An International Student’s Endless Pandemic Question: Should We Stay, or Should We Leave?

By Xinghan Ma || Contributing Writer 

2020 is about to end. From history, we have learned how an infectious disease can endanger the whole human civilization, yet still, our society didn’t seem to be prepared for Covid-19 this year. With this broad context, no doubt, Franklin and Marshall College, as well as many other educational institutions worldwide, has endured a very special academic semester. President Altman has pointed out in her message to the whole student body that “each person’s experience at F&M this fall presented its own challenges and opportunities.” I cannot agree with this statement more. Every one of us has our own unique experiences to tell. But from those distinctive stories, we can all feel the ache of separation, as was described in The Plague by Albert Camus: “They fancied themselves free, and not one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences.” I would like to borrow this quotation as the prologue to sharing my experience and considerations in this article.

As an international student, I do think there are some significant differences between my American friends and me. However, in the past, such differences were not as dramatic, as we were studying, acting, and living in the same environment. But never did they become so conspicuous than in 2020, when we almost felt separated rather than just slightly different. This separation is derived from a choice, a choice that I used to think could be avoided but now must be decided in the pandemic era: “Should I stay, or should I leave?”

In early 2020, when Coronavirus was infecting China seriously, certainly, I was concerned about my family and my friends there. But, at the same time, I never connected Covid with the United States. Yes, I knew the virus is deadly and highly infectious. But, as long as my daily life did not change, I could not really experience how dangerous it is. Therefore, my plan was to go back to China for the summer and come back to the States in September. However, in March and April, especially after the spring break, circumstances had changed in the U.S., and I think many of us recognized the danger of the virus from that moment. 

Franklin & Marshall College was forced to introduce remote learning, asking the students who had already come home not to return after spring break; the whole college was closed. At that time, some of my Chinese friends purchased their plane tickets and came home successfully, whereas many other international students, like myself, decided to stay on campus because of the rising price of tickets and our unfinished academic careers in the U.S.

But when the spring semester was over, all students were forbidden to remain in dormitories. Therefore, some of my friends rented an Airbnb nearby, while others headed to their friends’ places. I opted for the latter. My friend who studied at Pennsylvania State University let me settle down in his apartment. At first, I thought it would be a temporary fix, as I still planned to go home in June or July. Many nights, I laid on the sofa-bed and stared at my smartphone to see if there were any cheap and safe plane tickets. I felt homesick: Afterall, it had been over a year since the last time I was home. Yet, June passed, followed by July, and then came August. Traveling back to China in the summer was becoming less and less possible; even if I could go home, coming back would be a problem. 

At the end of August, I returned to Lancaster and moved into an off-campus apartment with my Chinese schoolmates. The new hybrid-module system began in September. We all noticed how this system was so different from what we have experienced in the past few years. This difference, in my experience, was accompanied by the same choice that I faced in the summer. 

Global education is obviously a symbol of globalism. It is the belief that the students, no matter where they come from, are able to receive equally outstanding educational opportunities. When we are studying together in Keiper or Meyran, having meals in Blueline or CC, we are divided less by nationality than by the house system. I believe (if not all international students believe) that “stay” or “leave” is not a question that students should answer, as we are free from the restraints of national borders. But now as we have to make this decision, it is not the decision we want to make, but one that the environment forces us to make. I realize that all of those years, I fancied that I was free, but truly this is only under certain conditions; and obtaining an education abroad amidst a pandemic was 100% not one of those conditions. 

In October, I moved out of my College Row apartment and finally returned to Shanghai. Although I can take classes online (thanks to the hybrid system) and chat with my friends on social media, I still know something has changed. During the era of the pandemic, the dream of being a world citizen is compromised by reality. While we try to keep pursuing the daily life we were used to in the past, our focus on that big question—as well as the cost of our answer—is haunting us more seriously than ever; should we stay, or should we leave? 

Senior Xinghan Ma is a contributing writer. His email is xma1@fandm.edu

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