International student stuck at U of O still waiting to go home to China

Yiou He had plans to return home to China in April, once the school year had ended. But all of that changed when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Yiou He felt 'isolated, alone and hopeless' when she couldn't book a plane ticket

Yiou He, an international student at the University of Ottawa, said she tried to book a ticket home to China three times since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March — but each time, her flight would get cancelled. (Anchal Sharma/CBC)

Yiou He had plans to return home to China in April, once the University of Ottawa school year ended.

But all that changed when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, as travel restrictions left some international students like He stuck in Canada and unable to return home. 

Since then, the second-year psychology student has been living in one of the few residences on campus that's remained open for people unable to leave, even as the university has shuttered in-person classes until further notice.

When she first realized she might not be able to head home — and watched friends and other students in residence leaving — He said she felt completely on her own. 

"Three months ago, I felt isolated, alone and hopeless," said He. "I didn't know what was going to happen."

He said she's never been alone for this long in her life. She booked three different plane tickets, one each in April, May and June, but each time her trip would get cancelled.

It was tough, He said, not knowing when she'd be able to see her family. But it was also difficult adjusting to life in a global pandemic on her own, in a country she'd lived in for less than a year.

"I would say about 85 per cent of my time is spent completely alone," He told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning.

In the hopes of keeping loneliness at bay, He said she calls her friends and family to chat almost daily, while also working a part-time job online and studying to prepare for classes in September.

She said her parents were sad to learn she couldn't return home, and would scour the internet for days, looking for a flight from Canada to China they could book.

Her mother, in particular, really wanted her to go back home, mostly out of concerns for her safety. 

"She has always been worried about me being alone over here in another country and living by myself and dealing with everyday stress of studying and working," she said. 

This is the view from He's dorm at the University of Ottawa, where she's been staying since April after trying unsuccessfully to book a plane ticket home to China. (Anchal Sharma/CBC)

'Now I know what to expect'

He said she decided against enrolling in any summer courses as she couldn't afford the tuition.

One thing that's assisted her over the past several months is a help line called Good2talk, which provides confidential support services for post-secondary students in Ontario and Nova Scotia.

"Now I know what to expect, I know how to take care of myself, how to stay safe and how to take care of my mental health," said He.

He said she's still hoping to return to China in December for the holidays, if it is safe to travel again. But if it isn't, she's not as worried as she once was.

"Knowing that there is a place to stay for me here on campus makes me feel safe," she said. "I feel good about that."  

With files from Anchal Sharma

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