Evicted, Interrupted, and Alone: How COVID-19 Disrupted the Lives of International Students in the U.S.

A story by Maznah Shehzad

Students all over the world are struggling with the disruptions to their education brought about by COVID-19. Among them are scores of international students who travel from far away and pay vast sums to study in foreign countries. Being a journalist and an international student studying in the United States myself, I decided to document a few of those stories.

(Maznah Shehzad)

There are roughly 1.1 million international students in the United States, constituting 5.5% of the U.S. higher education population. When the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered college dormitories in March, many of these students were displaced from their homes with little warning. I was one of them.

Before coming to the U.S. to study journalism at New York University, I spent four years studying in a different city in Pakistan than my hometown, Karachi, for my undergraduate studies. After all this time, my parents still receive shocked responses from people when they tell them they sent their only child thousands of miles away to study in a city where she knows no one and no one knows her.

I’m fortunate to be able to study at my dream school in a city I have always dreamed about living in. Unfortunately, it has also been months since I last saw my parents and friends back home. I know they are proud of me, and I have worked hard to keep it that way. I will always be grateful for what I have learned on this journey. I have met and learned from people from all over the world. Studying abroad has instilled in me a new, self-reliant confidence I did not know I had.

Until March, I lived in a single room in a campus dormitory near Union Square, in Manhattan. I cherished having my own space, where everything I needed was only steps away. When COVID-19 hit New York City, I didn’t expect the epidemic to escalate to the extent that it did. While lockdowns were being instituted and considered in many other places, it felt like business as usual in New York. Subways were still packed, and my classmates and I attended classes on campus without thinking twice. But in mid-March, a few days before spring break, the university informed us that classes would be held online for one week after the break. I thought we would go back to normal after that. However, things got much worse.

Middle-to-late March was a frightening time for international students. I began to read about dorm evictions at other schools. Columbia did it, Harvard did it, and I waited for NYU to do the same but hoped they wouldn’t. I did not know where I would go if I were to be evicted from my room. I had no backup plan.

When my eviction notice finally came, so did my panic attacks. I spent my spring break packing my things and dealing with a mental breakdown that left me feeling absolutely helpless. Fortunately for me, a friend offered to let me stay at her place for as long as I needed to. Until then, I didn’t think I had a strong support system in New York.

I continued to read stories of students being displaced and panicking about their future. Being a journalist myself, I decided to report on the lives of international students like me. While circumstances among us vary – and some of us were hit harder than others – the experience of feeling insecure and uncertain about the future unites us all.

Mayuri Mei Lin, a classmate of mine from Malaysia, was evicted from her dormitory room at International House, a private, non-profit residence for graduate students and research scholars. Unlike many other dormitories in the city, International House did not allow its residents to apply for an exemption, effectively forcing them onto the street. The following video documents Mei Lin’s experience in seeking shelter as the pandemic engulfed New York City.

People back home have asked me why I did not return to Pakistan after my eviction. Would it not have made more sense for me to quarantine with my family instead of being stuck, alone, in a foreign country? I struggled with this question then, and still do. At the time, I still had hope things would get better; I was thinking like a student, worrying about summer internships, and wondering whether or not I could return in the fall if I left the country. I thought about my parents and the danger I would be putting them in if I were carrying the virus. Ultimately, I decided to stay. I was not ready to let go of New York, and I couldn’t stomach the idea of putting my family at risk.

In addition, the vast time difference between Pakistan and New York would have made it difficult for me to concentrate during my remote classes, which started at 11 p.m., Pakistan time, and ended around 4 a.m. I didn’t relish the thought of turning nocturnal, a fate that met international student Joti Ghani when she returned to Pakistan from New York City. In the following video, she recounts howt inverting her sleep schedule resulted in her body giving out, leaving her bed-ridden for several days.

For me, the hardest part about my situation is that I’m isolated, alone, and far away from my family. Of course, I was homesick before COVID-19 enveloped New York, but back then I could busy myself with school, friends, and work. Now most of my work is remote, I only leave my apartment to get groceries or to go for a walk, and my only interaction with my family and friends is through a screen. I suffer from feelings of emptiness. Before the pandemic, I took for granted how important social settings are, how important physical contact is.

Moving out of my dormitory, I saw as the families of my American peers helped them pack up their belongings to move them back home. It made me miss my own home terribly. My peers had homes waiting for them, people waiting for them, safety waiting for them. I long for that sense of security.

Jimin Kang, an international student from South Korea studying at Princeton, was unable to return home because South Korea was, at the time, at the height of its COVID-19 epidemic. In the following video, Kang recounts how she had to live alone on a practically empty campus before being able to return home at the end of the semester.

The unpredictability of the lockdown makes it even harder for displaced students to plan for the future. International students face visa issues if they stay out of the U.S. for a long period of time (thankfully, U.S. Immigration has relaxed some restrictions) and there are reports that the Trump administration may consider suspending Optional Practical Training (OPT), which allows international students to remain in the U.S. for a few years to receive occupational training. Students who returned home face several technological barriers, like poor internet connectivity or lack thereof. Likewise, access to Zoom, a popular online video conferencing portal that universities use to host remote classes, is restricted in about 21 countries. Post-graduation employment seems like a dream at this point because the global economy is in shambles. Also, during a recession, American companies might be less likely to hire international students, who require expensive employment visas in order to work in the country.

Even though states are gradually lifting their lockdown measures, it remains a mystery as to how universities across the country will conduct classes this fall. Higher education is costly, sometimes exorbitantly so. At this point, a virtual fall semester feels like an expensive video call and a painful reminder of all that we lost.

While our professors try to lift our spirits and remind us that we will pull through, the immediate future seems bleak. My friends who returned home struggle with the possibility that they won’t be able to return to the U.S. Some say they will take a year off from school if the fall semester is conducted online, even though employment opportunities will likely be scarce; others have dabbled with the idea of dropping out all together to look for any steady job they can find.

I don’t know which path I’ll take, but I do have some advice for those considering studying abroad in the future. You should research to what extent your prospective university accommodated its international students during the COVID-19 era. Were they helpful, or did they leave their students stranded? It is one thing for an institution of higher learning to boast about the diversity of its international student body; however, it is another to actually show it supports its students and preserves their rights in a crisis.

Made by NYU's Studio 20 graduate journalism program.