When I originally came to the United States for medical school, I was very nervous. I knew no one in Minnesota and was separated from my family by a greater than six hour flight to another country. At the time, I was reassured by knowing that if I felt homesick, I could fly home during the weeks I did research and complete my responsibilities remotely. I always considered this sort of a “safety net.” I felt more comfortable knowing that if I was struggling with school or the transition of living in a new country, I could always return to where life felt more familiar.
That changed when an unexpected chain of events erupted in early February of 2020. COVID-19 began to spiral out of control, with cases skyrocketing in the United States. For many, this was an uncertain period of time. One had to wonder whether we were going to be okay.
For medical students, classes suddenly went virtual and all clinical activities were postponed, meaning we were allowed to go home (or so I thought). We were given a formal announcement by our administration on Thursday, and my classmates were quickly booking their $30 dollar flights to go back to their families. I went online to book my flight only to be met with a stern warning: the government of Canada announced that borders would be closing in less than 24 hours. That wasn’t enough time for me to book an international flight home. I needed to figure out an alternative option quickly.
I called my extended family in California and asked if I could stay with them for a few weeks. “How long could this pandemic last?” I thought naively to myself. At that point, I think many of us were thinking that this would be a short-term problem.
What was originally planned to be a two-week trip with my relatives became a three-month stay. It was not until medical schools allowed learners back into the clinic that I returned to Rochester. I never had the opportunity to visit my parents and sister like many of my classmates did at the time.
I struggled to find out how I would make it through lockdown without my family. As an international student, one of the most challenging aspects was being able to figure out what support systems were in place for students like me. Granted, this was the first time that school systems were challenged with figuring out a solution for ongoing education while in-person learning was not permitted. There was no one to blame in this situation, and we all did our best to navigate our way through the pandemic.
An article published in the Asian Journal of Psychiatry in 2020 accurately summarized the challenges of international students in that they “have unmet psychological needs of relatedness for being physically away from [their] significant others and lacking social support in the local community, not to mention the psychosocial problems associated with the society’s responses to COVID-19.” When the lockdown started, I felt a sense of detachment from Canada, a country I found so familiar. At the time, I had only been in the United States for six months. I hadn’t begun to see this country as my home yet. Simultaneously, I was still trying to figure out who my people were within my class. I really, really wanted to go home and just lay in bed. But sadly, I couldn’t.
Once the lockdown eased, I finally had the chance to go home over the holidays. However, the restrictions since then have made it very difficult to fly home regularly. I have only been able to visit my family three times since the pandemic began. A mandatory 14-day quarantine was in place for almost a year, which meant that I needed at least two weeks to be able to go to Canada. In medical school, two weeks off from school are a rare occurrence. Currently, you don’t need to have a negative COVID test 24 hours before entering the country. However, this wasn’t the case for the first two years of the pandemic.
The pandemic was a challenging period for me because I was so far from my support system. Many of my friends were either locked down with their partners or out of town during the first few months, and I felt very isolated because of this. I felt lonely almost every single day leading up to my second year of medical school.
The silver lining during this pandemic, however, was that I developed a lot of valuable skills while living far from my family since, because of the pandemic, I couldn’t lean on them for support. I’ve learned to file my taxes and buy a car suited to my needs. More embarrassingly, I learned how to fill my gas tank (thanks Alex!). I can now move between places without my family being there to help me. I created a new circle of friends and found a group of people that I consider my family away from home. America feels less alien now, and I think these experiences have made me stronger and more confident to tackle unfamiliar challenges without feeling intimidated.
So take my advice: if you are an international student and unable to see your family, you are not alone. This is a difficult time for all of us, compounded by navigating an unfamiliar country. I know some days are harder than others: there are days that can feel lonely, and being so far away from our support system can be a difficult challenge to navigate. Thankfully, some things that have helped me are finding my people and discovering new aspects of the town I currently live in that make me feel like I’m home. These things have immensely improved my transition to the United States, but it took a long time for me to figure that out.
Thankfully, despite the struggles of not being physically close with our families, technology can keep us connected with our loved ones, and I am still in touch with my friends and family in Canada. Still, I know there is nothing more I want to eat right now than my mom’s crab curry. Home cooked food is not something you can replicate.
Author’s note: A special acknowledgement to Barbara Mullen, who always helps my writing come to life.
Image courtesy of Neha Deo.
It can be difficult to balance relationships with medical school — not just a romantic one, but also those with our family and friends. With this column I hope to show a more vulnerable side of the challenges that come with balancing medical school and maintaining our personal relationships. If you are reading this and are feeling the same, just know you are not alone!