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Psyched to be back: Castleton international students back on campus

As the United States enters the second year of the coronavirus pandemic, many of us couldn’t imagine traveling overseas anytime soon. Next to the overwhelming fear of exposure, the utter uncertainty of “shelter-in-place” orders has many afraid to leave their house, let alone their home country.

This semester, Castleton University’s student body is proud to represent a total of 37 different countries studying both online and in-person.

Adrienne Matunas, advisor to the International Club, has been busy acclimating international students to school life during the pandemic since it first hit last spring.

“We have 30-plus international students on campus or living locally this semester from Australia, Austria, Canada, Colombia, Ethiopia, Germany, Finland, Haiti, Italy, Japan, Nigeria, Norway, Serbia, Sweden, Syria, the UK, and Zimbabwe – every continent in the world!” exclaimed Matunas. “Including seven students who came to Castleton for the first time this January.

A myriad of both new and returning international students this semester have braved pandemic worries to be learning in-classroom — an experience many say is entirely worth the risks.

“Since my first day here, [it] was magic,” said first-year student, Santiago Moraes Acosta. “It’s different from my home country. It’s a feeling I would like to feel all semester.”

A 19 year-old global studies major and avid soccer player, Moraes Acosta is living on campus for his first semester after having to defer last fall. His home country of Columbia was one of the last to acknowledge the virus, meaning all embassies were closed when he first tried to enroll at Castleton.

“[Getting to Castleton] was hard because of the protocols,” Moraes Acosta said. “But being on campus was my first objective since the fall.”

Many international students share Moraes Acosta’s views on socialization and sports on campus and for some, it was the entire reason they returned.

Karoline Rettenbacher, a third year business major, has been part of the ski team for years here at Castleton and returned this semester to participate in races and training.

“It’s healthy to be surrounded by people my age and it’s nice to ski and train again,” said Rettenbacher. “Those were the main reasons [I came back].”

Though Rettenbacher spoke of her experience with travel and customs as quick and painless, the ease came as a relief after a full semester of classes six time zones away.

“It wasn’t very challenging from a logistics point of view,” she chuckled modestly. “The latest ended at 10:45 p.m. — so it was fine … Could’ve been worse.”

While students like Rettenbacher and Moraes Acosta spent time back home during the first stages of the pandemic, others – both national and international – remained on campus for months after most vacated.

Eloim Nelson, a sophomore majoring in nursing, first arrived at Castleton University in January of 2020. Two short months later, she was told the school was closing.

“When they said that they would close the university for the first time, I had like, a panic attack,” Nelson said. “I called my mom and she was like, ‘Can you check your email??’ Finally, the form to stay came and I was relieved.”

Nelson remained on campus after the original mass leave of students and stayed throughout the summer and fall semester, only returning home in November of 2020.

“I remember before summer 2020, all my friends went back to their countries and home towns so I was alone. Literally alone on campus,” she remarked. “It was a good experience though, because before I was afraid to stay alone. Now, I’m totally cool with that.”

Despite the rings our international students have had to jump through to make schooling work, many have displayed a dedication worthy of recognition.

When asked if he’d rather be closer to home amidst a global pandemic, Moraes Acosta was quick with a resounding no.

“I prefer to be here,” he laughed. “I will say I didn’t expect this much winter.”