As a new semester has come, many of our students are reflecting on their long journeys here. UBCO has students from across the globe and for many of our international students, the transition back to campus was long, hard, tedious, and nerve-wracking. For some insight into these experiences, I have chosen to interview Garima Gupta, a 4th-year Anthropology major from India, on her journey back to UBCO.
Luz-Marina Roberts: Do you think that UBC has helped make the transition back to campus easy for you as an international student?
Garima Gupta: Not quite, no, mostly because of the long route I had to take just to be on campus. I took 5 flights and travelled over a week just to get to Canada because direct flights were banned, and they still are until the 26th of September as far as I know. And if you take an indirect route, you must stay in that country, get your test and then go to Canada, or else they won’t let you in.
LR: When did coming back to campus become a concern for you?
GG: I think right when they announced that flights are banned, that’s when it became a concern. When the second wave hit India and flights were banned, I was waiting till August 21st so that they would lift the ban. They already gave out the email saying we would be in person and I thought that that would be enough time because class starts on the 7th of September. But then they extended it for another month about 2 weeks before the ban was supposed to be lifted. That is where things started getting messy because I started hearing things about people travelling through Mexico, The Maldives, and Albania. Albania doesn’t have an Indian embassy so if you are stranded then you are stuck and have no one to help you out.
LR: What barriers did you face in returning to campus?
GG: Because we must take all these routes to get to Canada, students have been spending thousands of dollars to get PCR tests for entry into the country. Not everyone has the money and not every place has the same-day PCR tests available in the airport to make the process quicker. Many countries still have high rates of infection.
I was extremely concerned for my health and also my financial status. What would happen after spending so much? Will it be worth it? Or would they just switch back online? That was my biggest concern. If I was going to spend so much money and travel for a week- why would I do that to just be sitting in my apartment? I can do that in India as well. Imagine if you do test positive in transit- what happens?
Luckily, I got vaccinated before I travelled, but even for that, I had a lot of issues getting it. I got tested positive earlier this year and the Indian government said you must wait 3 months before getting your vaccine. I had to first take medical tests and then they gave me the vaccine. Then after that, I had to get special permission from the government because the mandatory gap between the two doses was approximately 3 months. I was able to get through because I told them I had to travel, but just to go through all that, it was expensive, from travelling to different government offices, staying there, filling out applications, just to come here to sit in my room. And that is where I am really mad about it- UBC not taking it seriously. Consider that other countries are still struggling and so many vaccines are not accepted. Consider international politics if you are an international university.
LR: Do you feel impacted academically by this transition back to campus?
GG: Yeah, I used to at least get a few days to move in and settle into my apartment and then start my studies. While I was in transit I was just studying and catching up on readings while I was switching time zones, sleep-deprived, stressed, and full of anxiety. Then when I came back here, I had to deal with my body clock not being adjusted, sleeping through classes in the morning because I couldn’t stay awake, and then I had to individually email my professors to update them on my situation and ask for extensions because I wasn’t there for the first week. Now all I do is sit in my room, finish my assignments and complete my readings so that I can catch up and it is almost midterm season. On top of that, I am a scholarship student and if I do not maintain my average, I lose my funding to study. So, dealing with that while missing a week’s worth of class- it’s not worth it.
LR: Many UBCO students are struggling given the housing crisis. Some are couch hopping, others are stuck with less than favourable accommodations, and some could not even return to campus. Were you affected by the housing crisis? Was it difficult for you to find a place to stay?
GG: Oh yeah, just like other students I first started hunting for apartments in July, and back then I remember on the Kelowna Off-Campus Housing page on Facebook, within hours the place would be sold after posting. I was looking at the page every day and few people would respond. Even the smallest spaces were over $1000.00. That made me question whether to go back. Luckily, I knew someone I was previously going to rent with before in 2020 and I was able to get through, or else I would have been stuck. In the summer of 2020, the listings back then were as low as $750 on Academy Hill, and then I checked back this year and it was for over $1000.00 plus utilities and sometimes even insurance. I think financially I was definitely impacted because when I told my parents, it was a significant price jump, especially given the fluctuations in exchange rates. If I had not known someone, I probably would have been couch hopping or would not have even made it here. Looking for housing from a different country is hard. All you have to go off of is pictures, which can be very deceiving.
LR: UBCO, shortly before the start of the semester, announced that some faculties will go entirely online, and other faculties were given the suggestion to go online until October 15th. How did you feel about this announcement?
GG: I was angry and frustrated because I already booked my flight, paid rent and signed my contract and a week later, I found that out. If UBC had planned better, I would have saved myself the mental and financial damage of this trip. It is not easy to pick up your stuff and leave for 9 months. You have to plan it, you have to see where you are going to stay, you have to make sure that your family at home knows where you are. They have to feel content that the place that you are going to is safe and that you will reach there safely. And in the middle of that, they are just like “Hey, we are switching online”. I honestly predicted this would happen because there will eventually be a rise in cases because people think that just because you are vaccinated, you will not have COVID when it is actually that the symptoms you experience will be less severe and less likely to be fatal. I predicted this; I’m surprised the university did not. Also knowing the housing situation, in addition to knowing not every country has adequate access to vaccines because of the vaccine apartheid, and that many students come from China and India. There are countries that do not even have the ability to buy vaccines. I read a few weeks ago that a student was stuck in Afghanistan. What is UBC doing to ensure that its students can attend classes? They could have easily done the first semester online and the second in-person and warned us well before or ask students what they thought.
LR: What do you think UBC could have done better to make this semester easier for international students?
GG: I know a lot of domestic students were dying for in-person classes, but they could have been given the option to go entirely online. I know people have been able to do that, but many electives and mandatory courses to complete your degree are still in person. They could have had another module or section for each course for the international students to take advantage of to observe online, recorded, or even live-streamed classes. To complete your requirements, if it is just one course, you have to come to campus. Those are the kind of accommodations I am looking for because if 4 out of 5 classes are online, then I should not have to come to campus, which happened in my case to finish my minor. COVID is still a thing and people are struggling in the so-called global south. They could have also given some concession for staying on campus if they know there is a housing crisis because on-campus housing is not cheap, or at least extend the process for applying to housing on campus.
Garima and many other international students have made perilous journeys to come back to campus. As we slowly return to our regularly scheduled classes, the UBCO community must pause and reflect on the different realities many of our international students face. By making the decision to return to in-person classes, the overall health and security of UBCO students off, in transit to, and on-campus should be paramount to the institution.