International Students Story

Javier Maroto, a UA foreign exchange student from Spain, was only able to attend one semester at the university because of embassy closures in March 2020. Maroto is studying telecommunications engineering. 

Despite challenging conditions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, eight international exchange students joined the UA community this semester.

Some of the students were planning to study abroad at the UofA in Fall 2020 when the pandemic broke out last March. Since then, they have battled visa appointment cancellations, rescheduled flights, delayed program starts and uncertain circumstances at the UofA before arriving in January.

The pandemic forced the closure of U.S. embassies worldwide, leaving students unable to receive the J-1 visa they needed to travel abroad. Some program advisors adapted to the uncertainty, postponing the students’ time abroad until the spring.

Sara Zoccheddu, a junior studying computer engineering at Polytechnic of Turin in Turin, Italy, planned to arrive in Fayetteville for the fall semester. Her initial appointment with the U.S. Embassy in Milan was canceled after it closed until December 2020, leaving her questioning if she would ever receive her visa.

“I got lucky because they opened some appointments in the south of Italy, so really far away, but it was the only possibility,” Zoccheddu said. “I had to take a plane and go there, and they were the last appointments I could do, so it was really a last-minute thing.”

While visa applications are typically a difficult process for exchange students, worsening global pandemic conditions severely impacted students’ ability to receive their entry papers, said Lauren Hughes, coordinator of special programs in the Office of Sponsored Students and Special Programs.

“Getting a visa on a normal day is a struggle, it just is,” Hughes said. “(It’s) a financial struggle, it requires a lot of paperwork, most of the time it requires you to travel, and so just on a base level, getting a visa is not an easy task. And getting a visa in the middle of a pandemic is infinitely more difficult than that.”

In July 2020, the Trump administration announced it would revoke the visas of international students not attending in-person classes during the fall semester. The directive was swiftly reversed after an outcry from students and universities nationwide.

But the policy reversal did not leave students with easier access to visa appointments. A March 2020 federal mandate shuttered U.S. embassies, leaving students in limbo as they wondered if they would ever study abroad.

Javier Maroto, a senior telecommunications engineering student at Charles III University of Madrid in Madrid, Spain, said he realized he would have no chance at a visa after the embassy closures in March 2020. He planned on studying at the UofA for a year, but the delay of his program resulted in a shortened experience that began in January.

“We realized from the very first moment that it was not going to be an everyday normal, normal living life,” Maroto said. “We were willing to come and get some extra life back because the restrictions back in Spain are, at least in Madrid, are pretty much bigger than here.”

Maroto attends nearly all of his classes online, with one course face-to-face. While he misses interacting with other students in the classroom, he said he likes having the ability to rewind and rewatch lectures.

“It’s not the best, let’s be honest, but at least for my point, in some courses, they are so complicated in many things that I am really glad that they are online and actually recorded and you can watch them whenever you need,” Maroto said.

The limited cultural experience was a point of contention for advisors deciding whether to bring students to study at the UofA, said Cameron Caja, assistant director of custom and short-term programs. The J-1 visa, which offers non-immigrants a chance to study or work in the U.S., has educational, cultural and experiential requirements to promote international relations.

“In the middle of a pandemic, we are greatly restricted on the types of cross-cultural experiences that we can provide for our J visitors,” Caja said. “So when we’re making decisions on whether or not we can host them, or what that experience is going to look like, we need to think about it holistically. Not just the academics and what that situation’s going to look like, but what is their daily life going to look like.”

While their classes are predominantly online, both Zoccheddu and Maroto spend their days practicing their respective sports, track and soccer, attending Razorback games and sightseeing around campus and Fayetteville. Though their experience is not what they expected, both appreciate the unique campus atmosphere, which differs from their traditional experience in their home countries.

“For us, it’s like everything’s new, so even just going to the mall or taking a bus for 20 minutes was exciting,” Maroto said. “It’s like literally a town that lives around the university, it looks like it’s created just for the university. Everybody here either has a hog in the license plate or in the car or, wherever you go, you see the support to the local teams (and the) university.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has undeniably altered traditional student experiences, but Zoccheddu and Maroto both said their time spent abroad has been worth it.

“Even if you're (in) online classes, the rest of the day is still yours to live abroad,” Maroto said. “You can visit wherever you want, meet the people you want. You’ve got these small spring breaks where you can take a car and go wherever, still get to know a country you’ve just never known.”

Hanna Ellington is an assistant editor for the Arkansas Traveler.

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