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UMass students describe traveling internationally amid the COVID-19 pandemic

Students describe their unique experiences with international air travel during a global pandemic

March 29, 2021

Students at the University of Massachusetts who lived outside of the U.S. chose to travel internationally to be on campus this semester, basing their decision on the University’s announcement to let certain students back on campus for Spring 2021.

The differences in COVID-19 culture between countries

Ana Belen Moscoso Gonzales, a freshman biochemistry and molecular biology major from Peru, traveled through numerous destinations to arrive at UMass this spring.

“Last year, I moved to France for a year almost and because of the pandemic,” Gonzalez said. “In November, I was able to book [an] emergency flight to go back to Peru; that was the first travel I did.”

After the Jan. 10, she traveled from the capital of Peru to Arkansas first to visit her brother and then to Boston. Soon after, she made her way to Amherst.

After her series of travels, Gonzalez noticed a stark difference in the way people in countries outside of the U.S. were taking precautions for the pandemic versus the people in the U.S.

“The Washington airport was full [and] packed like normal, and there was no social distancing,” she said.

“Here in America, I’ve seen a lot of people just wear [a] cloth mask or like [a] bandana,” which was different from what she saw in the airports in France and Peru. There was also a contrast in the precautions that airports implemented between the countries.

“In France, they measure[d] your temperature before you go into the airplane, and when I arrived in Peru, I had to show [a] negative test too, [but] here, [in the U.S.], I didn’t really see any check-ups in the airports,” Gonzalez said. “They didn’t check [your] temperature or make you present a certificate that said that you were safe.”

Freshman computer science major Himanshu Jagdish Padnani, who traveled from India, also noticed such differences.

“I was in two or three domestic flights in the last month and all of them had really, really, really strict precautions,” Padnani said. “They gave you masks, they gave you a sanitizer, they gave you a face shield and they’d scan multiple stuff and then open your bags and everyone [had their own procedures as well], depending on the airline.”

However, in the international flight from Delhi to the Newark Liberty International Airport, he didn’t receive much to protect him from the virus.

“They didn’t even give me a mask [and] if you don’t wear [a face covering], they ban you from United [Airlines] but they didn’t give you anything. They just give a few alcoholic wipes, which I wiped the [seat] handles [with] and the screen in front of me. Otherwise, it was really lax,” he added.

The emotions involved with traveling internationally

 When speaking about their feelings during the travel, the students felt stressed and anxious.

“I think it was pretty stressful. I was wearing two masks and [a] face shield in all [my] flights…the mask was really, stressing [me out] because I, personally, can’t sleep with a mask so I wasn’t able to do anything,” Gonzalez said.

She was also surprised by the rules in place for mitigating the spread of COVID-19: “I expected airports to be, I don’t know, way more strict with social distancing, and all those things.”

Gonzalez also described an incident regarding COVID-19 protective gear. She said that in France and Peru face shields are required in order to go into the air.

“And here, obviously, it wasn’t. People were staring at us — my mom and I — [because we were] wearing the face shield so it [was weird because] people [were] like, ‘What are you doing?’ and stuff like that,” Gonzalez said.

This experience did make her feel tense and  “a bit uncomfortable.:

“I was already really, really nervous to come here and be in this completely new environment on my own,” Gonzalez said.

When she was in Oregon and Houston, Gonzalez also faced similar issues.

“I saw people not wearing masks at all, and at this point, that made me really uncomfortable because I’m really used to that; it’s already part of my daily life, wearing masks,” she said.

She was also surprised by the population density in the airports.

Ashna Chirag Patel, also a freshman biochemistry and molecular biology major, highlighted a similar experience. Patel traveled from Nairobi, Kenya, and arrived at Amherst on Jan. 25 of this year.

“Traveling in these trying times was extremely anxious, to say the least,” she said. “You never know whether the person next to you on the flight has COVID-19 or not, so it’s quite a big risk.”

Patel was quite disappointed with her travel, especially as she used to have more lively experiences on flights pre-COVID.

“I remember how excited I would be every time I’d get on a plane, I’d watch all the movies, eat all my food and if I had the luck of being seated next to a good person, I’d try my best to talk to them and get to know them because we were literally going to be joined by the hip for the next few hours,” Patel said.

Due to the widespread nature of the virus, Patel couldn’t have the same experience this time around.

“Traveling in these COVID-19 times has been the exact opposite,” Patel said. “I [didn’t] want to be close to anyone as I [didn’t] want to compromise my health. I didn’t want to eat my food [either] as that would require me to take off my mask and I most surely did not want to touch the tray table or the remote and the TV as I [didn’t know] how well it’s been sanitized.”

“It was a horrible 23 hours of flying and I just wanted to be done with it,” she said.

The new restrictions and regulations due to the pandemic

Given the high-risk nature of COVID-19, numerous airports have placed heavy restrictions and policies to limit the spread of the virus during these travels. This, however, presented a series of challenges for these students.

For Gonzalez, one of her airlines wasn’t able to provide her with meals. “They don’t give you food on our planes, so it was 12 hours of [having] nothing to eat….it was awful,” she said.

There were also numerous regulations at each of the destinations these students arrived.

“When I traveled from France to Peru, I had to quarantine for 14 days in Peru,” Gonzalez said.

“And then when I traveled from Peru to the United States, I entered through Houston, they had no actual regulations there. They didn’t ask for a negative test or quarantining or anything”.

On the other hand, she said in Massachusetts, they asked for a negative test. She also had to fill out a form submitting her negative test and confirming she was in the U.S. for three days before arriving in Massachusetts so she didn’t have to quarantine again.

Padnani also faced difficulties due to all these changing regulations between destinations, especially when booking his flight.

“[From the] regulation perspective of things, [it] is really difficult because you don’t have information that is really accurate. Most of the time, it is changing frequently, [and] you don’t know what’s going to happen when you go. So, the whole thing becomes really difficult.”

He said that government websites may change or airlines have their own rules. Or what is implemented apron arrival is different from what is written. He said all of this was “difficult” to manage.

Obtaining student visas during lockdowns

In addition to all of this, the students also faced numerous challenges with getting their student visas. Due to the lockdowns in each country, the U.S. consulates and embassies were closed for numerous months at times, which made it difficult for them to plan their travel as they weren’t sure they’d be allowed to enter the U.S. at all.

Padnani tried to get a visa for three or four months at the Mumbai consulate because it was so overwhlemed with applicants.

“It was impossible to get an appointment anywhere,” he said.

He was finally able to get an appointment, but it was at the consulate in a city much farther from where he lived.

Gonzalez also faced similar issues, where she had to balance her visa paperwork between France and Peru.

“I tried to do my visa when I was in France….so I started on my paperwork there, but then France went into a second lockdown and they closed that embassy too, and the Peruvian embassy was already closed,” she said.

“The only option I had was to go back to Peru and travel to Ecuador to [get] my visa there, [and] the only date that was available in Ecuador was Jan. 11, or something like that, [so] it was gonna be really, really tight,” she explained

The Peruvian Embassy eventually opened, but according to Gonzalez, they really did not have a lot of time slots for the visa.

“At the end, I just had to mash [the documents] all together and send it to the Embassy of the United States in Peru, so I was able to get an appointment I think like a month before traveling, so that was fine at the end,” she said.

Arriving at UMass and the support received

After the students finally reached UMass, they were sent to the Mullins Center to get tested and pick up their move-in items.

For Padnani, however, the situation turned dire as he came in a cab which dropped him off at Dickinson Hall at Orchard Hill, which was quite far from the Mullins Center, thereby leaving him stranded with five large suitcases in the peak of the winter.

In the end, Padnani was able to complete his testing and follow the move-in protocol, but was disappointed with the way UMass supported students traveling from outside of the U.S.

“There was no assistance [from UMass], there was zero assistance,” he said.

Padnani said he heard from people that many universities provided a shuttle service from the airport for students but UMass did not.  Padnani said he thought they should have one from Boston at least and he didn’t understand why they didn’t.

He also faced severe inconveniences with the timings of the Mullins Center and had to factor in their closing time when planning his journey.

“You must reach there [between] 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., because [the] COVID testing center is open [only at that time], and that is the inconvenience that got added,” he said. “So, I need to find flights first, they must be direct, they must be affordable, but at the same time, they must be allowing me to reach UMass between these times [8 a.m. to 4 p.m.].” He also needed to factor in travel time to Amherst from an airport.

Padnani also felt that UMass wasn’t accommodating enough of the situation of international students. According to him, most students had a helper come with them as a means of transportation, so they were able to go around between their dorms and the Mullins Center.

However, he felt that that isn’t always the case and that there should be a system for students without transportation as well.

“Not everyone has that privilege [of having transportation], and it’s not wrong, so it’s good to have a relative but [some] people also don’t, and you should have a system around that.”

Patel also felt that UMass didn’t do enough to support such students. “Maybe it’s because we’re in a pandemic, but UMass did the bare minimum [in supporting our international travel].”

Gonzalez also made similar comments, explaining that “they weren’t involved” with her travel itself, but that they assisted with her paperwork.

“I had to do everything [the visa paperwork] in a rush….and they were able to assist me.” Gonzalez said. “[Especially] the IPO, they worked with me to get all the papers and everything ready for the visa, so that’s the main aspect where they offered more help.”

Mahidhar Sai Lakkavaram can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter, @Mahidhar_sl.

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