Latino students under COVID-19: With a heavy heart, I went home

Simon P. Velarde V. Zhang Jingting
As the whole world is now learning to live in a "new normal" amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, it's affecting all people, including Latino students. 
Simon P. Velarde V. Zhang Jingting

There are many Latino students in China who decided, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, to return home at the start of the year. But the tables soon turned, and with the first cases arriving in Brazil from Europe, Latin America soon became one of the worst-affected areas.

As of mid-June, the number of novel coronavirus infections in Latin America had topped 1.6 million, and weak medical systems, social inequalities and serious economic, social and political crises add to the burden.

How are Latino students who are currently enrolled in Chinese universities coping with their studies under COVID-19?

The whole world is now learning to live in a “new normal,” and it’s affecting all of us. I’m currently studying my PhD at Shanghai International Studies University. I’ve had to adjust to the pandemic twice: first when the virus initially appeared in China, and then after I decided to go home to Peru and it swept into my country weeks later.

When the epidemic first hit China in January, my university took all the necessary measures to protect the few students who remained in the dormitories at the time, such as daily temperature checks, registration every time students left the campus, and boxed food at the canteen which we had to take back to our rooms to consume alone. That quickly became the new normal I first adjusted to.

In early February, I decided it would be best to go back to Peru, and it was a total shock. There were people crammed together, restaurants and cafes open as normal, and not a mask in sight. The virus was going to hit our country hard, I remember thinking, and I wasn’t surprised when it finally did.

By the time Peru went into lockdown, classes were about to start again, but tension among the Peruvian population was building up under this new threat that was starting to establish itself among us. This had a huge impact on my studies.

I’m no stranger to online courses, but the fact that every single class had to be conducted online, all according to the time back in China, all made university a huge struggle. Some of my classes started at midnight local time, a time when my tiredness teamed up with language difficulties (all my classes are in Chinese) to make learning a major difficulty.

Luckily a couple of my professors took that into account and were able to move classes to an early time, which I’m grateful for.

When in China and on campus, I met exceptional students and scholars, shared classes with like-minded individuals, attended conferences and studied hard. Sadly, taking classes online can never substitute this, and I look forward to being able to head back to campus as soon as I can.

This new normal has affected Latino students in other ways. Andrea Paucar, a 20-year-old Peruvian who is studying a bachelor in biotechnology in Wuhan, also decided to go back to Peru when COVID-19 broke out. But as an undergraduate, there are much more classes to take online. Because of more students to be considered, class times can’t be moved to accommodate students situated around the globe.

On top of that, her classes have theory and practical lessons. Since those practical lessons can’t be done virtually, there has been a gap left in her study.

“Perhaps there will be extra classes or weekend classes next week,” she said. “Whatever the option is, I’m willing to take the challenge.”

Paucar is keen to get back to Wuhan soon, not only for the academic aspects and benefits, but also for the other things she misses.

“Life in China is something I really miss, like the food, friends, access to more academic opportunities, but for now we can only wait and keep on studying as we await the green light to head back.”

Not all Latino students studying in China headed home when COVID-19 started to take hold across the country. Fabricio (he asked us not to use his full name) from Ecuador is doing a master’s in literature at Shanghai International Studies University. He remains at the university’s Songjiang campus and says the epidemic hasn’t really affected his studies much, especially now that things are largely back to normal in Shanghai.

“At the moment I’m just writing my thesis, and I’m only taking one course,” he said. “But now I don’t have as much personal contact with my adviser, so that aspect may have a slight impact on my study and on my thesis.”

Reaction around the globe to COVID-19, though, has inspired him to pursue a PhD degree and research some of the darker sides of human nature under unique situations. He’s interested in how some countries did better than others during the pandemic, and also how racism, discrimination and xenophobia reared their ugly heads.

Students all around the world are affected by COVID-19 in different ways, facing lockdowns, online classes, loss of academic opportunities and disrupted learning schedules. In this aspect, Latin American students enrolled in Chinese universities are not unique, but their geographical distance from China, coupled with uncertainty and varying levels of preparedness to battle a pandemic and social unrest, adds a unique factor.

(Simon P. Velarde V. is a PhD student in global communication and Zhang Jingting is a postdoctoral lecturer in Latin American studies at Shanghai International Studies University.)

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