When Giao Vo in January arrived for the first time in Russia, she remembered crying while thinking about the laughter she and her family shared the previous day. She knew from the get-go how tough the coming days and months would be.
Soon, she had to find ways to get through the Tet Holiday without her family. Luckily, she found at her university – Ural Federal University in the city of Ekaterinburg – a Vietnamese compatriot council, which sometimes organizes fun activities during the holidays to practice Vietnam’s traditions. A year into embracing new friends and a new city, her homesickness has melted away.
“I can still have a feast for Tet Holiday with many friends so that I don’t feel alienated anymore!” Vo said with gratitude.
Students who are away from their home country often refer to a quote: “A ship in a harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.”
As true as that may seem, when choosing to study abroad, international students have to be mentally and physically prepared long before stepping into a foreign land. Because as soon as they arrive at their destination, along with the suitcases they carry come family expectations, grand ambitions and no shortage of obstacles.
Although uncertainty and barriers are presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, Vietnamese students still have a strong desire to study abroad.
As of June, there were nearly 26,000 Vietnamese students in the U.S., most enrolled in colleges and universities across the country. The other most popular study-abroad locations include Australia, Canada, the U.K.and China.
One way to cure homesickness is to go out and meet new people to get to know the place, but when the global pandemic ties us all to our homes, it gets a little trickier than expected. And just like that, the longing for one’s home intensifies whenever there’s a holiday coming.
Tet is the most celebrated occasion in Vietnam where families spend time together, and Vo’s first Lunar New Year alone made her feel restless.
“Scrolling through my social media feeds just to see my friends back home celebrating made me jealous, and the idea of spending these holidays alone in the first year away from my family was terrifying,” she shared, adding that because of the threat of COVID-19, returning home was out of the question.
Of course, studying abroad means more expenses and requires extreme discipline. With Nhi Phan, an undergraduate in the United States at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, taking public transportation and moving around the city was a challenge.
“I live in a small city where public transport is not common, most people here move by cars,” she said. “When I first arrived, I was hanging around the dormitory and going to school so that I couldn't go much. What helps is that almost every day the school has a shuttle bus for students to go to the supermarket and for other conveniences.”
After starting a part-time job as a tutor, Phan saved enough to buy a Toyota car in the summer. “At first, I was worried about driving on the road by myself, but I gradually got used to it and sometimes I hung out with my friends for a road trip,” said Phan.
Thanks to her hard work, Phan, now a junior, needed her family to pay for only the first two semesters, and she’s been able to cover the $14,000 annual tuition herself. “Now I can completely save money to buy things for myself and presents for my family in Vietnam.”
Vo, a junior, also relied on ingenuity to meet financial challenges. Because there were many things to buy for her dorm room like kitchenware and clothes, she had a hard time managing her spending.
“In the beginning, I got confused about converting from rubles to dong,” Vo said. “After two months, I knew how to spend money more wisely and got a part-time job in the summer to save up. Now I’m looking forward to returning home to visit family and friends one day.”
It always gets easier when you have people you can count on and are in the same situation as you — whether a local or a fellow Vietnamese also finding their way in the same country.
Phan is lucky to have Vietnamese housemates, making every day homier and a little less stressful.
“One of the most memorable moments was during the recent Tet Holiday,” she said. “It was snowing hard here, the roads were freezing, but we drove more than half an hour to another town to buy beer because our town doesn’t sell alcohol.”
Many international students’ first impression of the locals in the host country is that they are friendly and helpful and it’s true to Vo’s experience.
“There is a memory that reminds me of how kind Russian people are: When I got lost in the suburbs, my phone ran out of power and it was already dark at that time,” she said. “While I was confused and didn't know what to do, a local came to me and was kind enough to help me book a taxi back to the dormitory. Getting help from a total stranger makes me realize how lucky and grateful I am!”
While it may seem exciting, Nhi Phan and Giao Vo agree that it’s still a long way ahead. But what they’ve experienced reminds them that going abroad to study is all worth it.