International students have additional pressures

International students are finding themselves unable to return home because of travel restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many are experiencing mental health and financial challenges.

For Yuna Watanabe, most days begin at 1 p.m. or when she has enough energy to get out of bed.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and a lack of finances, the 18-year-old communications major has found herself stranded in Costa Mesa, thousands of miles away from her home in Hong Kong.

“I came to Costa Mesa thinking if I ever felt the need to see my family I can go. But that's not the case anymore so I've been feeling a little bit lost,” Watanabe said.

She added that she has no idea when she will have saved enough money to afford a flight home but estimated it might be another year and a half before she sees her family again.

Watanabe said she spends most of her day struggling with her mental health, expressing herself on a YouTube channel, painting and attending online classes.

She said she has struggled with her mental health all semester and deals with dissociative episodes as a result of a trauma she suffered in ninth grade.

“I don't think that my mind wants to deal with any of the emotions that I'm feeling recently. I'm just over how now that we are in quarantine, we have more time to think about stuff and it's getting to me,” Watanabe said.

She credited her therapist at the Orange Coast College Student Health Center’s mental health center with helping her to cope with challenging circumstances.

Larry Valentine, director of the Mental Health Center, said students like Watanabe have struggles that are understandable considering such circumstances.

“Because being away from their families, being away from the culture they were raised in, being away from so many different things even during normal semesters — it's so difficult,” Valentine said.

He added that the pandemic only compounds the existing challenges.

“And now not even being able to see people in class, not being able to do some things that you're used to doing, makes it even more difficult,” Valentine said.

Her health hasn't been Watanabe’s only concern — money and getting food has also been a struggle.

Because Watanabe is from Hong Kong, her tuition per semester is about $5,000, which she said adds to her family’s existing financial struggle.

Watanabe said that she feels guilty for leaving her family but that her parents insisted she finish higher education instead of taking the job she was offered after high school graduation.

A combination of financial world woes and her school schedule has left Watanabe unsure of when she will see her family again, but she said she is finding a new sense of family in the Global Engagement Center.

“We feel like a family thanks to the Global Engagement Center. We have school events specifically for international students so that we can mingle, and we can talk about each other's culture and learn a different part of the world,” Watanabe said.

Watanabe was recently hired by the Global Engagement Center, but no one from the center was available for comment.

Watanabe said her parents were more concerned for her safety and health in the United States than she is for them because Hong Kong has been proactive in their approach to the lock down and have readily available testing for $23.

Returning from the U.S. would require Watanabe to wear a monitoring bracelet from Hong Kong’s government.

“If you are coming from the U.K. or North America, they give you this wristband that you have to wear for two weeks and this is basically telling everyone where you are supposed to be at and you're on a priority list to be tested for corona,” Watanabe said.

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