Sam Landstra—Staff Writer
Ivana Harsono attends Dordt University from a wall-length table. She works on calculus in the corner, composition in the middle, and keeps her laptop open to jot down writing ideas on the end. Her bedroom serves as her classroom, laboratory, and dorm all at once.
Harsono does everything the normal college student does, but halfway across the world in Banten, Indonesia. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she and countless other international students have found themselves stuck in their hometowns, unable to obtain visas needed to enter the United States.
“It’s heartbreaking to think that these students’ academic plans and their family plans have been set back a semester or longer because of the pandemic,” Director of Global Education Adam Adams said.
Adams handles international student enrollment and admissions. His office grants visa invitations to students and supplies them with the necessary paperwork.
But even with help from Dordt, Harsono faced difficulty in landing a visa interview at the US embassy.
When the World Health Organization designated COVID-19 as a pandemic in March, the US closed their embassies across the world for an indefinite period, with minimal reopening occurring over the past months. Although some countries, including Canada, have been granted exceptions for international students, most non-immigration services have remained shelved.
Harsono had a visa interview scheduled for July, but it was cancelled two weeks before. She then used her emergency interview request to land a date on August 11, a week before international student orientation at Dordt.
Her suitcase had already emerged from the closet to begin packing when the embassy canned the interview again, this time only a week in advance.
With much of her fall semester now in question, her waiting period extended into October.
And again, the embassy cancelled for the third time. Harsono now looks to March as her next chance to leave the country, six months into the future.
“It’s kind of hard seeing people do offline courses and meeting friends and everything,” Harsono said. “The hardest thing is waiting.”
Without the ability to attend class in person, Harsono and others have been taking online dual-enrollment courses through Dordt.
While their studies differ from the module-based work students receive while in quarantine or isolation, they still use a mix of synchronous and asynchronous learning.
“It’s quite straightforward online,” Stephanie Mere, a freshman from The Gambia said. “The way Dordt has prepared it is quite adaptable.”
Mere has waited for a visa interview since her acceptance to Dordt in June. She makes progress online on her communication studies major in the meantime, often working into the late hours of the night because of the five-hour time difference. Sometimes her head does not find the pillow until 5 AM.
“I think it’s been a wakeup call for some of them—how challenging the US education system at the college level is,” Adams said.
As is the case with all freshman students, Dordt assigned Mere a roommate and residence hall with an RA. She still sees the messages from the email group for her wing in West Hall, announcing events and get-togethers.
“You just wish that you were there to be a part of it,” Mere said. “I feel like I’m missing out a lot, to be honest.”
Because of their country-bound captivity, international students stand to lose out on their extracurriculars too, on top of coursework and community.
Volleyball played a key role in bringing Lucas Lopes to Dordt. He had played it for ten years but left the sport during his senior year of high school. In his home country of Brazil, one must choose between attending school or playing sports as they reach adulthood. Dordt and men’s volleyball coach Chad Hanson offered a chance for Lopes to do both.
“I just love how he said the games were, and the plays, and the people, and the community,” Lopes said.
But the US consulate in Brazil postponed his September visa interview date to November; and Lopes has yet to step foot on campus, much less the De Witt Gymnasium.
Boris Le, a freshman and prospective teammate of Lopes, is another student stuck in this situation. He is fortunate—having managed to secure a visa—but strict travel regulations imposed by his home country of Australia have kept him grounded until December.
“I’m very sick of just sitting at home. It just sucks,” Le said. “But I like to look on the bright side, so… I just see it as a chance to prepare myself before I go to Dordt.”
Le and Lopes attend virtual meetings with their coach every so often and try to get in as many volleyball touches as they can with their limited means.
COVID-19 has parlayed the visa process into a game of anticipation for the likes of Harsono, Mere, Lopes, and Le. And even with dates marked on calendars, they know all too well the gamble of these commitments.
“It gets stressful,” Le said. “What if the virus gets really bad in my state and I can’t even leave in December?”
Adams works to stay in touch with students about the status of their interviews and reports troubles with embassies to an anonymous database. With it, advisors can track where visa delays and denials are popping up around the world and notify the Department of State. He also hopes to schedule an earlier interview date for Harsono.
“We want to have them on campus because they want to be here,” Adams said. “They provide a vibrancy to our campus, as well as leadership.”
But for now, all these international students can do is wait and try to stay positive in the middle of it all.
“I can feel involved with it and I am doing what I like to do,” Lopes said. “I know that I am in college, even if I am not there.”