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Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs

International Students Continue To Pursue Passions Amidst Pandemic

Interview with Maria Beatriz Rocha

Dylan: Tell me a little bit about yourself and your time at Northwestern

Maria: I’m originally from Portugal, and I just finished my sophomore year at Northwestern. I'm studying neuroscience and global health, and might minor in economics.

Dylan:  At the beginning of the pandemic, what was your initial reaction and how are you doing now?

Maria: For a while it was something that felt very distant and then, all of a sudden, I immediately started to receive messages from my international friends that were closer to New York who were beginning to freak out. Originally, the plan was to stay in Evanston to see how things would evolve.  I was worried that going back home would just aggravate the risk of me getting COVID.  Unfortunately, while I was still there someone in my residence tested positive.  Immediately, we were quarantined and I managed to book a flight back to Portugal. I decided that I just had to go back, because I didn’t see the situation in the U.S. getting any better. The situation in Portugal was also bad at that time, and I decided that my traveling wasn’t going to make it any worse.

Up until now, I feel like every time I sense that I've got a grasp on things, the situation changes around me…I have just settled for being uncomfortable for now.

Dylan: How would you describe your experience transitioning to distance learning during Spring Quarter?  Was it a difficult adjustment?

Maria:  When I first emailed my professors, I just remember it feeling so surreal.  I explained to them that I was an international student who was six hours ahead, which meant that their class was now taking place at 3 a.m. Luckily, they were all very accommodating and they adapted to the technology very well. We would have Zoom sessions before our assignments, which I felt were a really big help and, as I mentioned, my professors were accommodating with the time difference. Still, there were certain challenges that were difficult to overcome due to the time difference, such as group projects. 

Dylan:  How has your experience dealing with COVID at a university in the U.S. compare to your friends in Portugal? 

Maria:  I think that it has been similar.  For colleges in Portugal, most classes were moved online, so that’s been pretty similar to Northwestern. That said, college in the U.S. is a very different experience. U.S. colleges have actual campuses and your life shifts a lot when you attend. In Portugal, that’s not the case.  The school that I would have gone to here is only five minutes away from my home.  So everyone was like, okay, I’m just going to stay home now rather than go five minutes away to take classes.  I don’t think that it was as big of an adjustment for people here.

Dylan: How has your family reacted to your status as an international student through all of this? Are they encouraging you to stay at home?

Maria:  My mom is happy that I’m home, because my younger sister also followed in my footsteps to study abroad.  I left home when I was 17 to study in China, and then went on to the U.S.  My sister followed a similar path, except she first went to India and was planning to attend school in the U.S. in the fall.  My mom has been suffering from empty nest syndrome, so I think she is very happy that both of her children are back at home!

Dylan:  What are your plans for the fall, given the circumstances?  Are you concerned about returning to the U.S.?

Maria:  I feel like whatever answer I would have given you to that question yesterday is different today. I know at the moment I can’t fly to the U.S. because of the travel ban, so I am not sure that I even could return if I wanted to yet, but have been looking at flights from Portugal to the U.S. If we have a hybrid option that doesn’t require me to attend in-person courses, maybe it’s better to stay here. In some ways, the travel ban actually helps keep me sane, because I know that regardless of what I’d like to do, I can’t go back for now.  It has made the decision for me.  But once that has been lifted, then it’s up to me to really think about what I want to do, and I don’t want to think about that yet!

Dylan: So how have you been keeping busy this summer?

MariaSo I have been working a bit. I also was looking for a summer internship, and was originally hoping to work with New York City’s health department, but its internship program was canceled because of the pandemic.  Fortunately, the Northwestern Career Office was absolutely amazing and compiled a list of professors and researchers who were looking for students to help.  Through that, I was able to apply and get an internship and now I’m working remotely.

Also, since the winter quarter, I have been involved with planning Northwestern’s International Student Orientation with the International Office. We’re preparing the online activities new students will be doing with their International Peer Advisory groups. We’re planning a FIFA tournament and Kahoot, for example, and also compiling some how-to guides.

Dylan: Do you have any advice for incoming international students as they navigate all of the challenges posed by COVID?

I am not sure if this may count as advice, however, I just wanted to assure everyone that staff and students are working to make this transition as easy and as enjoyable as possible. When in doubt REACH OUT. Everyone is really excited to welcome new internationals! Being an international student can be a tough experience, especially in the beginning, but there's always the reassurance that you don't have to do it alone and that many have done it before and are more than willing to help you out.