COVID-19: Double trouble for an international veterinary student

July 31, 2020
Aishwarya Chitnis
Aishwarya Chitnis

A first-year veterinary student shares the harsh realities and silver linings of living in a foreign country during COVID-19.

The past several months have been among the most unsettling times in my life. In March, I sat in a classroom with my peers at Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine waiting to hear from our professor about the future of our first year of veterinary school. As first-year students, we were already overwhelmed juggling numerous assignments and exams. Little did we know that our biggest challenge was about to begin: online learning during COVID-19.

I remember the day we learned that we would finish our first year of veterinary school online and likely would not return until next year. I was perplexed, trying to comprehend what the next few months would look like. One of the most integral parts of veterinary school is connecting with your peers. We rely on each other on a daily basis and we look out for each other. Having to get through veterinary school alone was far worse than any of us could have ever expected.

A turn of events

For me, things were even more challenging because I am from Mumbai, India. My family lives 10,000 miles away, and I have no relatives in the United States. As a 24-year-old student living alone in a foreign country, things became a little more stressful. Not only did I have to navigate veterinary school alone, I also had to figure out a way to get back home to India safely.

In the midst of this mayhem, my study abroad program to South Africa was canceled. This was one of the things I was looking forward to this year. Now, the only thing I had to look forward to was visiting my family for a few weeks after my final exams. After I got back from India, I would begin my internship at a veterinary clinic in Chicago. Meanwhile, my classmates and I began classes online. We found ways to still collaborate and support each other by sharing notes on Google Drive and making sure that everyone knew the deadlines for assignments.

Learning subjects like anatomy via recorded videos was pretty tough, but sharing resources with others and video calling professors helped immensely. Meanwhile, I was counting days down to my flight back home and working on the legalities for my upcoming veterinary internship.

Unfortunately, things took a turn for the worse with the pandemic around the world. My older brother, a surgeon in India, said his hands were full with coronavirus patients. I anxiously wondered if I posed a threat to my family by coming home. I acquired the necessary protective equipment and isolated myself so that I could go home without contracting the disease.

Making a tough decision

Finals were now three weeks away. As my travel date loomed, I sought advice from school administrators. They strongly advised against leaving the US, outlining the risk of missing out on a school year if I was unable to return on time. It was difficult to fathom that I wouldn’t see my family for almost two years. I was faced with the most challenging dilemma: my family or my career. Many of my friends know that I attended a year of veterinary school in India before transferring to Purdue to pursue my bachelor's degree in animal sciences. My chances of getting into veterinary school were minuscule and I had to tackle numerous roadblocks to achieve my dream.

With a heavy heart, I decided to remain in the US. This greatly added to my stress and anxiety, and I would cry for hours while studying for my exams. Then, I had to give up my internship in Chicago because the clinic I was supposed to work at was one of the worst-hit with COVID-19 in the whole country. My friends at school helped in every way they could, even graciously offering to let me stay with them for the summer. They were very selfless and supportive. My family, heartbroken like me, did their best to cheer me up.

Light at the end of the tunnel

Every day, I reminded myself why I was here. After grieving for what I had lost, I finally made peace with my situation with the help of family and friends. So many things in life are out of our control, and accepting that is the only way to move forward.

I made a concerted effort to work on my professional and personal skills. One of my college professors, Dr. Dianne Little, was kind enough to offer me a remote research job. As a social media intern for the veterinary college, I started interviewing more professors. These activities kept me busy and gave me valuable professional and personal insight.

There is a saying in Hindi, “कोशिशकरनेवालोंकीहारनहींहोती,” which translates to “You will never lose as long as you keep trying.” The past several months have been rough emotionally, but knowing that numerous people across the world have faced tougher challenges than me only inspires me to grow and develop. If your intent is true, no effort goes to waste. This is probably a coming of age story that many of us are in right now, and our actions and choices during this time will define the rest of our lives. In the end, all the sacrifices will be worth it. I am sure that we will come out more resilient than ever.