When COVID-19 took the states by storm in early March, Annie Ramita watched the students in her University of Florida dorm slowly trickle out, until the only residents left were herself and a fellow resident assistant from China.
Ramita didn’t know it would be three months before she would return home to Thailand, and two weeks of quarantine later — June 16 — before she could see her family again.
She became one of numerous international students stuck in Florida due to travel restrictions and price gouging on flights.
Ramita earns wages as a resident assistant to support her studies as a third-year undergraduate at UF. But as the pandemic developed and spring classes moved online, Ramita became uncertain what her future held.
“My bosses were making it seem like they didn’t want us to leave that much, even though no one was on the floor,” Ramita said. “I was afraid I wouldn’t get any financial support.”
When the rental period for dorms ended May 2, Ramita and other UF international students were forced to find summer housing despite uncertainty over how long they would need to remain in the states. By late May, Ramita found herself wishing she’d left when she had the chance.
“If I came back in March, it’d be so much cheaper,” Ramita said, referring to the cost of a one-way ticket back to Thailand. “I didn’t even know that I would have to pay this much.”
Ramita said she felt like the school made it sound like a bad idea to leave in March, though, because they thought travel bans might prevent the students from returning in fall.
“I don’t know what communication was sent out to them,” said Debra Anderson, Director of International Student Support Services at UF. “But from the emails I was getting in, I feel like if there was communication, it was not totally clear for students.”
For 21 years, Anderson has guided international students through the challenges of visa requirements, wordy documents and a new way of life.
Anderson is now the only staff physically present in UF’s International Center, which went remote, making her the sole person able to sign and transfer students’ documents.
From the hours of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m, students may wait outside the UFIC to meet with Anderson.
“I can see anywhere from as little as 10 during those four hours to 30,” Anderson said. “And the stress — I have kids walking up and down outside, they’re calling on the phone and crying.”
On April 24, just over a week before the move-out date, UF offered international students in limbo the option to stay in Cypress Hall until June 20, giving them only a few days to decide. A single room cost $1,470 for the duration.
“Most of my kids could not afford that,” Anderson said. “So, we would guide them to Off Campus Life, we would guide them to please look at the summer leases. You know, some of the motels and hotels around Gainesville.”
UF spokesman Steve Orlando did not respond to three phone calls and three emails inquiring about the university’s accommodations.
Bea Throngprasertchai, a second-year student from Thailand, couldn’t afford to stay in Cypress, instead subleasing an off-campus room she found on Facebook.
Throngprasertchai had to cancel her initial flight home because Thailand went into lockdown, only allowing 200 people to enter the country each day.
Every day, Throngprasertchai checked for an email from the Thai embassy telling her she’d made the quota.
“I was actually offered a spot, but it cost $2,000 dollars to fly back and it was one way,” she said. Throngprasertchai declined the offer in hopes a future date would come with a cheaper plane ticket. She wouldn’t return to Thailand until June 1, the same day as Ramita.
Both Throngprasertchai and Ramita sought scholarships to help them with the months of unforeseen costs.
They soon encountered their first barrier: International students aren’t eligible for federal financial aid or relief, such as the CARES Act or stimulus checks.
Throngprasertchai and Ramita applied to Aid-a-Gator, the university’s emergency relief fund, but the grant ran out of money and both were denied.
Student government in mid-May passed a rent relief bill, by which each applicant could receive up to $500. Both students said they applied immediately but hadn’t heard back by the time they left for Thailand in June.
According to Anderson, even external aid for international students is sparse. She often tries to nominate students for private grants, but there’s only so many to go around.
When asked how many students are even willing to come forward about financial concerns, Anderson said that’s been one of the greatest struggles in her nearly 20 years as director.
“Helping them understand it’s okay to utilize those resources is a challenge,” Anderson said. “Even today, there’s still a cultural impact on whether the students will seek assistance or not.”
Anderson said to then try and imagine navigating those resources in a language other than your first.
According to UFIC’s Global Engagement Report, 6,615 international students attended the school during the 2018-19 school year. That same year, UF had the highest international student enrollment of all Florida institutions. International students pay out-of-state tuition — $28,659 per year for undergraduates — a notable contribution to UF’s revenue.
In September 2018, the university hired a director of freshman and international admissions, Charles Murphy, in a concerted effort to increase international talent over the coming years.
However, Murphy said he’s unsure how many international students to expect in fall, given all the uncertainty around travel and visa availability.
“If travel and/or visa restrictions continue, I would expect you’ll see less new international students at UF and around the country,” Murphy said.
As the fall semester approaches and the pandemic’s effects continue, international student Annie Ramita wonders how the university will respond to the needs of her and others.
The university has yet to announce whether classes will be online in the fall, leaving Ramita unsure whether to book a return flight, or whether her on-campus job will be waiting for her.
Ramita said, in the meantime, she wishes UF would offer international students more affordable options for housing, cost of living and care during this crisis.
“It just makes me so sad that the school is making them pay so much money to have a room on campus,” Ramita said. “And it’s not even their fault that they can’t go home.”