in a class where the teacher called me Sondra even though I repeatedly told him my name, I have been told that my accent is exotic, asked to speak Jamaican, or asked to repeat because your accent is too strong (I am a native English speaker), and I am in debt (being broke and owing money is not unique to international students).

Please note, I am not sharing my story to gain sympathy. I am sharing this so you can understand what most international students face when coming to a foreign country. I recognize that I have been fortunate that I unlike so many international students who decide to come to the United States I had family who lived here albeit 4 hours away. I have been able to go home and visit my family. Many international students have not seen their families in years. Either because they cannot afford the airfare or because of restrictions imposed upon them.

Recently, an announcement was made by ICE. And it made me wonder, why now? Why not extend the exemptions they made when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit? As far as I am aware, the pandemic is still raging especially here in the United States.

How will this decision impact the thousands of incoming international students who would have spent funds to come to the United States to pursue an education? Many of them along with their families have already spent money, left their jobs, bought their tickets, paid security deposits on apartments, and secured positions within their new Universities.

What about international students like myself who are here and wondering what this news means for us? Some may say, well your University is still offering face to face or hybrid so you are not affected. That doesn’t matter to me because that may change, and then what? I will be faced with the same question. Some may say just go home and for some of us, that is possible. However, for many, it is not that simple. Studying online has many challenges. What if you or your country does not have access to the necessary resources to study online? An unstable WiFi network for example? How will time zones impact one’s ability to participate in online classes? Will you still have access to University resources? For those who would have to be graduate assistants, teaching assistants, research assistants, or would be interning how does impact your studies, and ability to cover some of the costs associated with higher education? Will graduate students who already have had to make adjustments to their research and are in the process of writing their papers to be allowed to stay or do they too have to leave?

For those whose countries were willing to sponsor them, will their government be willing to pay tuition for online courses? Furthermore, many countries still have closed borders….so people can’t go home. What happens to those international students who can’t go home? Are they put in detention centers?

The impact of turning away and/ ejecting international students will be far-reaching. What about the money that Universities earn from international students and by extension those who do business with them? At a time when schools are losing money. How will they recuperate those funds? How many will lose their jobs (adding to an already burgeoning unemployment record)?

Lastly, coming to a place that is culturally different from your own is not easy. This decision is not made lightly. For many, if not all, this is an investment in our future. To live somewhere where people don’t always look like you, speak the same language as you, have the same beliefs or values as you. Many are cut off from home, family, and friends while studying here. It is hard, it is a sacrifice. Why make it harder? Why now?

Spotlight: Coronavirus and the Class of 2020

by Jazelle Hunt

May 3, 2020


The COVID-19 pandemic has been an ordeal of historic proportions. On a collective level, national economies are tanking, public health care is hanging on by a thread, and morale is buckling under the weight. And on a personal level, people are struggling with challenges as small as waiting longer for packages, and as devastating as losing loved ones and not being able to say goodbye.

The class of 2020 is simultaneously feeling a unique kind of grief. On top of aforementioned challenges, the pandemic has stolen milestones and rites of passage for anyone graduating from middle, secondary, or post-secondary school, as well as those earning doctorates this year. What should have been some of the best moments of these students’ lives have been cancelled outright or replaced with virtual meetings, makeshift festivities, and fights over refunds.

Here’s how it all feels to Jayla C., an 18 year-old high school senior in New Jersey.


Q: What were you looking forward to most in your senior year?

A: I couldn’t wait to do prom. Since I was in eighth grade, prom was always a topic in my mind. And graduation pictures, I picked my whole outfit out. That was a fun experience because me and Mom went to Kmart and got a cute outfit I really do love. Picture day was a really good day, I can say. Because everyone was feeling themselves and everyone was bigging each other up. Homecoming was fun because I went with my old friend.

I’m not sure if I’m going to have a graduation. I’m probably going to get my diploma in the mail and go to school to get the rest of my belongings.


Q: Why were those celebrations in particular important to you?

A: I feel like prom is a day every girl dreams of, when you’re about to go to college. Like, today I can glam up and wear any dress in the world that I ever dreamt of wearing and look absolutely beautiful, and take bomb pictures, probably go viral. And have a great experience, and have fun with my classmates. Even though we’re not feeling each other we can still enjoy each other’s company because this is a day that we all looked forward to together.

Graduation — that’s my farewell. It’s just like wow, OK, this is the day I realize I’m really on to the next chapter of my life, and I can’t wait. Even though I’m scared, all of this hard work paid off and turned out to be worth it, because it let me walk across the stage.

Q: What are your thoughts on making that transition without the celebrations?

A: It makes me feel bummed out. I try not to think of that, or not to think of it negatively. I try to think about it as a great thing because in the future I can make up for those things in different ways. But honestly, it does bum me out. I want to be able to talk about my prom, I want to be able to say, “yeah my prom night I was able to do this and this and that, and this is how I looked,” and show people. It sucks I can’t do that.

Q: How has distance learning been for you?

A: I feel like the teachers are only doing it for a paycheck, so they’re sending work because they’re supposed to send it. So it’s not like, “OK, I’m going to stop sending work to you guys for today because I know this is a lot of stress right now.” No, they just keep sending us work. I’m sitting at the table for six or seven hours straight because I need to finish all this work in one sitting. In the Zoom meetings, barely any of my classmates come in, as well as the teachers sit on Zoom and reiterate everything in a circle.

Then some of my [classmates] wouldn’t even log in to Google Classroom. You’re pushing because you want to graduate, but you’re not doing the work to graduate. And it’s unfair to the students who are doing their work and busting their a—es every day.


Q: What’s the biggest change you’ve noticed in yourself since the stay-at-home order?

A: Physically, I’ve lost weight and I’m actually really happy about it. Mentally, I’ve gotten a lot more spiritual and I never thought I could get to a place of believing in God and actually connecting and building a relationship with him. I’m able to be more positive with myself, my surroundings, and the people I love. I’m finding ways to communicate my emotions more [instead of] suppressing them.

Q: Do you think this would be happening with you anyway, or does the shutdown have anything to do with it?

A: This time actually has expedited and increased my growth way more because I have more time to myself as well as focusing on what’s important — which is finishing my school work so I can be done with school, doing things that make me happy, and being around my family.

Q: How are you and your friends helping each other through it?

A: We are checking up on each other. We crack jokes on each other to make each other laugh. We send funny IG posts to make each other laugh. We say, “I miss you” and “I can’t wait to see you again!”



Q: What would you like to say to people who are not part of the class of 2020?

A: Your jokes are not funny. I don’t like them, they actually upset me and they hurt me. I understand everyone is in a depressive state right now and you’re trying to poke fun and make light of it, but there’s no light in a situation that’s so serious. We all as a whole class, the class of 2020, we were all looking forward to special events and now we can’t have that. It’s not funny to graduate online. You can’t graduate on Google Classroom. Be a little more considerate.

Q: How can people support you all?

A: Reach out to people you know are in the class of 2020. Check on them daily. Help them with their school work because transforming from a classroom, where we got little to no work — to now, we’re home and our school is being insensitive right now and sending a bunch of work and not taking into consideration that this is too much all at once — you should help them with their homework. Be there, show up.

Q: How can people celebrate the class of 2020 without putting themselves in danger?

A: You can send college packages to them. A lot of families are not working, they’re unemployed. So packages are definitely a go, so their parents don’t have to worry about them having to find money from anywhere and give them the things they need for college. Or if they have college expenses, send them some money. (Editor’s Note: here’s Jayla’s Back to School wish list!)

Q: Anything else you’d like to say to folks outside the class of 2020?

A: Some teachers do reach out to make sure their students are doing good, they check on us. I don’t really have advice [on improving distance learning]. The communication they’re doing is pretty OK. But I’d like them to be more considerate, more lenient on the due dates. We have to meet each other halfway to get everything done in a successful manner.

I can’t blame anyone or anything for [COVID-19], we just all have to do our part as a united people, and just listen. Be considerate of everyone else instead of always being selfish. Do what you’re supposed to do.



Q: What is your advice to your classmates around the country and world?

A: We have to keep our heads up. Don’t just think of it as, “I’m stuck in this house, I don’t know what to do.” Think of it as, “I have so much I can get done for myself that I can walk out this house and be a whole different person, and actually be in love with the person I found, being in this house for so long.”

Don’t waste this time. Really be productive, be on top yourself. Do things you love. There’s more to life than video games, TV, Instagram. This is a time for growing and cleansing! Use all the time you can before all the time is up and you’re back rushing into your old life, or a new life that you weren’t ready for.

Q: Anything else you’d like to say to the Class of 2020?

A: Turn up! Still be cautious, but turn up!