Fears and frustrations: When forced to fly home

Above, the writer says goodbye to the very few friends she had on campus right before leaving: Tabraiz Lodhi ’20, Sharim Sohail ’21 and Rahul Makwana ’20.

March 10, 2020, 6 p.m.: 

“Dude. Harvard, Stanford and Smith just shut down their campuses.”

We all look up. Brian Lee ’20 is staring back at us, alarm writ large across his face. We talk about how that’s wild and so sad for them, but soon enough, we move on to a different conversation. The news doesn’t bother us for long.

March 11, 2020, 11:30 a.m.:

I come across an article that says 55 colleges across the United States have announced a switch to online classes for part or all of the rest of the semester. I tell my friends. We regard each other with growing anxiety.

“Okay, but they can’t shut down Vassar,” I protest. “They won’t do it; we don’t have the infrastructure for online learning.” To calm our nerves, we all sign the petition going around to keep Vassar open. We send it to our friends. We tell them to sign. We return to lunch.

March 11, 2020, late afternoon:

I click on the article I saw earlier that day—the one stating that 55 schools had cancelled in-person classes—so that I can send the link to my mom. The headline now reads, “Updated: At Least 130 Colleges Have Canceled In-Person Classes (So Far) Over Coronavirus Fears.” I experience my first jab of actual concern, but I hurriedly tell myself that Vassar can’t possibly close. “It just can’t,” I say firmly. “It’s Vassar.” 

March 11, 2020, early evening:

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announces that all tourist visas have been suspended until April 15, 2020, including visas held by Overseas Citizens of India (OCIs)—a category I come under, as a person who isn’t an Indian passport-holder but is of Indian origin and of Indian residence. I realize I effectively can’t go home, and am stranded in the United States if Vassar does indeed close its campus. It still doesn’t really hit me. I jokingly ask Sami Hodes ’20 if I can live in her house in Florida if something were to happen. She says yes, that she’s even asked her mom’s permission, but I laugh. After all, I think, Vassar’s not actually going to close.

March 11, 2020, 11:30 p.m.:

Arham Ali Chaudhry ’22 runs into the fifth floor Main common room to tell a group of us that President Bradley just released a video statement. We crowd around his phone as Bradley’s voice ominously fills the room, telling students not to return from Spring Break.

Nobody speaks for a long time. The four of us in the room who are seniors glance at each other. It finally hits me. I start to cry. 

March 12, 2020, 12:00 a.m.:

As we sit around discussing how miserable we all are, I’m almost thankful that I can’t go home. If I’m on campus, even if pretty much nobody else is around, maybe I can delude myself into feeling like Vassar hasn’t ended. Maybe I can delude myself into thinking it’ll all be okay. I feel a spark of relief.

March 12, 2020, 1:30 a.m.:

I get a call from my parents. They tell me that they’ve booked me on an 11 a.m. flight home and that I have to leave campus by 5 a.m. to catch it. “Modi’s travel ban goes into effect on 13 March at 12:00 p.m. GMT. You have to leave, Sasha. It’s a day-long journey and you have a little over 24 hours to get here before borders close,” I hear my Dad say. “I know you’re sad, but you can’t be stuck halfway across the world during a global pandemic. You’re coming home. It’s final.” 

My head spins as I realize I have all of three hours to pack up my life and say goodbye to the place I’ve called home for the past four years, with practically none of the people who’ve made it home for me even around because it’s Spring Break.

Once again, I begin to sob. And I sob, and I sob, and I sob. 

—x— 

It’s been two weeks. Two weeks since I left campus in the dead of night; since I said goodbye to six friends when I wanted to say bye to 60; since I’ve been sitting in self-quarantine, glued to social media and stewing in my own sadness.

I’m not sure how to begin processing all that’s been snatched from us—in a matter of hours, no less. I’ve been thinking a lot about the pain I share with the rest of my senior class, and the closure we were robbed of. I’ve been thinking about the loss I feel as a senior international who may never again see many of the people who have mattered to me over the years because we’ll all be scattered across the globe. But most of all, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a senior international stuck in my home country during these uncertain times, unsure of whether I’ll be able to return to the United States at all.

International students are not easily hired. We see the question, “Will you now, or in the future, require visa sponsorship?” at the end of every job application we work on and we know we’ve lost the battle before we ever even got on the playing field. We’re struggling to find internships for after graduation, let alone full-time jobs, because we don’t know if our employment authorization will arrive in time for most internship start dates. Hell, even if, by some stroke of luck, we do find a job, we have to make sure it fits neatly within the confines of our major, otherwise we can’t take it. 

Within a system that legally allows you to discriminate against international students—a system where “Equal-Opportunity” doesn’t actually extend to immigrants—a global pandemic hits some harder than others. With pretty much all non-essential work currently on hold, there’s no guarantee that the Department of Homeland Security will even bother processing our employment requests at this time; as such, there’s no saying when we’ll be allowed to start working. This makes it incredibly difficult for most graduating internationals to secure work for the summer since we can’t even provide potential employers with an expected start date. To further compound matters, we’re entering the workforce during a global recession, a time when even companies more inclined to hire international workers will likely flinch at the prospect of taking on anybody who may potentially need visa sponsorship, at any point, ever. Borders are tightening. The world’s becoming more xenophobic. Many of us aren’t seen as qualified candidates, but rather as economic burdens.With all this in mind, I don’t think I’ll be able to get a job in the United States post-graduation. I think that when I left campus to come to India, I just might have inadvertently moved to India. And so, here I am, sitting in my childhood bedroom during a state-wide lockdown, pretty sure that I left behind not just the place that’s responsible for most of my social, emotional and intellectual growth, but also the possible future in the United States I was hoping that growth would unlock for me. I left behind my home, I left behind my people and I just might have left behind the possibility of ever returning to them altogether. That’s really, really scary, and really, really sad. And it’s what it feels like being back home.

One Comment

  1. Hang in there Sasha – things may look bleak now, but this too shall pass. As long as you are healthy and happy, you can live to fight another day.
    I am sure your class and Vassar will find a way to congregate in the future when all this is behind us and will ensure you guys get your graduation ceremony.
    As far as jobs go, what you called out is a reality today. You can’t change the world, what you need is that one employer who will believe in you and want you to join them. Keep searching and don’t give up! Best of luck
    Ravi

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