For the first time this year, University of the Incarnate Word student Marian Mae Cedeño won’t be spending the holidays with her family in the Philippines. The junior studying political science hasn’t seen her family since last December.

“I live in a close-knit community so I am used to always having someone around, but COVID-19 took that all away,” Cedeño said. “I already missed all of the holidays and birthdays earlier this year, and now I am missing Christmas and New Year as well.”

Jose Martinez Jr., UIW’s director of International Student and Scholar Services, said his office met virtually with international students weekly until Thanksgiving to advise them on traveling back home during the winter break. 

Cedeño was the only student on campus unable to return to her home country due to travel restrictions set by the Philippines government. According to the country’s guidelines, she would have been required to quarantine twice, first in Manila upon arrival, then again in her home province of Lanao del Norte.

“A few weeks ago, I heard that they eased the restrictions, but it was too late because plane tickets were already too expensive for me,” Cedeño said. “On top of that, I would have to travel for at least 30 hours and have four layovers, which is also a health concern.”

Cedeño’s situation is not unusual. As the pandemic drags on, international students have faced challenges trying to return to their home countries during the winter break between semesters, and colleges and universities have worked to help them navigate fast-changing rules about travel restrictions and quarantine.

For international students, the travel restrictions and COVID-19 guidelines set by their home countries determined whether they would be able to spend the holidays with their families.

At Trinity University, an estimated 80 percent of international students opted to study remotely this semester, with the other 20 percent attending class in person and a few of them residing on campus in the fall.

Laura Rodriguez Amaya, assistant director for International Students and Scholars Services for Trinity’s Center for International Engagement, said the university worked to help international students living on campus return home for the winter break.

“The international students who were living on campus were able to return home, and the university worked with them to ensure they got the testing or other support necessary to make that trip,” Amaya said.

Martinez said 57 international students resided on UIW’s campus during the fall semester and 15 remained in their home country to study remotely.

The university typically offers on-campus housing for domestic and international students who choose not to return home during the winter break. Due to the pandemic, the office advised students to consider health risks in addition to travel costs.

Marian Mae Cedeño is projected on her family's wall in the Philippines during their virtual Christmas celebration.
Marian Mae Cedeño is projected on her family’s wall in the Philippines during their virtual Christmas celebration. Credit: Courtesy / Marian Mae Cedeño

The pandemic also kept Cedeño from traveling home over the summer, and she mostly spent those months alone in her dorm room. Cedeño said the university nominated her to receive $2,500 in financial aid from the Institute of International Education, an organization that promotes international educational programs, to help with living expenses.

“I enjoy living alone because I get to catch up with my readings and chill, but I also miss my family and friends in the Philippines,” Cedeño said.

Christmas and the New Year are big celebrations for Cedeño and her family. Up to 50 relatives usually get together to prepare a food spread Cedeño described as “ginormous and can literally feed a village.” The celebration begins on Christmas Eve and runs through Jan. 2.

“For 10 days all you do is eat, sing karaoke, and shoot fireworks,” Cedeño said.

The feast that Marian Mae Cedeño prepared for her virtual Christmas celebration.
The feast that Marian Mae Cedeño prepared for her virtual Christmas celebration. Credit: Courtesy / Marian Mae Cedeño

This year, she plans to prepare classic Filipino dishes like lechon (roasted pork) belly, lumpia, Filipino spaghetti, and fish escabeche in the campus apartment she shares with suitemates who have left for the winter break.

“This Christmas is my first one away from home, but I am planning to make a spread of my own,” Cedeño said. “I will be enjoying my nochebuena [Christmas Eve] virtually with my family and I was even told they are going to project me on the wall – I hope not.”

Avatar photo

Samantha Ruvalcaba

Samantha Ruvalcaba, who grew up in San Antonio, is a Shiner intern and junior at St. Mary's University studying international and global studies with a minor in communications.