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On-campus international students remain uncertain of when they will be able to leave

Riding out a pandemic on a closed-down campus was not the American college experience senior Patrick Aoun had hoped for.

When Duke moved classes online and canceled residential activities amid the spreading coronavirus outbreak, the Berlin exchange program student decided staying on campus was safer than returning to Europe. But as life at Duke becomes increasingly isolated, he would prefer to be quarantined with his family who lives in Madrid.

“It’s just weird because everything is closed,” he said, “and I couldn’t say goodbye to most people.”

Still, Aoun is sure that staying on Duke’s campus is the safest option right now. He is one of the 437 students who were allowed to remain on campus, including many fellow international students. 

Although those students are settled on campus for now, their futures are filled with uncertainty as they navigate travel restrictions, visa renewals and the possibility that the coronavirus lockdown will continue for months to come. 

For senior Lúcia Mees, who hails from Florianópolis, Brazil, traveling home is not an option.

“My visa expires when I graduate, which is the case for many graduating international students,” she said. “With my work authorization, I can stay in the U.S. for another year, but if I leave the country near or after my graduation, I need to get my visa renewed.”

Under normal circumstances, it would not be an issue to get a new visa stamp. Mees would go home, get a stamp on her visa and return to the United States.

But with U.S. and Brazilian embassies suspending routine visa appointments until further notice, her work authorization could be at stake.

“If we stay, we’re fine, and if we leave, we can’t go back,” she said. “It’s a burden. I have to figure out a way to stay here over the summer no matter what happens.”

According to a March 14 email sent by Joe Gonzalez, assistant vice president of student affairs and dean for residential life, to students who had been approved to remain in their residence halls, May 4 is the last day students can stay on campus. Students on campus don't know what will happen if travel restrictions and a statewide stay-at-home order in North Carolina last into late May or June.

“Throwing us off campus would generate a lot of outrage,” said Tym Sokolskyi, a junior from Kyiv, Ukraine.

With his home country currently shutting down, he would not know how to travel home.

Last month, Duke denied requests from many students in CDC Level 3 countries to stay before later approving them, a response that the affected students described as chaotic.

For first-year Thuan Tran, who is from Hanoi, Vietnam, getting approval from Duke to stay was a struggle. His request was initially denied, and he said that after he emailed administration multiple times, the University finally let him remain on campus. 

Vietnam has closed its borders to all noncitizens of Vietnam, including those with a Vietnamese visa exemption certificate. Although it would be complicated, it’s still possible for Tran to return.

“Still to this day, my parents ask if I want to go back,” he said.

But he has two major concerns. His grandma is very old, and traveling home would risk infecting her. He also wants to be able to keep up with his classes, which would be complicated with a time difference of 11 hours between Vietnam and US Eastern Standard Time.

“I miss my family. I’d love to be in Hanoi right now,” Tran said. “But if I go home, there’s more to lose than to gain right now.” 

Duke also moved about 90 first-year students to dorms on West Campus, another source of stress. Tran recalled there were moving buses available from 9 a.m. until noon, and he almost missed them.

Angikar Ghosal, a first-year from Kolkata, India, had a hard time leaving his old home on East Campus.

“I wanted to spend as much time as possible in my old dorm,” he said.

He paid a price for it by missing the moving bus and having to move his belongings to West Campus by himself.

Now international students have settled in and are waiting for the pandemic to end. Aoun said he spends most of his time applying to jobs, writing papers and scrolling through social media. His flight back to Berlin is booked for early May.

“I’m scared it will be canceled, and I won’t be able to return soon,” he said.

Amid all these concerns, the students feel grateful for being able to stay at Duke.

“I feel like we’re fortunate,” Tran said. 

Being quarantined on campus with some of his closest friends is better than being isolated in a house, he added.

For Ghosal, Duke’s campus has its own benefits.

“The campus is so green,” he said. “You really start to see the beauty of life.”

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