“[A]ll students who are able to must return home and stay home for the rest of the semester.”
These are heavy words for any student to digest. To have your life completely upended in the span of days; to have your time left in college cut short; to witness your friendships, routines and activities disrupted — it is absolutely disheartening. But when returning home means leaving the United States, those words spark a series of emotions of a whole other kind.
The day I was asked to leave the Princeton University campus was also the day I found out that I could not return home. Around 8 p.m. on March 11, I received the dreaded email from the Dean of the College asking students to move out. Earlier that evening, the president of El Salvador, where I am from, announced that the country would be closing its borders, and that citizens who wished to return would be subject to a 30-day quarantine enforced by the state.
A few days before, reports of people who were forcibly quarantined upon arrival in El Salvador had circulated widely. By then it was well known that quarantine conditions were sub-standard. A video circulated of a seven-year-old pleading for help after his mom had a panic attack upon being detained and taken to a state-run quarantine site when they arrived in El Salvador.
So when I heard the president’s announcement, I knew I could not go back home. I wouldn’t even be able to attend online classes while in quarantine, which would jeopardize my ability to graduate this spring.
The following days were a blur, filled with tears, confusion, goodbyes and a newfound appreciation for everything that I was asked to abandon. But in the rollercoaster of emotions that I felt upon finding out that my senior year was ending two and a half months early, the most salient ones were anxiety and fear of the uncertain.
My two younger sisters, who also attend college in the United States, were asked to move out of their schools on the same day that I was asked to leave Princeton’s campus.
One of them, who studies at a small, rural liberal arts college, was given the option to petition to stay on campus, but was told, in no uncertain terms, that health care would be quite limited given the scarcity of health care facilities in the area.
My other sister, who attends a large private university in the Northeast, did not meet the criteria for successfully petitioning to stay, given that El Salvador was not at or above a warning level 2 at that point.
We decided that the best course of action was for us to stay together in one place.
Flash-forward a couple of weeks: They have both joined me in New Jersey.
We were fortunate to find a place off campus where we can spend entire days indoors and attend Zoom lectures simultaneously without disturbing one another. But the path that led us here was a rough one. Although I was initially approved to remain on campus, I had to decline the offer because my sisters would not have been allowed to stay with me.
I scrambled to find housing off campus before the prescribed move-out date, but I didn’t know how to find a place that could be leased for just 2 or 3 months, and how to meet certain formal requirements such as showing proof of income, setting up utilities in my name as a foreign national and so forth.
What’s more, the cost of rent in much of the area was prohibitive. As students on significant financial aid, we had to ensure that our monthly expenses wouldn’t exceed the pro-rated reimbursement of room and board charges that we expected to receive from our schools.
Our parents, who were already worried about having their daughters thousands of miles away during a global crisis, found themselves unable to offer any additional financial support because of government-imposed restrictions on work and mobility for people over the age of 60.
The stress of finding housing under such conditions — compounded by the time crunch — is something I do not wish upon anyone else.
But in the midst of the most emotionally draining days of my time in college, I also received an outpouring of support. Instructors who had taught me three years before got back in touch to see how I was doing. When I reached out to mentors — faculty, staff and graduate students who have guided me and enriched my college years in incredible ways — I was met with extraordinary displays of kindness and generosity for which I will remain forever grateful.
They gave me great leads for off-campus housing. They made themselves available to help in every way, from logistics to emotional support, and they even offered to open their homes to us and to provide financial support if necessary. I understood that I was not alone, that I had become part of an outstanding, loving community. Being asked to go home made me realize that my university had become a home.
The spread of coronavirus has posed unprecedented challenges for colleges and universities. Though measures to reduce the density of people living on campus make sense, for many of us — not just international students, but also those facing financial hardship or difficult family circumstances — going home isn’t always an option.
To help minimize the stress and uncertainty that such measures create, universities should do everything in their power to have clear, concrete plans before making major announcements of this kind. One of my sisters’ universities and my own changed their positions constantly on a number of issues, including who would be allowed to remain on campus. And one sister got an email, after she had left her campus, announcing that all international students would, in fact, be eligible to stay.
The people who usually act as student resources — residential college offices, international student offices and so on — were often unable to provide answers. Information was hard to obtain.
My university and others were navigating uncharted territory. No one expected to be in the middle of a pandemic. But I do hope that in the future, strengthening information channels in emergency situations and having a clear, consistent vision for institutional responses will alleviate at least some of the fear and anxiety we face.
Ensuring that the resources promised to students are delivered in an efficient, reliable manner is central to supporting those in vulnerable positions, given that many of us depend on them to meet our basic needs. Now that those delivery systems are in place, I hope they stay that way.
Most importantly, my university and others should give thanks to their community members who supported those who needed it in the face of adversity. Perhaps they might formalize these community members’ roles in response to emergency situations in the future.
This story about coronavirus and higher education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for Hechinger’s newsletter.
Diana Sandoval Simán is a senior at Princeton University.