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International student-athletes adapting, learning from home during pandemic

  • Two members of William & Mary's women's tennis team in uniform
    Dramatic changes:  Vitoria Okuyama (right), a junior on William & Mary's women's tennis team, has undergone self-quarantine at her family's home in Brazil. Okuyama is one of five international players on the Tribe's roster, one of four who made the trip home after classes — and their season — were canceled.  Photo courtesy W&M Athletics
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As soon as Vitoria Okuyama returned to her family's home in Brazil, she checked into the master bedroom. For the next two weeks, those four walls would be her self-quarantine chamber.

Her government didn't require it. But Okuyama, a junior on William & Mary's women's tennis team, wanted to be extra certain she hadn't brought anything back with her other than luggage.

April 6 was her final day of isolation. Now, though her city remains in lockdown, she's able to explore the rest of the house and, occasionally, go outside.

"This was because I came from the U.S., and my grandma lives with me, so we're making sure not to spread the virus," Okuyama said by FaceTime. "I didn't have any symptoms or anything, but we were just making sure." 

Okuyama is one of five international players on the Tribe's roster, one of four who made the trip home after classes — and their season — were canceled.

Raffaela Alhach is back with her family in Mexico City, the most populous municipality in North America. Mila Saric returned to Tenerife, a Spanish island some 800 miles from the mainland. Elisa Van Meeteren is home in London, the United Kingdom's largest city. 

Rosie Cheng, who is from New Zealand, is staying with friends and family in Northern Virginia.

Okuyama, Alhach, Saric, and Van Meeteren are in four different countries with three different time zones. Yet their common goal is to stay safe, keep up with their online schoolwork, fight the boredom, and take advantage of any silver lining they can find.

Okuyama spent two weeks confined to one bedroom, which had an attached bathroom. She had no personal contact with anyone — not even her mother, who left her meals at the door.

"It mostly changes that now, I am able to go outside the house if I need or want to," Okuyama said. "The stores in my city (Arapongas) are still closed." 

Boredom has been a constant battle, but Okuyama at least has W&M's online classes to occupy her time.

"It's been hard to adapt, this change, and keep up with everything," she said. "We just need to be more disciplined and make our own schedule.

"I don't think that's a problem for most William & Mary students. I like the flexibility of being able to do things on my own time. I'm enjoying that part."

And, of course, there is technology. That allows for player meetings and chats with friends. 

For Saric, the situation in Spain is so locked down that she actually enjoyed taking out the trash one day. That's been the only time she has left her family's home since returning on March 17.

Spain has had nearly 15,000 deaths from the coronavirus, more than any country except Italy.

"So far, it's been exactly three weeks of lockdown," Saric said via Zoom April 6. "The government has (extended it) until April 26. 

"You can't even go for a walk or for some exercise, it's absolutely locked down. You can only go outside, individually, to the grocery store if you're an adult. My dad is the only person that's been going out to the grocery store." 

Saric's journey home wasn't easy. Her first leg, with Van Meeteren, was to London. But her connecting flight home was canceled, so she stayed the night at Van Meeteren's house.

Although there were few cases in the U.S. when the cancelation wave hit in mid-March, Saric had a cautionary tale for her teammates and fellow students.

"I had friends in America who were, you know, joking about it still," she said. "I definitely tried to warn them."

The situation in England, like most countries, has become dire. Things hit particularly home Sunday night when Prime Minister Boris Johnson was admitted to an intensive care unit after being diagnosed with COVID more than a week earlier.

"It's showed everyone how serious this is," Van Meeteren said via Zoom.

The United Kingdom has been on lockdown the last three weeks, but that has been challenged by a heat wave. Authorities are worried about "lockdown fatigue," especially with the likelihood of the current period being extended.

"Now, we're allowed to go out the house once for a form of exercise and for essential shopping," Van Meeteren said. "But other than that, we have to stay inside."

"The police are patrolling a little at the moment, but they're not very strict. They are going to become more strict in the next few days with fines, etc."

Like Okuyama, Alhach decided to self-quarantine when she returned to Mexico City on March 15. She had the home to herself as her parents and two younger sisters went to the family's lake house on the city's outskirts.

Since joining them, Alhach has been able to enjoy the beauty and weather. But only to an extent. 

"We're in a really green space kind of isolated from the city," she said. "That's where the worst is happening right now. Everyone is in their houses, but there's a lake in the afternoon, and everyone goes out to see the sunset. But everybody keeps a distance."

Alhach is concerned about her country's poor, who are unable to work from home.

"A lot of people here have to work to eat that same day," she said. "There's a governor from one of our towns who said COVID-19 won't affect poor people — those were his actual words.

"It's kind of ridiculous. Some people in the government aren't really taking it seriously, which makes the population not take it seriously."

The pandemic, as well as various responses, have only reinforced Alhach's interest in her major, international relations.

"The most shocking part is how places like where Mila is are taking such drastic measures, which are necessary considering London was kind of slow to take them, and Mexico and Brazil," she said. "That shows you how advanced some countries can be compared to others. 

"I've always loved international relations. I was looking at internships I could take in the future, and I found something more focused on helping Latin America and government policies. I like the focus on helping Latin America in general get more advanced."