COVID-19 has created unique social challenges for international students

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International students come from different regions, languages, backgrounds and lifestyles. Adjusting to college life is one of the many issues they have to face when arriving at BYU.

Navigating a new culture is also difficult thousands of miles from home. On top of that, the COVID-19 pandemic has magnified the challenges because these students can’t meet with peers in person to provide much-needed support.

Megan Cantu, a nursing student from Monterrey, Mexico, was not able to visit home this past year due to the pandemic. The border was closed and the uncertainty of being able to re-enter the country led her to remain in the U.S.

“I am more extroverted in Spanish, but in English, I am more introverted,” Cantu said. “It’s my perspective, I feel isolated. But once I get into the conversation I feel more comfortable.”

Sometimes international student peers can help ease this discomfort, but Cantu doesn’t have that luxury.

Megan Cantu, a nursing student from Monterrey, Mexico, walks out of BYU’s International Student Services Office. (Diego Calderon)

“I think I am the only international student in my major. Since the pandemic, there is less interaction with my classmates and everything is becoming more like a routine,” Cantu said.

For Samuel Mera, a computer science student from Tepatepec, Mexico, the pandemic has affected him in other ways.

“I am missing the opportunities to get to know other international students through club activities,” Mera said. “I kind of miss the interaction with the International Student Office, and now the coexistence with Americans are mostly online.”

Furthermore, being an international student can be a struggle even in common conversations, because of the lack of activities to promote diversity.

Elena Molina, a medical laboratory science student from San Pedro de Sula, Honduras, has experienced some ignorant comments about her heritage in common conversations.

“A guy asked me where I am from, I responded ‘Honduras’. Then he said that he has served in Africa too,” Molina said. “It was not rude, it was just weird. Then he asked me on a date. People do that to connect with you, people do not know if it is bad or not.”

According to Molina, she has encountered other people that are eager to learn more about her culture and are open to understanding other backgrounds and lifestyles. But this is not always the case.

“People usually ask me where I am from, when I tell them that I am from Honduras, they tend to say that I come from a dangerous place,” Molina said.

Experiences like this add to the desire of international students to show and represent their culture. For Molina, participating in cultural activities like Fiesta is the key to social life and it represents her heritage.

“When I was dancing at Fiesta I cried, finally I could represent who I am, but it is not advertised well enough,” Molina said. “When I ask people about it, they have never heard about this event.”

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