How COVID-19 has changed us: First-generation college student Junayed Jahangir

First-generation, immigrant, and international college students routinely face special challenges during their college experiences -- being away from family and friends, not having easy access to familiar culture, food, or community, and dealing with routine as well as sudden economic hardships.

As a result, according to the Postsecondary National Policy Institute, first-generation college students are less likely to complete their degrees within six years, compared to other scholars. Many additionally have a hard time with the application and financial aid processes because their parents cannot guide them.

Throw in COVID-19 and their difficulties intensify in ways that others may not realize or even be able to imagine.

To help readers better understand their special circumstances, the Helios Education Foundation has asked 83 Degrees Media to tell their stories.

Here is the fourth of those reports by Angela Cordoba Perez, a senior studying mass communications and journalism at the University of South Florida.

Junayed "J.J.'' Jahangir, is an international student at USF pursuing double majors in finance and business analytics with a minor in accounting. For him, the arrival of COVID-19 exacerbated some of the problems he already faced as a scholar far from home and it brought new ones.

International students have many job restrictions regarding hours and requirements, which made it difficult for Jahangir to land a job at the beginning of the year. In March he was finally able to secure jobs with the student-athlete center at USF and with the student government. However, his situation completely changed with the pandemic.

“It has been pretty bad because it started during March and that's when I finally was able to secure a fulltime job that was like giving me 15 to 16 hours. And you know, as international, we're only allowed to work 20 hours. I was also involved in Student Government, but that didn't give me a lot of hours. I was getting one or two hours three, four at max weekly. So I needed a job that was more consistent in terms of hours, but as COVID hit, I think after working three weeks, the whole job got canceled,” says Jahangir.  

When campus closed and after losing his only income, Jahangir had to move in with a friend. He does not have close relatives in the United States and going back to his home country of Bangladesh is harder than staying here. The price of tickets and the exposure to the virus in a small country that is densely populated was not worth the risk. 

Deciding to stay also put him through difficult experiences, including having limited resources for his meals. He only had half of his meal plan left when his jobs got canceled.  

“So I could only swipe 60 times throughout the semester, and that was supposed to be my secondary form of food consumption. My primary source was supposed to be me buying groceries and cooking for myself. But since the job got canceled, that “any 60” meal plan, 30 of which I had already used, had 30 swipes left for the rest of the semester and that was my primary source of meals,” Jahangir explains. 

While Jahangir was going through this hardship, finishing his spring semester classes successfully became a stressor as well. His instinct was to protect his GPA from the uncertain circumstances he faced, so he opted to put his classes on a pass or fail basis rather than risk lower grades. 

“It was a difficult spot. So my first instinct was, I need to like, save my GPA,” says Jahangir. “So, although I had A's in all my classes, I still opted in for pass/fail, just to protect my overall GPA. So I ended up with pass/fail on all of my classes.” 

Because international students could not apply to the different relief funds set up by the government or the University, he helped on a project of the Office of International Services at USF by doing a video to promote a fund for foreign scholars in the university. The fund raised about $16,000 and even if he has not received anything yet, he is grateful for those who donated. 

Jahangir did not tell his parents about his issues because he knew that for them to help him would not be easy at all and he did not want to worry them.

“It's very difficult to send money from Bangladesh to America. First of all, due to various restrictions, and second of all, since the banks were closed due to COVID, my dad couldn't go to the bank and transfer money in the first place. So there was no way for them to send money either,” he explains.

On top of that, his parents were going through difficult times as well. Back in Bangladesh, both of them got infected by COVID-19. His dad had pre-existing health conditions, but his mother was the one who had to be hospitalized to be under constant oxygen supply. She was discharged 10 days after. Jahangir felt helpless with the illness of his parents, and he resolved he did not want them to feel that way for him.

“Not being able to do anything, trying to stay calm, and then asking myself, ‘why are you calm’? ‘Why are you not more worried about your mom’? And then once I'm worried and very anxious, my brain tells me, why are you anxious? This is not gonna help anyone,” says Jahangir. “So it's like a lot of dilemmas in your head. What do you really do in this situation? There's not really any definitive answer.”

To face all of the unexpected challenges Jahangir is going through as a result of COVID-19, he has relied heavily on his friends, whom he is very thankful for. 

“I have been extremely privileged to have good friends in life. That's one thing I always take great pride in, and I'm very happy about it,” he says. “I've had people and friends who have come from similar backgrounds, so they know what we're going through. So these are the people who could empathize with me and actively tried to reach out and help me.”

The situation is looking better for him, as he was able to get two jobs this summer and he is currently taking a class to continue on track for his graduation. In spite of the tough times he has gone through, he still appreciates the good times he spends with his friends. 

He has also reflected on the situations that resulted from the virus, and he has learned from them. 

“I also say nothing is certain because I never expected to even lose my parents at such an early age and now I was almost at the brink of losing my mother. You know, so what that teaches you is like, don't wait to show love to your near and dear ones, just do it.”

“Second of all, no matter where you are in life, you will have your own struggles. … Accept your problems. Face those problems. Everyone has their problems. So it's fair not to compare. It's just important that while I'm facing those problems to remember that I have certain privileges that others don't. It's just important to know that,” says Jahangir. 

Stories in the 83 Degrees Media series on how first-generation, immigrant, and international college students are coping with changes brought on by COVID-19:Readers can help USF students through several funds designed to support everything from basic needs to scholarships to diversity initiatives, research, COVID relief, and more. To donate, visit the USF Foundation online.

This series of stories on COVID-19's impact on first-generation, immigrant, and international college students in Florida is made possible with funding from the Helios Education Foundation, a private foundation dedicated to creating opportunities for individuals in Arizona and Florida to succeed in postsecondary education, and from the Google News Initiative's Journalism Emergency Relief Fund.

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Read more articles by Angela Cordoba Perez.

Angela Cordoba Perez is studying mass communications with a focus in journalism at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Growing up in Colombia, she developed an interest in writing and decided to pursue her dreams as a journalist. She has interned at WUSF Public Media and has written for the USF Oracle, the student newspaper. Even though she misses the mountain views in her home country, she is happy to use her diverse voice to tell stories about USF and the Tampa Bay Area. In her free time, she enjoys watching soccer and television, as well as calling her family and spending time with her friends.