Starting the year as an international student amid COVID-19

Illustration of international students hanging out in a "cloud" that's connecting their countries.
Armaan Mumtaz/Staff

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Exactly a year ago was my move-in day. I was standing in front of Beverly Cleary Hall, hugging my father one last time, crying. It was bittersweet — although I had dreamed of this moment for years, the thought of not seeing my family for a long time tore at my heart.

For an international student from Japan who had set foot in the United States only once before, this great transition was a challenge every day.

Not only did I barely have any friends on campus upon my arrival, but also, everything — the language, food, lifestyle, currency — was new to me. As the days went by, though, and thanks to the luck that I found in roommates, orientation and classes, by the end of the semester, I found my favorite people to try out different boba shops with.

If I were a new student in fall 2020, though, my experience would have looked a lot different.

Because of the increase in COVID-19 cases in the United States, UC Berkeley’s fall semester will start with remote instruction, and various in-person events, including orientation, have transitioned online. For international students, travel bans, coupled with Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s recent decision to block new international students from entering the country to pursue fully online course loads, have made it unrealistic for many to start a new chapter in person at UC Berkeley.

On top of the initial hardships that incoming international students normally go through, there will be several additional challenges that they should expect this semester.

UC Berkeley gathers students from across the globe, and their scattered locations pose a great challenge when it comes to remote instruction. With the exception of a select few who live in time zones similar to the United States’, many students will have to take online classes with hours of time difference — in some cases, almost half a day. Students will have to stay up very late at night for discussions, but alternatives are not ideal either. Watching lecture recordings later can be a less-than-perfect option, as students may miss out on the “synchronous” parts of lectures, such as interactions with other students and chances to ask professors questions.

Incoming students may be most disappointed by the loss of the campus experience. For international students, myself included, the location of our education is important. Attending college in the United States is a dream for many international students. The style of teaching, the culture and everyday interactions outside of classes are all essential parts of a college life that many signed up for.

Despite all the expected hardships and pessimism, many of these students, especially ones who are reading this article, will start their very first semester this fall. So instead of lamenting this unfortunate situation, what can you do to make your first semester in college better?

The keyword here is “network.” Even from the other side of the world, you can bring this unsavory online experience to life by connecting with peers.

One thing you can do is to first look at classes that fit the schedule of your location. If you have a choice, it is never a bad decision to choose classes that you can attend on time. Taking advantage of office hours scheduled for students in different time zones will also help you stay updated and give you the chance to ask questions. If you have any classmates in a similar time zone, you can also connect with them to share information and make study groups.

Semester in the Cloud, newly designed online instruction offered in select courses, is also useful for international students. Thanks to the course design and trained instructors,  these classes are able to better accommodate students in different parts of the world.

Lastly, by turning to social media, courses such as Berkeley Connect and various online events hosted by student organizations, you can make friends online, which might help not only this semester, but also when you finally arrive in Berkeley. Though this way of connecting with others may be a bit untraditional, stepping out of our comfort zones is probably what we need amid the continuing fight against COVID-19.

Fall 2020 will be an uneasy semester, especially if you’re an incoming international student. But you should be prouder than ever to start not only as a UC Berkeley student, but also as an international student. And remember that at the end of this long fight — though we are unsure how long it will last — there awaits the college life that you always imagined.

Contact Eriko Yamakuma at [email protected].