The coronavirus outbreak has upended many lives, but it can be particularly difficult for those who are separated from their families.
Many university students have packed up and returned home amid the outbreak, but it’s more complicated for the thousands of international students studying in the Pacific Northwest. Some have remained here even as campuses empty out.
In the span of a couple of weeks, life on the campus of Pacific Lutheran University in Parkland has changed dramatically. Classes shifted online. Students can no longer eat together in the dining hall — food is served as take-out only.
Now the university is on spring break. Ricky Haneda, a 20-year-old sophomore from Japan, recently headed to Costco with a friend to stock up on provisions.
The state’s effort to control the pandemic has rearranged his campus life — the American college experience that drew Haneda here from Tokyo.
“I’ll go to classes in my room, and then I’ll go grab food and eat in my room and then do homework in my room,” he said. “The gym is closed across the entire state, too, so I work out in my room, so it’s a lot of time in the room.”
Haneda is planning to stick around for now because it would be very expensive to change his flight back to Japan.
“Part of me wants to go home because there’s a lot of people who are leaving,” Haneda said. “There’s not a lot to do and I don’t have a car, so I feel very trapped.”
All across the region, university administrators are trying to look out for students who remain on campus. Joanna Royce-Davis, vice president for student life at PLU, said the number of students still living in the dorms changes day by day. But the university is reaching out to make sure they feel connected.
“Students continue to be aware of the mental health resources available to them, and we are layered up in that regard,” she said. “Our on-campus counselors have moved to remote counseling and they continue to be available to students.”
The university also is connecting students with emergency funds in case they’re experiencing financial hardship.
Students who are thousands of miles from home face a lot of uncertainty right now.
“I’m a little stressed out,” said Laura Spataro, a 22-year-old junior at the University of Idaho in Moscow, just across the Washington border.
She is from a town in northern Italy, close to the part of the country that’s been devastated by the virus. These days, she’s been in touch with her family a lot.
“Now it’s every day I call them — either my sister or my parents or both — sometimes even multiple times a day,” Spataro said. “They have so much time now anyways and I have a lot of time too, so that helps.”
The University of Idaho has shifted to online classes and urged students not to return to campus after spring break. Spataro plays on the tennis team and her season’s been canceled. One by one, her teammates have returned to their countries: Serbia, Canada, Portugal. Now she said she’s heading back to Italy this Friday.
Shion Watabe is another one of Spataro's tennis teammates. She's from Australia and is now in her senior year. She said she's been taking a medication that suppresses her immune system, and she's been having to take particular care to bring disinfectant with her and limit the number of people she sees.
"It is definitely a lot quieter, a lot slower. I have a lot more time to myself," she said. "Even though I meet up with friends, it’s just the same group of people."
She plans to stay in the U.S.; she plans to enter graduate school for environmental engineering once she receives her degree from the University of Idaho.
Back at PLU, Kristine McKinney is a senior from Norway. Her parents were planning to come for her graduation ceremony, but now Norway has restricted international travel. She’s not sure if the ceremony will happen at all.
“It’s kind of sad, you know, when you’ve been working four years and you’ve been working really hard toward that end goal of walking with your cap and gown and waving to your parents, seeing how proud they are,” she said. “So now they’re just telling me, 'Just get the cap and gown, take pictures, pretend. We need something.’”