International Students Are Further From Home Than Ever

Students face strict international COVID-19 travel policies in Asia and increasing uncertainty of when they will return home next.

By Sabrina Chang

As travel restrictions and quarantine guidelines continue to change according to COVID-19 conditions around the world, international students are finding it difficult to return home over breaks. 

Leo Park is a first-year from Seoul, South Korea. 

Being an international student usually means seeing your family less often than your peers. Park was no exception, as he was unable to return home for Thanksgiving due to the short length of winter break. “[The transition] was alright, but I did get homesick in the middle of autumn quarter,” Park said. “It’s ironic though, because being swamped in work made me kind of forget about it.” 

Park was able to fly back to Seoul for winter break but experienced first-hand how unpredictable travel policies could be. “Seoul started the 10-day quarantine [mandate] a week before my flight there, so I didn’t have time to change my plans,” Park said. “If we didn’t have the extra three weeks [due to remote classes], it would have taken up most of my break.” However, travelers did have the option to self-quarantine at home, so Park still felt some sense of normality. 

In Seoul, restaurants were only allowed to seat tables of up to four people. “I was still able to meet up with old friends, but it was definitely harder to organize gatherings because of the strict policies,” Park said. 

Despite missing his family, high school friends, and “actual good food,” Park is grateful for the friends he made at UChicago and hopes to return to Seoul over the summer.

Amelia Gibbs is a first-year from Taipei, Taiwan.

Gibbs has not been able to return to Taipei since she left last June. The current travel policies state that fully vaccinated travelers arriving in Taipei must quarantine in a quarantine hotel or group facility that they book beforehand and pay for out of pocket for seven days and then at home for another seven days. 

The long quarantine period made Gibbs decide it was not worth it to fly back for winter break. “I was still able to see some of my family in San Francisco over the break, but I don’t really consider it home. I consider Taipei my home,” Gibbs said. “I definitely miss it—the food, public transportation, friends and family, literally everything.” 

The recent celebration of Lunar New Year, a holiday where families come together, made Gibbs especially homesick. “I normally get to see all of my extended family, like my little cousins, which makes it really fun, and of course the food is always good too,” Gibbs said. “I was sad that I missed out on all the traditions.” 

However, the international community at UChicago was able to fill some of this void for Gibbs. “[The community] is super tight-knit, and it’s nice to meet people who understand your background,” Gibbs said. “It definitely made the transition easier.” 

Gibbs plans to return to Taipei for at least a month this summer and hopes that the travel quarantine policies will loosen up by that time. 

You Li is a second-year from Nanjing, China. 

Despite being a second-year, this is Li’s first year on campus. Like many other students, she attended school remotely from home for the entirety of her first year. “It was hard to adjust to the class times…days seemed longer, and it was almost surreal with no in-person experiences,” Li said. 

Li has not been able to return to Nanjing to see her family since she left last summer. China required two weeks of quarantine in a quarantine hotel, followed by two weeks of quarantine at home, which together was longer than all of winter break. “I’ve never been away from my family for this long, but we video-call often, and I’m also too busy to think about it much,” Li said. 

At UChicago, Li has found comfort through the extensive Chinese student community. “We all met through a big WeChat group chat with over 200 people in it before coming to campus, so September was almost like a big comic con where you see everyone in real life,” Li said. “Our first-year HUMA class was almost all students living in the Asia region because of the time zone, so that’s where I got my first group of friends, and probably the best group of friends.” 

Currently Li is unsure of when she will be back in Nanjing. “It’s hard to plan for the summer and [plane] tickets also sell out really fast, but I’ll definitely go if I get the chance.”