International Student Discusses Challenges and Silver Linings Amid the Pandemic
In February, Northwestern Buffett sat down with Sami Berisha (Medill ’23) to discuss his experiences navigating the COVID-19 pandemic as an international student.
Tell me a little bit about yourself and your time at Northwestern.
My name is Sami, and I'm a sophomore from London, England. I study journalism and am also trying to pick up a double major in political science or legal studies. I’m also involved with the Office of International Student and Scholar Services and served as an International Peer Advisor for incoming freshmen in the fall and winter quarters, amongst other things. In general, all of my extracurriculars are deeply tied to being international.
How would you describe your experience transitioning to distance learning?
At the beginning, it was so hectic. I remember being terrified that I would be stuck in the US because of the travel bans by President Trump and the UK. I literally packed up my entire life here and booked a ticket home the day the first bans were announced, and I stayed in the UK until about a month ago when I came back to the US.
While in the UK, the time difference was a challenge. I had to give up a bunch of extracurricular activities that I would have normally done on campus because they would have been at two in the morning. But I’ve actually found that I really enjoy online classes. In the Fall, I took five classes because I thought, you know, well, what else am I going to do with my time? It was really nice having such a regimented academic schedule. Most of my classes were really great, but there were a few challenges that mostly involved struggles with my internet connection.
Given that you were in the UK until very recently, what made you come back to the US?
The time difference certainly factored into it, but it was also just a sense of being extremely detached. I liked having that regimented system of learning but, at the same time, I felt really isolated from all of my peers and Northwestern in general. At the end of the day, when I think back to spring and fall quarter, a lot of times it was just me in my room alone doing an online lecture. While that does have its positives, it also got a little tiring.
What are some of the common challenges that you and other international students have faced?
If I think back to last summer, the biggest struggle was just the anxiety of whether or not I’d be able to make it back into the country. I remember right before I was coming back in early January, I was so worried about making sure I had all of the correct documents, ensuring I was acting in accordance with federal travel guidelines, and ensuring I was able to get a COVID test done right before my flight. There was also a concern that the Trump administration might flip its policies again at any moment. I think these worries affect every single international student.
But then there's also just the struggles with daily social life and feeling involved with the Northwestern community. I've spoken to quite a lot of international students who feel detached even if they are on campus, purely because the COVID situation makes it so difficult. It’s just difficult get to know new people. I think that especially freshmen who haven't really had that chance to meet people and establish connections on campus are struggling, but I really empathize and feel it too.
How would you describe the support you’ve received from the Office of International Student and Scholar Services (OISS)? Have they helped you navigate the uncertainty and build community?
OISS has been really great, especially during the international orientations in the fall and winter. They have done a great job making freshman feel as connected as they can. I was an International Peer Advisor in the fall and it was such a great experience helping others get to know one another. I think just being able to meet people and being in groups with a peer mentor to do things as simple as game nights and other social events like speed dating does quite a lot to help people feel connected. Also, clubs like the International Student Association are really focused on making people feel more connected.
What are your plans and expectations for the spring quarter? Even after its finally safe to return to in-person classes, how do you think the pandemic will have changed campus life?
I mean, the dream of course is that things will return to normal sooner rather than later. I would say that things have been getting a bit better, especially on campus. You kind of have to hold a positive outlook. In terms of how student life is going to be affected, I really hope that recorded lectures remain a thing after the pandemic, because it’s so nice to be able to re-watch lecture recordings to double-check your notes. I also feel like there's certainly a time and a place for Zoom meetings too. It would be so nice to not have to walk halfway across campus in the freezing cold just to go to a social event. I think people will be more willing to use Zoom in the future.
Do you have any advice for other international students who are navigating this?
I would just say that, while it can be hard and lonely, try to put yourself out there as much as you can. With everything online, we tend to forget the value of social interaction. It’s easy to get stuck in your head, and think, do I really need to go to this online social thing? But put yourself out there as much as you can. Take it from me, it’s definitely still possible to have fun.