The “Same Boat” Doesn’t Exist – International students’ experiences during COVID-19

By Anna Daley Laursen and Rikke From

            The COVID-19 pandemic is truly an international phenomenon with wide reaching consequences that have left no one unscathed. For us, the impacts of COVID-19 are most salient as international students – one of us (Anna) a US student studying in Lund and the other (Rikke), a Dane studying in the US and Sweden. Our encounters with COVID-19 have been framed through national belonging, senses of safety and security, imagined and real, and of course the new realities of higher education, all underlined by extreme levels of uncertainty as we navigate daily life and look towards the future. We first met through Zoom at our bachelor’s thesis defense and found ourselves enrolled in the same master’s program this fall. Though we both experienced the pandemic as international students in Lund and the US, our individual and shared experiences made us think about the nature of this pandemic, the discourse of being “in the same boat,” and the experiences of other international students. COVID-19 has shed new light on our ideas of community and how we see ourselves as not only international students but world citizens. Below we will share some of our own insights, as well as those of three other international master’s students from China, Italy, and Nigeria who shared their reflections, thoughts, and worries about studying at Lund University this year.

Initial Experiences

In February 2020, UC Berkeley healthcare center asked students to avoid being afraid of “Asian looking people.” A couple of days later, I, Rikke, walked into class and disrupted a group of students from Wuhan silently following the death counts in their region from a laptop. I later witnessed a group of Italian students listening to national news while holding hands as Italy became a European epicenter. I didn’t realize how bad the pandemic was until Denmark locked down and closed its borders. In the international student accommodation, friend groups split up and suddenly sat in groups based on nationality and acted like representatives from each of our countries. By the end of the term, a new level of worrying emerged as visas and health insurance expired, and we involuntarily overstayed departure dates and watched the cost of international travel rise rapidly. When I was talking to the Danish embassy, they referred me to the embassy of my home university but as a non-Swedish citizen, I was in an in-between space. Turning in assignments and attending online lectures wasn’t my greatest concern but the regularity and normality in continuing a schedule created a sense of stability. While I experienced a comforting sense of constituency, others considered it disrespectful to expect students to deliver the same academic performance despite the situation and its grave consequences.

When I moved from Berkeley to Oakland in March, I witnessed how the shelter in place order ignored Oakland’s homeless population. I also noticed that acquiring masks to follow the new restrictions was a privilege. Meanwhile, hospitals were calling for donations of PPE, the same equipment that was now demanded by the city to be worn by all inhabitants. Throughout the semester, I kept getting severely sick but I never witnessed pressure on the hospitals and healthcare centers. As the student population diminished, the university health center had fewer and fewer patients and by May I was often the only patient. Going home from the healthcare center, I passed a city children’s hospital with a constant and disproportionately long queue. The contrast between my direct access to the empty healthcare center and the lines I saw at the children’s hospital highlights how poorly medical resources and personnel are distributed in the Bay Area. Decades of gentrification had already made inhabitants extremely vulnerable to crisis, and death rates, risk of transmission, and economic impact differed depending on racial and class positions, increasing insecurity, instability, and policing in the area.

* * *

            I, Anna, felt connected to the seriousness of COVID-19 early on because I have a close friend living in China. At the end of 2019 and beginning of 2020, I heard her talk about the increasing lockdowns and severity of the situation there. However, like most of the West, I did not anticipate just how impactful and consequential it would become. I distinctly remember speaking to a fellow exchange student in early March about what it would look like when the virus got to Sweden, and we felt confident that no matter what, our exchange wouldn’t be impacted. Two weeks later, we received an email from our home university informing us that we had five days to pack up and return home. The feelings of alarm, shock, and anger are hard to describe. To say it was upsetting to have my education and life disrupted on such short notice is an understatement. Despite fighting for the right to remain in Lund, the next week I found myself on a flight home to Idaho, to navigate the coming months with my family. My friends and I were the first to get that email, but over the course of the next month I saw nearly all the exchange students I knew depart from Lund.

The situation in Idaho was tense– the inequality and strains of rural health care systems became clearer than ever and my town became polarized with many people refusing to acknowledge the reality of the public health crisis or take measures to protect themselves and others. Academically, my thesis gave me a concrete goal to work towards, but the feelings of disconnection and nostalgia that resulted from writing it at the same desk where I used to do my high school homework were off-putting, contributing to the strangeness and uncertainty of the situation. Importantly, I got to spend a lot of time outside and spending lockdown with my family largely staved off feelings of isolation. I knew I was returning to Lund in the fall, which also gave me something to move towards and in a way provided an end date to my own lockdown.

* * *

Lin told us about being in Beijing, China during the initial months of the outbreak. They felt unsafe about having to go to work and being exposed to transmission while the rest of the region was in lockdown and the rest of the world wasn’t aware of what was coming. Lin explained the strict lockdown meant that China was able to return to normalcy while the rest of the world  locked down and experienced second and third waves. This was evidenced by the fact that they were able to vacation in Yunnan Province with their partner early on in the pandemic. While Lin felt Chinese people were willing to stay home, it seemed as though Swedes weren’t willing to sacrifice as much.

* * *

Alex spent the beginning of the pandemic in Italy and explained that the first lockdown in March was easy to cope with and navigate because they were with their family. The summer in Italy was overwhelmingly affected by the requirement to use masks in all public places, still, it was more relaxed than the initial months of the lockdown. Alex expressed that the far-reaching and sudden restrictions felt like a reaction solely to the state of panic, which made it harder to trust the Italian government’s ability to handle the crisis.

* * *

Adi is from Nigeria, but was already in Sweden during the initial months of the outbreak. Like Lin, Adi got the impression that Sweden didn’t understand what was coming at the beginning of 2020. Even after the pandemic reached Europe, they thought that the Swedish government used denial as a mechanism to impose normality.

* * *

            COVID-19 changed everyone’s thought processes and preparation for the fall semester. Because of Sweden’s approach, everyone was expecting and looking forward to in-person classes. The prospect of still getting to meet and study with classmates from around the world was a big draw for Alex, Adi, Anna, and Lin and provided something to look forward to. Alex did question whether coming to Lund was really the best decision, but ultimately thought they would still get a valuable educational experience. Lin and Adi were confident in the decision to start their studies in Lund and were disappointed when studies moved online in November.

Closed Borders and Border Crossing

My trip home from California included four flights over four days. Since flights from Heathrow to Copenhagen were cancelled, I, Rikke, had to decide between staying a night in Hamburg or Stockholm. My decision was based upon familiarity of and the sense of being close to home rather than concrete safety considerations. Even though Hamburg was closer to Copenhagen and Stockholm was an epicenter for transmission at the time, Stockholm felt safer solely based on the feeling of familiarity.

I live in Sweden but work in Copenhagen and despite the closed Swedish/Danish border, I still cross it daily to go into work. At first, entering Denmark was strange as the passport check divided Danes and foreigners into two different checkpoints, forcing the Danish passport carriers to move ahead to the next checkpoint closer to the destination. Another manifestation of power and policing was the heavy and demonstrative guarding by uniformed soldiers visibly carrying weapons. The strange experience of entering Denmark made me reconsider the act of border-crossing altogether. Beforehand, crossing the border was so normalized that I didn’t feel like I was crossing a border. The attention drawn to the physical and symbolic border during the COVID-19 pandemic made the it tangible for me. When Sweden banned the entry of Danish citizens, I decided to avoid speaking in Danish publicly while in Sweden because Danes, as I was told by an angry man at Lund station, weren’t welcome in Sweden just as Swedes weren’t welcome in Denmark. Deciding specifically what nationalities are unwanted and calling the virus and mutations according to their origin not only reinforces fear of the virus, it enforces a fear for certain nationalities by identifying “them” as a threat to public health.

* * *

Alex’s experience travelling to Lund in August was peculiar because of the amount of documentation required at the Swedish/Danish border. They described being treated as an “outsider,” despite being an EU citizen. Though the suspicion was a new experience, it made them realize that for racialized, non-EU citizens it was common and expected. Knowing and recognizing their privilege and suddenly having it taken away highlighted the differentiated and discriminative border crossing process. Perhaps now more people will have more of an understanding of the precarity that others experience when moving across borders.

* * *

I, Anna, had similar thoughts while traveling home in March and back to Sweden in the fall. As a young, white woman I have never worried or given much thought to the implications of border crossing on an individual level. However, upon my return to Lund after the EU had banned United States citizens from entering the bloc, for the first time ever my passport was a disadvantage to me. I did not want my fellow travelers to know I was American because of the poor handling of the crisis in my country as I felt it would increase suspicion towards me. In a globalized world and continent, the passport you carry means borders are either merely checkpoints or tangible and consequential. COVID-19 has turned all travelers into suspects, creating a lack of trust and an increase in group policing between fellow passengers and between travelers and border guards.

Conclusions

A lot is yet to be said about international students’ vulnerable position in Lund during the crisis. Concerns about loneliness and isolation far away from one’s home country and family, healthcare and insurance, visa requirements and academic performance, accessing news and understanding restrictions as non-Swedish speakers. Ultimately, lack of familiarity with Sweden, Swedish institutions, and society makes it even harder to navigate an unprecedented time for all. The discourse that we are “all in the same boat” ignores fundamental differences: some lost loved ones, others didn’t; some worked from home, others lost their jobs; some have access to healthcare, others do not; some can watch the news, others can’t; some worry about rent, still others were deported. We are all struggling, but in countless different ways.

While to some degree the idea that we are all in the same boat as we continue to

experience and navigate COVID-19 is true – everyone is impacted and is living with uncertainty – examining our own experiences and those of other international students makes clear that identities and positionalities are as central as ever in shaping daily realities, contexts, and decision making. Our privileges and vulnerabilities impact access to healthcare, traveling, education, and our sense of safety and security. As the pandemic continues to dominate our lives and as we continue to understand its true consequences, this will be important to remember. Even those bonded by national identity or educational location and experience are impacted in various ways. Intersectional feminism will be a crucial tool in understanding, examining, and addressing the impacts of this moment in history – without it, any analyses about COVID-19 will be incomplete. Moments of turmoil can be opportunities for challenging and transforming the structures and systems that bind and constrain us all, and the pandemic is certainly a moment ripe with potential.

The world’s response to COVID-19 makes us wonder about other pressing issues of our time. What if we treated the climate crisis the way we treated COVID-19? Would it change the response and potential for solutions? What would happen if death counts resulting from starvation, poverty, or police brutality were distributed on a daily basis? There are many crises that have not gripped the world’s attention in the same way this pandemic has, but that have equally disastrous effects. We hope that as a community we can take what we’ve learned from COVID-19 and apply it elsewhere.

Note: We used aliases for the participants and opted to use they/them pronouns for everyone.

Anna is from the United States and studied international relations and gender studies in her bachelor’s. Rikke is from Denmark and studied gender studies in her bachelor’s in Lund and in the United States during the academic year of 2019/2020. Both are now studying in the Gender, Migration, and Social Justice master’s program at Lund University.

February 21, 2021

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