Most foreign exchange students return home

Sponsoring organizations mandate repatriation

Carolina+Rios+spoke+at+the+multicultural+assembly+earlier+in+the+school+year.+

Caroline Steiger

Carolina Rios spoke at the multicultural assembly earlier in the school year.

By Katie Darragh, Cathedral High School - IN

Due to its commitment to diversity, Cathedral is home to many foreign exchange students belonging to programs such as Foreign Links Around the Globe (FLAG) and International Experience (IE-USA). Admissions has also welcomed students without an agency through direct placement.

However, due to recent outbreaks of COVID-19, many of these students’ time on the Hill has been brought to an unexpected and premature end.

Counseling director Mr. Duane Emery reported that he was informed during the third week of March of FLAG’s plans to send their students home. According to Emery, FLAG cited its uncertainty of the events to come as the main reason it asked for its students to return to their home country.

“It wasn’t a Cathedral decision, but as a partner of theirs we certainly support the decision they made and understand it,” Emery said.

He explained how many host families committed to housing the students until the beginning of July, and so if unanticipated travel bans were to mandate that students to remain in the United States well into the summer months, the company would be forced to relocate the students to new hosts.

There is also a question of health safety. If a host family were to contract the virus, the program would relocate the student to a new host family, yet questioned the likelihood of another local family willing to take in a student who was just exposed to the virus.

On top of the logistics, Emery mentioned a number of legal concerns such as insurance and waivers of parental rights that are in place only during the school year. “So then the question becomes are we willing to take the risk?” said Emery.

According to senior Hao Wang, a FLAG Chinese exchange student, the answer is no. “Considering the situation, this is the best option for me to leave right now,” Wang said.

However, for students such as junior Ann Zhou, also a FLAG Chinese exchange student, the prospect of returning home seems like more of a risk than a benefit. She said, “A lot of people’s families want them to come home, but my parents don’t because there is such a risk in the airport and in the plane.”

She described in an interview how her parents are asking her to wear a mask from the moment she steps into the airport to when she steps into her hotel room. “I guess I’m not eating for 30 hours,” Zhou joked.

Both students and most others traveling back to their home countries will be put in quarantine upon their arrival to their home country. For those who are able to stay at home, the prospect of not leaving the house for two weeks is not as daunting, but for those like Zhou and Wang, who will be quarantined in a government hotel, the uncertainty of where they will be located and how they will occupy their time hangs over their head.

Still, Zhou stays positive saying, “I think I am mentally prepared. I just think I need to get some snacks or stuff.”

In fact, both students reported trying to prepare, but for a lot more than just snacks for the flight.

Zhou gathered what she will need for summer reading and asked questions about service hours so that she can return to school next year prepared, and Wang is packing boxes to leave at his host family’s house until he can come back next year and pick them up for college.

Amidst packing, the students also raced to find flights home.

Hao shared his nerves for making it home due to ever-changing flight policies. “I am nervous because I can’t get a direct flight,” said Hao.

He reported how he waited too long to book his flight and now cannot find a direct flight. He is currently considering flying into Japan and then Shanghai, China, just two hours away from his hometown, but does not have a transit visa to enter Japan. Quickly running out of options, he is aiming to get a short pass before his March 29 flight.

Sophomore Fynn Hensel, a German exchange student, commented that he was lucky to grab one of the last flights to Germany. Hensel left the weekend before his agency, IE-USA, announced the same concerns as FLAG and asked its students to return home. Hensel said, “No one knows when this whole thing is going to be over and when there will be ways to go back home again.”

Still, others such as Carolina Rios, a direct placement student from Brazil, are choosing to stay with their host families. “As of now, I’m still here because I felt like it would be more dangerous for me to go back home and have to go through airports and connections than if I stay here,” said Rios.

No matter what the students are being forced or choosing to do in this time of uncertainty, according to Emery, school counselors are doing everything possible to provide the student what they may need.  However, what this entails is changing constantly. According to Emery, every student will need something different and how they help will be based entirely on what the student may need.

Despite uncertainty, he remains confident, saying, “We will figure it out. We are committed to figuring it out.”

This story was originally published on The Megaphone on March 31, 2020.