Living in temporary accommodation with classmates, interacting with student groups, and hoping to soon return home — Indian students stranded in the United States of America amid the coronavirus outbreak are putting up a brave fight.
The problem of being stranded in a country like the US becomes even bigger as the Donald Trump-led nation is now the epicentre of the disease.
To date, the COVID-19 pandemic has globally claimed the lives of 126,811 people and infected about 2,004,383.
From the end of March, Vinay P, a student of Masters in Data Science in Massachusetts’ Worcester Polytechnic Institute, has been staying with a group of friends from the same institute in a temporary accommodation near his institute.
Ever since the outbreak of COVID-19 sent alarm bells across the United States, many students like him have had to find alternative accommodation in a country which has been one of the worst hit in the last one month with almost six lakh cases and over 22,000 deaths so far.
Educational institutions across the country have offered accommodation in the form of common rooms and bathrooms, but many like Vinay have chosen to get their own temporary arrangements.
“Many of my friends in other colleges didn’t have the option of staying on campus though, they were asked to leave campus and had to scamper for housing either in friend’s houses outside or go to their relatives’ place,” said Vinay.
“They have rental agreements for a 11-month period or so and they have an option to sublease. A lot has to be looked into before taking one — like the expense of utilities for that particular house and how the split up will be for the different students in the house to name a few,” he added, pointing out that finding these accommodations is not easy at this critical juncture.
Adding up to the existing crisis several students are facing, Vinay explained that with him not being on a part-time job any more, it has also taken a toll on his finances.
“I was working on the campus in the dining services. Now the campus is closed and I do not have the job. For those who were employed as teaching assistants, the option for working online is there though,” he said.
2,50,000 Indian students stranded
Paritosh Raghunand, who is pursuing MS in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Washington — Seattle, said that the embassy is in constant touch with the student fraternity.
“The embassy has also organised webinars to help answer any queries or doubts. I have read about certain groups of Indian students demanding an evacuation from the US although the US government has strictly denied any such requests from the Indian government,” he said.
An estimated 2,50,000 students from India are stranded in the United States due to the sudden closure of universities, in a bid to contain the spread of the pandemic in the country, following a lockdown in the South Asian country on March 24.
Paritosh said that after the first case was reported in the US and a lockdown was initiated in the state of Washington, all campuses were closed and notices were sent to students living on campus to find accommodation elsewhere in the city.
“My close friend had to move out of her campus residence and rent an apartment nearby. Although sufficient notice was provided, quite a few students were affected by the lockdown. Personally, the lockdown has not affected my accommodation as I have always stayed off-campus and all building managers are taking extra precautions for residential apartments,” he said.
Recently, a group of 500 students attended an Instagram live session with the Indian Embassy, during which they interacted with the country’s Ambassador to the United States, Taranjit Singh Sandhu.
Sandhu, during the interaction, assured the students help, urging them to stay put and follow stay at home restrictions.
Finding a complicated lease accommodation too has been difficult for students like Harshini Rajkumar in New York, who was asked to suddenly vacate her hostel room on the campus late last month.
Without local contacts or other Indian students to connect with, Harshini, a final year student in an integrated course in Business Administration from Pace University, had to move to the state of New Jersey.
New York is now the epicentre of the pandemic with over one lakh cases reported till the beginning of this week.
Harshini and many others like her, who are on the verge of completing their courses, are attending online classes while staying with their relatives or family friends.
PB Rajkumar, a Chennai-based chartered accountant and Harshini’s father said they are eager to have her back home.
“She had classes till the third week of March, but she had to leave her university with all her belongings locked up. She is now comfortable and safe in my friend’s place. However, she can’t be living there for long. We only hope that as soon as flights begin operating, she is able to reach home. It is a difficult period for students like her, so my wife keeps talking to her for a long time every day to keep her spirits high,” he said.
Student groups lend a helping hand
The India Student Hub of the Indian Embassy, which is located in Washington DC, was formed a year ago for helping students in the time of emergencies.
The group has put out a lot of resources on COVID-19, including advisories and emergency information, along with peer support assistance and a dedicated website for the pandemic.
The students groups around various universities are stepping in with inputs on vacancies.
Sameer Dharur, a resident of Atlanta in the state of Georgia, and a Master’s student in Computer Science at the Georgia Institute of Technology since August 2019, told The Federal that students have regularly helped each other adjust to the new normal.
“Student associations at my college have been very active in communicating the impact of these changes to the broader student community and have regularly made recommendations on ways to mitigate the effects of these changes. I haven’t had to reach out to them or to the Indian embassy for help,” he said.
“Be it with moving houses, or with remote collaboration for classes and research, or taking to quintessentially millennial means of peer motivation such as flaunting culinary wins on social media,” he added.