Graphic by Giovana Gelhoren / North by Northwestern

Making pit stops in the Dominican Republic, Switzerland or Paraguay on your way to Northwestern during a pandemic might seem crazy for some, but for numerous Brazilian students, this is the only way to arrive on campus.

Brazilian Wildcats ardent to arrive on campus are banned from entering the U.S. directly due to U.S. travel restrictions. The American borders are currently closed to China, Iran, South Africa, Ireland, the United Kingdom, the European Schengen area and Brazil to halt the spread of COVID-19. For this reason, Brazilian citizens are required to quarantine for 15 days in a different country that is not on the travel ban list before entering the U.S. On top of the travel bans, freshmen have an additional challenge to face. They are unable to get F-1 visas, which are documents that permit international students to legally study and work in the U.S. To be granted a visa, students must go through an interview process in the American consulate. Yet, the American consulates in Brazil have been closed for 11 months as a measure against the spread of the coronavirus. They are not issuing visas and will remain closed until further notice.

Frustrated, students have been forced to find a workaround: travel to another country – despite the health and safety risks – and obtain a student visa and quarantine before entering the U.S.

"You do not make a decision like this lightly. It’s mentally tiring. I have been
worried about my visa for the past year," said McCormick freshman Julia Azevedo. "I have decided to go to a different country and try it out there because I wanted to get it over with, and I wanted to be at Northwestern."

Julia Azevedo on campus. (Picture courtesy of Julia Azevedo)

Anxious students boarded international flights, fearing the negative effects traveling would have on their academics and the uncertainty of receiving a F-1 visa. Some had second thoughts about going to Northwestern this academic year. Others have mentioned that if the ban is not lifted by June, they will spend the summer in Evanston since it's economically unviable to book another international trip before coming back to campus in September.

Brazilian freshmen have been booking their interviews in different countries where the American consulates are open. They must spend 15 days in the chosen country to complete the mandatory quarantine, and go through the visa interview process there. Countries where freshmen have been trying to obtain their student F-1 visas and quarantine include Chile, Panama, Switzerland and Mexico. Some have been successful, but others are still figuring out the logistics of the uphill battle that is arriving in Evanston.

Azevedo successfully obtained her F-1 document in Santiago, Chile, and is now enjoying the winter snow on campus. But her New Year's Holiday looked a little different this year. Before boarding her flight to Chile on Dec 21, 2020, she had to present a negative COVID-19 test and show it again before her visa interview. Azevedo had to follow Chile's COVID-19 restrictive measures that prohibits everyone from leaving their homes on weekends. So, she was not allowed to leave her hotel room’s confined space during weekends. She spent 15 days in Santiago and then successfully managed to board a flight to Chicago.

McCormick freshman Felipe Dimantas was lucky to have had his visa approved in 2019. So, he only had to fly to Mexico to quarantine. Because businesses were closed in Mexico, he chose to stay locked up in his hotel room during his time there. Dimantas added that his father got COVID-19 a few days before his trip, so he was not able to personally say goodbye to his dad before going to college.

"It was very emotional for me. I wish I had gotten a chance to say goodbye properly," Diamantas said.

Getting F-1 visas and moving to a different country can be an already
overwhelming and complicated process for international students. This year, the stress of applying for a visa in a different country and having to pay for both the visa and an international trip added emotional and financial strains.  

"I had a moment where I seriously considered asking for a leave of absence just because it was too much trouble getting to Northwestern. It was a hard decision to make," Azevedo said.

Some students, like Weinberg freshman Andrea Colcher and McCormick freshman Luigi de Lima, are still battling for their visas. Colcher is planning on going to Chile and de Lima is considering traveling to Switzerland or Panama. Colcher said she is worried things might not go as planned. It is not certain that she will be granted a visa or that she will manage to enter the U.S. at all.

"I still think that I should not do it [go to Chile], but if I don't do it now, maybe in the future, there will be more restrictions," Colcher said. "They might ask for a vaccine, and there might not be a vaccine here in Brazil. I am worried that I won't be able to go to Northwestern this year."

De Lima said that, like Colcher, he feels overwhelmed by this situation. "The sensation of having to leave my country and travel to another one before going to Northwestern is disorienting," he said.

De Lima is considering booking a visa interview in Switzerland because if anything goes wrong, he will have the support of his uncle who lives there. The stressful and demanding bureaucratic process of getting a visa has also led him to have second thoughts about going to Northwestern this academic year.

"I spend too much time trying to figure out how I'll arrive on campus, time that could have been spent focusing on my academics," he said.

For students who already have their visas, arriving on campus is still a challenge, since they have to quarantine for 15 days in another country before entering the United States. However, they do not need to quarantine again once they get to the U.S. Weinberg junior Carolina Costa is considering traveling to Paraguay because it is in the same time zone as Brazil, so jet lag won't affect her academics. She is researching hotels with good Internet connectivity and flights that won't conflict with courses or exams. Costa said that she does not feel safe having to travel this much in the midst of a pandemic.

"I feel insecure about my health and security. These issues make me hesitant to leave home and go to the US," she said.

Medill junior Giovana Gelhoren also had to travel before arriving on campus. As she does not have family outside Brazil, Gelhoren decided to go to Punta Cana, Dominican Republic because she has acquaintances who live there. During her time in Punta Cana, Gelhoren was taking Winter Quarter classes and working a remote internship. She described having to juggle an international trip and her academic and professional responsibilities as simultaneously exciting, frustrating and exhausting. But she was glad to have safely arrived on campus.

Giovana Gelhoren in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. (Picture courtesy Giovana Gelhoren)

The travel ban not only made it harder for Brazilians to go to the U.S., but also made it harder for them to go back home. Gelhoren decided to go home to Rio de Janeiro for the winter holidays, which involved a flight from Chicago to Atlanta, a connection to Sao Paulo, Brazil, and then another to Rio. The Sao Paulo airport was so packed that she felt there was no space to breathe or sit, and like Costa, she was also concerned with her health and safety.

Giovana Gelhoren and her sister, Marcela Gelhoren, traveling to Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. (Picture courtesy Giovana Gelhoren)

"I felt I was being infected by the minute. I just felt terrible," Gelhoren said.

While this situation has been demanding and emotional for everyone, most would agree that it’s also been worth it. And as Azevedo said, "It has been magical to be at Northwestern."