‘Definitely not ideal’: UC Berkeley international students face holiday plan challenges

Photo of students walking on Sproul Plaza wearing masks
Kyle Garcia Takata/Staff
Campus international students are facing difficulties in planning for winter break due to concerns over housing, travel restrictions and the spread of new COVID-19 variants.

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About one year ago, UC Berkeley sophomore Siddhant Satapathy was in southern India, spending his winter break at home in the company of family. To him, the holidays are a break from the business of life and a time of “togetherness.”

This year, however, he won’t be in Bangalore for winter break, but in Berkeley. Plans for his parents to visit him here were scrapped due to pandemic-induced visa appointment wait times. And while he looks forward to celebrating Christmas in the United States, the 10,000 miles between him and his loved ones don’t lift his spirits.

“It’s definitely not ideal to be in another country,” Satapathy said. “I wouldn’t want to say stranded, but with a lot of my friends going back to their homes, that tends to be a little bit lonely.”

Across campus, international students such as Satapathy are facing challenges seeing their families this winter break challenges that most U.S. students wouldn’t face, according to ASUC Senator Elif Sensurucu.

Sensurucu noted that international students like herself must decide whether to leave the country for the holidays as emerging COVID-19 variants and travel restrictions threaten the feasibility of reentering the country. She contended that the Academic Senate has declined to make broad accommodations for international students who leave the country because less than 500 students are impacted.

“International students don’t really know where to turn or who to listen to,” Sensurucu said in an email. “Most of us are worried about getting stuck in our home countries.”

ASUC Senator Amy Chen is one international student who has decided not to go home this winter break. Extended quarantine periods and the expense of airfare were major factors in her decision, she noted.

International students in campus housing who stay in Berkeley must contend with winter break housing closures, Chen added. International students are often ineligible for winter housing programs and are not well-supported by campus in finding off-campus housing, according to Chen.

Berkeley International Office director Ivor Emmanuel said 19 international students have requested emergency housing over winter break due to an inability to travel. Campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore noted that Cal Housing also partners with campus organizations to meet students’ basic needs during winter break.

Emmanuel added that some international students have left campus early due to long quarantine requirements. Others were concerned by high travel costs and the pandemic, he added.

Not all international students face the same barriers, however. Campus sophomore Zaid Maayah said his plans to return to Dubai have not been affected by the pandemic. After challenges with virtual schooling, time zone differences and last year’s holiday celebrations, he is determined to celebrate Christmas with his family this year.

“I do feel like coming back and being grateful for all the support they’ve shown for me in the last two years is the least I can do,” Maayah said. “That connection is very strong to me.”

Contact Gabe Classon at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @GabeClasson.