For UF freshmen, a year of exciting new experiences usually concludes with a week of worry and stress as finals loom over their heads.
But, Kiara Xhindi, a UF biomedical engineering freshman from Albania, was more worried about having a place to live after the semester ended amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m still disappointed, but I’ll get over it,” said Xhindi.
UF moved courses online March 16 and encouraged students to leave campus if possible due to concerns regarding COVID-19. Xhindi, 19, said she and many other international students decided to stay in the United States because they weren’t sure if classes would return in-person before the end of the semester.
As the pandemic worsened and countries began to close their borders, students ran into issues with finding ways home before their on-campus housing contracts ended.
After contacting UF Housing through multiple emails, phone calls, and filling out surveys sent to her by UF Housing to learn more about her situation, Xhindi received an email from UF on April 24 offering to house students in Cypress Hall, the only dorm available for international students in the Summer.
UF Housing would need an answer three days later, the email read.
UF assured students only one person would be assigned to a room in order to abide by social distancing recommendations outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The dorm, $1,470 for the semester, would also have a regular maintenance and cleaning schedule, UF spokesperson Steve Orlando said.
“To me, I feel like although we are Gator Nation — it got destroyed in a second,” Xhindi said after reading the email.
Coming up with $1,470 before the start of the Summer semester wasn’t possible for Xhindi. She has been unemployed since March, and her family in Albania doesn’t make enough to cover her monthly grocery expenses in the U.S.
Aid-A-Gator, a relief fund for UF students, was offered to students experiencing financial strain, including international students. Orlando said that the university is working to support each student’s needs during this time on an individual basis, including providing flexibility in payment plans and length of the contract.
He said that students need to reach out to UF Housing to discuss their specific needs and accommodations. Xhindi said that none of the emails she received from housing had communicated that flexibility, so she rejected the Summer housing offer.
Instead of studying for her exams, Xhindi scoured the internet for flights in a last-ditch effort to make it back home.
“We’re uncertain of if we’re homeless in five days, and all people say is ‘I understand your situation, we’re working on it’,” said Xhindi during an interview on April 26.
Alongside Aid-A-Gator, the International Center remains open to assist students with visa questions, and the Counseling and Wellness Center has offered specific sessions for international students to provide support, Orlando said.
Xhindi was finally able to fly back to Albania on May 1, where she was put into quarantine upon arrival and has been there since. Her last contact with the reporter was on April 29.
This kind of bated breath waiting for a travel opportunity is common for international students as they navigate border closures, flight cancellations and global politics.
Xhindi, by the end of her ordeal, was fortunate enough to find her way home amid the crisis. But not all students share her luck. Durghesh Jha, who is from Nepal, said he isn’t sure when he’ll be able to return home.
The 19-year-old UF physics and computer science freshman said he didn’t sign up for on-campus Summer housing because it was expensive. Jha said he didn’t intend to be in the U.S. over Summer, but can’t return home due to border closures.
“It’s basically a lot of uncertainty,” Jha said. “I really hate to be in a situation where I don’t know what is going to happen a week later, two weeks later.”
Jha is expecting Nepal to open its borders sometime in May, but he said there’s no guarantee.
“If it does not open up, what am I going to do?” he asked.
UF architecture freshman Melos Shtaloja, 21, had to make tough decisions as well. He initially planned to stay in the U.S. over the Summer but decided it would be safer to return to his home in Kosovo when the pandemic closed schools.
Shtaloja secured a flight for May 1 and didn’t have to vacate his dorm until May 4. However, when his flight was delayed until May 8, he ended up staying in a friend’s off-campus apartment.
If he wasn’t able to find a way back to Kosovo, Shtaloja said he planned on staying with friends over the summer or with a relative that lives in Georgia.
He said that one of the most helpful things UF did for international students was not closing completely and forcing all students to leave campus.
He said this gave them extra time to figure out what they were going to do next, and that he knows international students at other schools that were put into stressful situations when their schools made them leave campus entirely.
What was less helpful, he said, was that there was no pause in classes when the semester shifted online to allow students to get settled.
“A lot of students were planning a trip on the other side of the world while having to do an exam in the airport,” he said.
Contact Kaelyn at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @kaelyn_cassidy.