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International students in college battle homesickness, and not just around the holidays

College Enrollment
Elaine Thompson
Many international students at Illinois State University say they won't be going home for the holidays, despite travel restrictions easing earlier this month.

After decades of increases, international student enrollment in the U.S. fell by 15% last school year — the largest single drop since the government started collecting data eight decades ago. Pandemic travel restrictions prevented many students from getting into the country, and it often prevented the ones here from going home.

Even though travel restrictions eased earlier this month, many international students at Illinois State University say they again won't be going home for the holidays.

Traveling home to visit family members is relatively simple for most domestic students at ISU. This is not the case for many international students.

Maegan Fernandes, a senior nursing major, was born in India, but grew up in Abu Dhabi. Her family is spread out among the U.S., the United Arab Emirates and New Zealand. Last year, Fernandes went to the emirates for a month to visit her parents. This year, she won't.

“It was much easier to make that decision last year because I hadn’t seen them for a long time, so it made sense to go home. I was like, ‘I don’t know if I will get a chance later if things start closing up again.’ So, I definitely appreciated going home that winter break especially because I had been away from family for such a long time, so it was nice to just go back and be like, ‘Oh finally. My people are here.’”

Fernandes said she will most likely visit her brother in Maryland during break, but wishes it was easier to visit her family living abroad.

Theater and costume design graduate student Jenefas Okomme said she won't go back Nigeria because of the cost and 21-hour travel time. In spite of that, she said she won't be lonely because she has relatives in New Jersey and wants to visit the New York theater scene.

“If I didn’t have any plans to travel and I had to stay home throughout all the festive season, I would feel very lonely, definitely, but I love to travel, and if I’m going to be doing that, I’m going to be having a lot of fun," Okomme said.

Some students do have problems though. Math education doctoral candidate Khadi Azimi has not seen her family from Iran in 4 1/2 years and said it has not been easy.

“The most difficult part is that you feel alone and you cannot join them. Seeing them from the screen is not like being close to them, hugging them, kissing them. It’s very different.”

For Azimi, leaving her home country will be worth it in the long run.

“Though it’s hard, but I also grow. It's for me to get some skills for myself, and I think I’m getting (to be) more mature person. I have some experiences that I couldn’t have if I didn’t leave the country.”

Isolation from family is not just felt around the holidays. Some international students deal with homesickness year-round. Fernandes said she often calls her brother because he, too, understands.

“I think the worst part is seeing when my friends can go home because my best friend has her family in Bloomington itself ... it’s nice because I’ve been kinda adopted into that family as a stepdaughter, which is really nice that they've taken me in, but at the same time it kinda sucks that I can’t go home. So that gets to me sometimes."

jenefas okomme dress.jpg
Jenefas Okomme is an international graduate student at Illinois State University studying theater and costume design.

Some international students say they feel the isolation all the more sharply because they are strangers in a strange land, grappling with cultural differences while balancing the pressures of college and for some a new language.

Okomme said the individualistic society in the U.S. jolted her in comparison to the communal society of Nigeria. At times, it has been difficult for her to make friends even though she is typically extroverted. Though some times are lonely, Okomme said it always gets better.

“It's just a matter of time. Things will settle down. It can be very overwhelming when you’re the only one and nobody sees you. You will find your circle. You will find those people that care about you. No matter how big America seems, just take it one day at a time."

Some students are used to going to family for advice on any topic. Now that Azimi has been away from Iran for so long and adapted to living in the U.S., it can be hard for her family to understand her struggles in the U.S. because she is on the other side of the cultural divide.

“Even family sometimes cannot understand what is going on for you. It is sometimes difficult, so you feel like you are alone,” she said.

Universities everywhere know about some of these challenges and they try to help.

Matt Schwab is the associate director for ISU's International House that supports international students. Schwab said during holiday breaks, I-House introduces international students who don't travel during the break to local host family organizations and resources to ensure students can still celebrate something.

“We have a number of individuals in the community and through the campus that have expressed that interest. So, depending on what the students’ interests are, we can connect them to make sure that they are able to fulfill that," he said.

Schwab hopes international students reach out to I-House when they need to talk. He said he's like a lot of people who work with I-House — someone who has studied overseas — and knows what living in a new culture is like. Schwab said I-House wants to make sure every student is cared for this winter break—– whether they are traveling the country, the world, or staying right here in Bloomington-Normal.

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Jordan Mead is a reporting intern at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021.
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