There was some loneliness and boredom to deal with as Ana Elvia Sanchez Rosales made the adjustment to college life in the age of COVID-19.
With classes moved online and a lot of down time to fill, there was plenty of Netflix and social media, though she quickly grew tired of both. She purchased some colored pencils and markers to draw, worked on learning a third language and played cards with her housemates.
There’s a difference between the senior international business major’s experience and that of other Missouri Southern State University students, however.
She’s riding out the global pandemic at Sangmyung University in Seoul, South Korea.
‘The first week was rough’
For the last six months, Sanchez Rosales has been focused on this study abroad opportunity.
She worked long hours – sometimes 45 to 60 hours a week – in order to save up the money she would need, all while carrying an 18 credit-hour schedule at Missouri Southern.
“Before I left, I told myself that if I did not return a changed person or with no growth, it would have been a waste of my time and hard work,” she says. “I want to return with a more open mind, new ideas, knowledge and connections that will help me in the future.”
She and another student (who has since returned to the United States) were informed they needed to be in Seoul by Feb. 20 in order to move into the private university’s residence halls and attend orientation. A few days before her flight, she received an email stating that classes would be pushed back by two weeks but students could still arrive on their original itinerary.
Upon her arrival at the university, the Missouri Southern students were informed they would need to self-quarantine in the dorms for two weeks, and wear masks whenever they weren’t in their rooms.
“Let’s just say that the first week was rough,” says Sanchez Rosales. “We were given several documents and some vague information about how the quarantine would go, and a thermometer. We were to check our temperature twice a day – at 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. – to check for symptoms and record it.”
Food came in the form of purchases from an on-campus convenience store.
“The first week I survived off of ramen, kimbap (a Korean dish made from cooked rice and other ingredients, and rolled in seaweed) and water,” she says. “I quickly grew tired of this so sometimes I would sleep just to avoid feeling hunger.’
She was remaining in contact with friends from MSSU, including one who was originally from South Korea. Her friend, she says, was worried about her poor eating habits.
“The following week, her father took us grocery shopping so we could by fruits and vegetables, along with eggs and milk,” Sanchez Rosales says. “My friend’s mother also loaned us some pans, silverware and plates.”
Eventually, the students were allowed to leave campus and learned to navigate the local bus system.
“I’m good now that I have learned how to get my food and necessities,” she says.
‘It weighed on my mind’
It was not an easy decision to remain in Seoul during the pandemic, Sanchez Rosales says.
“In Korea now, the situation seems to be better than it is in the United States,” she says. “It’s free to get tested for the virus and it is accessible. You can find many testing areas easily.
“But the most important reason of all is that I do not want to put my family at risk. My mother has pre-existing health conditions that raise the risk of infection, and my brother’s girlfriend is pregnant. It was something that weighed on my mind for several days and I finally came to the decision that I would ride out the virus here.”
Her online classes have been extended through April 11, but there are signs that life is beginning to return to normal in Seoul.
“In the beginning, everyone was very paranoid,” Sanchez Rosales says. “People are still scared but slowly trying to return to their normal lives. There are more people going out. There is no shortage of items like toilet paper, cleaning supplies, water or food.
“There are signs everywhere with steps regarding how to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Every time there is a nearby confirmed case, we receive an emergency alert that allows people to know where the hotspots are. I feel like Korea has been doing a good job of trying to contain the virus.”
Sanchez Rosales says she has been keeping in regular contact with her family and friends back home. But it’s disconcerting keeping track of how the United States is dealing with the crisis at a time when the situation in Seoul seems to be improving.
“I have been keeping tabs on how the U.S. is responding to COVID-19, and watching the news from here is honestly very crazy and baffling,” she says. “Korea doesn’t have a shortage of the things America does. I’m more worried about my family and friends at home than I am for myself here.”