As an international student from Rwanda, going home during the pandemic was not an option for me. But staying connected was.

My freshman year couldn’t have been more eventful. In general, the year started out a little rough due to culture shock and transitioning to college life.  However, there were plenty of highlights, including O-Week group hangouts, working on volunteer projects, experiencing Africayé, driving to Surfside Beach with friends and having a host family.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. At first, I didn’t quite understand how serious and deadly it was. As more cases were detected in the U.S., Rice took precautions as most other schools did, which led to evacuating the campus and moving classes online. Most Rice students went back to their homes, but many international students, myself included, petitioned to stay on campus. I wanted to stay for a number of reasons, but primarily to keep up with my studies. Rwanda, my home country, is seven hours ahead of Houston’s time zone. The time difference would disrupt my class schedule a lot, and the internet connection is not always strong. Also, I didn’t want to risk exposing myself to COVID-19 on a 20-hours-long flight with layovers. It was very risky to travel, and by March 20 the airports had closed. 

Grace Ishimwe, photographed by Jeff Fitlow at the home of her host family in Katy, Texas, where she relocated in April.

Staying on campus during the pandemic has been a very different experience. Although I’m introverted, I love chatting with people around campus, so not seeing my fellow Wiessmen and other students has been quite an adjustment. However, I am super grateful. This is uncharted territory for all of us, so I appreciate how everyone has managed the situation. Specifically, Housing and Dining staff have been hardworking, kind and brave. Honestly, one of the best parts of each day is when I go grab food and talk to the chefs at South Servery.

 When Rwanda confirmed its first case March 14, I was very concerned — but when people started recovering, it put my heart at ease. The future is uncertain, but I know that Rwandans are brave and will get through this together, no matter the cost. Of course, I worry about my family and friends and the country at large.

 Meanwhile, we cannot give in to this pandemic and let it take away the lifelong bonds and memories we’ve built. To stay connected to my family and friends who are thousands of miles away, I text them (a lot) and call them (occasionally). We keep each other company and remind each other to take good care of ourselves. I make sure that they don’t worry about me too much and that I don’t worry too much about them. The last thing we want is to let the quarantine prevent us from being grateful for joyful things — like singing a few lines of “Find Me in the River” and “Beautiful in White,” two of my favorite songs, with my siblings and friends on a call.

 Although these calls usually cheer me up, sometimes they break my heart, too. Recently, I called my cousin to wish him a happy birthday. I then talked to my 3-year-old cousin who asked me where I am and when I’m visiting him — the questions he always asks when we talk. This time, the questions hit differently. This time, I didn’t have words. I just cried because I didn’t know how to explain that, apart from school and being far away, there is also a pandemic. And that even if I were in Rwanda, it would probably be a long time before I would see him.

 I know this crazy time is making some of us feel alone, but we shouldn’t allow that. It is everyone’s responsibility to check on family, friends, neighbors and so on. We probably need to rename the term “social distancing” to “physical distancing” because, at this time, we need all the social support we can get. I understand this because April is such a heavy month for Rwandans as we commemorate the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. I am pretty sure this April is even heavier because of the pandemic. 

This is just my perspective, but I’m sure there are many people out there who need support — such as those who are quarantined with abusive people and those with mental health issues like depression who desperately need social support more than ever. We have been spending an enormous amount of time on our phones, so it is time that we make use of that habit even more by checking on our friends and family and letting them know that we love them, care for their well-being and that we’ll get through this together. I wish and hope that in these times, we are kinder, more gracious, empathetic, mindful and compassionate toward others.

Grace Ishimwe is a rising sophomore at Wiess and an international student from Rwanda, majoring in psychology and minoring in business. In her free time, she loves writing, volunteering, and talking with her friends.


To read more stories from our Summer 2020 issue on COVID-19, go here.