Graduation bittersweet for international students

Graduates put up their Vʻs for victory with President Carol Folt at an in-person commencement ceremony.
Despite USC holding in-person commencement ceremonies, international students faced the challenge of celebrating in their home country or without family nearby. (Kellie Chen | Daily Trojan)

When Mariana Fontoura started her master’s degree in social entrepreneurship in Summer 2019, she never imagined that she would spend most of her degree program online after USC transitioned to virtual learning in March 2020. Fontoura, a 2021 graduate, like many other international students, is unable to attend her in-person commencement ceremony. 

Originally from Brazil, Fontoura moved to Los Angeles for the MSSE program in 2019 before moving back to her home country at the end of 2020 to start working. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Brazil is currently still at the highest level of risk regarding the coronavirus. As a result, many countries around the world, including the United States, have imposed restrictions against Brazilian travelers because of the Brazilian coronavirus variant. The U.S. has also banned people who have been in Brazil in the last 14 days, with exceptions granted to U.S. citizens and permanent residents. Academic student (F-1) visa holders are not exempt from this new restriction. 

Fontoura said with coronavirus cases in Brazil being terrible, she is sad that she will not get the opportunity to celebrate in person with the rest of her cohort. Due to the four-hour time difference between L.A. and Brazil, Fountoura said she will also not be able to attend the virtual graduation ceremony due to work. 

“I was expecting to have this opportunity to meet my classmates because I knew that all the experience that I had during the master’s [program] wouldn’t be possible to relive … because I had a lot of classmates from all around the world,” Fontoura said. “I was expecting to have this reunion, and for me, it’s really sad that I won’t have this opportunity, and I don’t know when I will have the opportunity to see my classmates again.” 

Although Fontoura will not be able to attend both her in-person and virtual commencement ceremonies, she is celebrating her accomplishment with an online brunch with other Brazilian students in her cohort who are unable to attend the ceremonies either. 

Novalino Idrus, an international student from Indonesia, was also unable to attend the in-person commencement ceremony. 

Idrus, who received master’s degrees in engineering management and business analytics in December 2020, assumed commencement would be online and made the decision to move back to Indonesia in March. However, right before he left, President Carol Folt announced that USC would be holding in-person commencement ceremonies. Although Idrus considered postponing his move, he ultimately decided to return home because he was starting a new job, and said that if he had stayed in L.A., the 14-hour time difference was “not good for [his] body.”

However, Idrus decided to attend the virtual ceremony held by the Viterbi School of Engineering. Due to the time difference, Idrus said he woke up at 5 a.m. and watched the ceremony on his laptop in his room by himself. 

“I actually joined the Viterbi [ceremony] for my department, but … it was just like a video recording, so they just played people talking, and they just really [did] the same, like what they did last year,” Idrus, who attended the Class of 2020’s virtual ceremony last May, said. “I thought it would be different because they already learned about the situation. I thought there was going to be more festivities.” 

Anushka Sapra, a 2021 graduate who majored in international relations and political economy, was able to attend the in-person commencement ceremony. However, her family in India were unable to attend due to India’s ongoing coronavirus crisis. 

Sapra said that during the days leading up to commencement, she saw “so many parents and families in the village and walking around with their kids.” 

“It was a lot harder in the days leading up to graduation,” Sapra said. “I guess that was when I was really missing my family, but it’s okay. They really enjoyed the virtual celebration and they watched it, and I called them and being in the [Los Angeles Memorial] Coliseum and graduating felt surreal for me itself.” 

Sapra, who last saw her family in December 2019, plans to return to India in June. With the recent large-scale coronavirus outbreaks in India, Sapra knows she won’t be able to celebrate much or go outside. Nonetheless, she is excited to be able to see her family again and have dinner together with them.

“I feel like it was really hitting me that this was the end of a really, really big chapter in my life and something that was only possible because of my family and all of their sacrifices,” Sapra said. “The fact that they weren’t able to be there to see me graduate and see me finish what they sacrificed so much for was … a really awful feeling, but at the end of the day, it was much safer for them to be home.”