Published April 15, 2020
Approximately 1,300 UB students — some of whom never left campus during the spring recess — are living in residence halls and in off-campus apartments for the remainder of the spring semester.
Among them are 338 who hold student visa status and are here as international students.
For some, the pandemic is keeping them away from home. Others are contemplating a decision to stay or leave, weighing pros and cons: Has their government, or their family, asked them to return home? Is their support network better here or in their home country? What health risks do they face in their home country?
If they were to leave UB — and the U.S. — at the end of the semester, would they be able to return?
“For these students there is a tremendous amount of anxiety about the global uncertainty of what’s going to happen next,” says John J. Wood, interim vice provost for international education. “They are facing a very challenging situation.
“In light of all the uncertainties, it is gratifying that these students have stayed with us and trust UB to continue delivering an excellent educational experience despite the unprecedented circumstances.”
Even under normal circumstances, many international students would not have returned home for spring break, often for financial reasons.
“Now, some are feeling anxiety between wanting to go home and being worried about the consequences of doing so,” says Kathryn Tudini, assistant vice provost for international student services.
“The world for them has become smaller, quiet and anxious,” Tudini says. “Many families have made sacrifices for their son or daughter to seek better opportunities at UB. So, some students may be weighing emotional burdens as well as logistical ones.”
To provide support to the international students who have remained on campus, International Student Services began offering online advisory services following spring break, processing immigration document requests, responding to emails and providing guidance in academic matters, as well as in students’ personal situations.
“We have two advisers, and we ask students to make appointments,” Tudini says. “We can be available within 24 hours. A lot of the academic and immigration questions we are providing virtual advice on are very complex.
“We also have a responsibility to have candid conversations with students to hear their concerns about personal matters firsthand, such as difficulties with lease arrangements,” she says. “There are students who are living in off-campus housing who have had to stay because of not being able to sublet in this environment.”
Wood notes that reaching out to students through virtual advisement “provides ISS staff with the opportunity to innovate and provide careful attention to challenges that students are confronting that no one could have foreseen.”
“We are hearing back from those international students who are here that having access to a support system is making a difference during these difficult circumstances,” he says.
For Renuka Gajanan Khot, a fourth-year student from Pune, India, the biggest concern was whether UB’s international students would be asked to leave campus following the university’s decision to move all classes online. It was a big relief when she learned UB would allow her to stay.
“That made a huge difference for me,” says Khot, a double major in mechanical and aerospace engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “I live on South Campus, and have no family here, so having to leave campus just months before finishing my degree would have created a hardship.”
Khot, who has accepted a job with an engineering consulting firm in New York City, says UB has been very supportive. “This is my home. I have felt very comfortable here.”
Wood says UB had received a letter from the Consulate General of the People’s Republic of China expressing confidence in UB’s support for their students and expressing appreciation for “having been very well informed regarding proper personal protective procedures as well as academic guidance at the University at Buffalo.”
Tudini said ISS online advisers are trained in using motivational advising to recognize when a student is in distress and dealing with anxiety.
“If a student is contemplating returning home, for example, helping them to assess their risk level, their support system at home and whether getting on a 25-hour flight would put them at greater risk may enable them to think through making that decision,” she says.
Karneeka Golash, a second-year student from Bhopal, India, is planning to talk online with an ISS adviser next week to weigh whether to return home.
“No one knows how long this current situation will continue to go on,” says Golash, a biosciences major. “I know going back will involve a bit more risk. But I have a lot of applications out for summer employment; I have spoken with a few people and it does not seem like it will be a problem.
“Having employment through the summer would make the difference for me, to enable me to stay,” she says. “I can resume my part-time employment with the university once the fall semester begins.”
Tudini says ISS supports UB’s Wellness Coaching Program, established by Student Life in the Office of Health Promotion, as an additional resource for international students.
“Our advisers spend a lot of time talking with international students about different aspects of their lives,” she says. “We do encourage them to seek out online wellness coaching.”
“Wellness coaching can enable international students to approach a seemingly insurmountable problem or difficult decision by working through a balanced process that is focused on their priorities,” says Sharlynn Daun-Barnett, coordinator of the Wellness Coaching Program. “It is strength-based and non-judgmental.
“It is important to know that the benefits international students receive through wellness coaching are there for other members of the campus community, as well,” she says.
Campus Living is also promoting online wellness coaching to international students, as well as others who are living in university housing for the remainder of the spring semester.
“We are offering virtual office hours,” says Tom Tiberi, director of campus living. “We are also open for students to come by, to talk about their concerns or ask for guidance or directions.
“Technology does not replace the need for our staff to provide intentional, meaningful and genuine interactions with students,” he says.
Campus Living is maintaining two offices for the duration of the semester, staffed with professional staff, one each on the North and South campuses.
Tiberi says Campus Living staff members are also continually emphasizing the importance of maintaining social distancing to all students who are living on campus.
“We work to get them to understand how important this is,” he says.
“It is more important than ever for Campus Living to focus on supporting students as they transition through these difficult adjustments. Our primary concern is the health and safety of both our staff and students.”