On campus or online, international students found ways to keep learning

ERIE, Pa. — Laura Gil was in the Bahamas, on a spring break trip with friends, when Penn State announced it would transition to a remote-learning environment due to COVID-19.

Gil, a triple major at Penn State Behrend — she’s studying business economics, international business and management information systems — considered going home to her family, in Bogota, Colombia. Instead, she returned to Erie; as a resident assistant, she wanted to be on campus to help other international students who couldn’t go home.

“We thought it might be a few weeks,” she said. “We had no idea.”

As the pandemic worsened, countries began to close their borders. Gil put her belongings in black garbage bags and drove them to a rented storage unit. Then she headed to the airport.

A portrait of Penn State Behrend student Laura Gil

Laura Gil returned to Colombia at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. She's now back at Penn State Behrend, completing a summer internship and on her way to a triple major in business economics, international business and management information systems.

Credit: Contributed photo

“I took my laptop, a notebook and a binder,” she said. “The rest I left (in Erie). I thought I’d be back in a month.”

She arrived in Bogota on a Friday night. The next day, Colombia’s airports closed.

With three majors, Gil maintains a heavy course load — typically 24 credits a semester. As the pandemic continued, she adjusted to a new, Zoom-based academic routine.

“It was difficult at first, because I wasn’t accustomed to studying or learning online, but I adjusted,” she said. “My professors understood and were very flexible. They were in a new situation, too.”

Gil returned to Behrend in March 2021, almost exactly a year after she had left the college. Unpacking those black garbage bags was like opening a time capsule, she said.

“You forget what you had, and what you had been doing,” she said. “Then you open a bag, and it all comes back.”

Many of Behrend’s international students have yet to return. With consulates closed in much of the world, they have not been able to renew their visas, said Barbara Zarnick, an international student adviser in the college’s office of Educational Equity and Diversity Programs. Some learned entirely online this year, completing their course requirements from China, Sudan and other countries.

“Coming back is complicated,” Zarnick said. “We have quite a few students who want to come back and are making plans to do so, but for some, it’s just impossible right now.”

Gil feels lucky to have returned in person. She has an apartment near Behrend’s campus and is now fully vaccinated. She plans to spend the summer in Erie, completing an internship at Logistics Plus.

“I love being here again,” she said. “I am so glad to be back.”