‘I miss them’: Lonely or not, one Japanese student is resolved to continue studying in New York

study in new york
To study in New York is Erica's lifelong dream. She's not giving it up because of the pandemic. Source: Erica/Study International

Two years ago, Erica decided to put several thousand kilometres between herself and her family. She was realising her teenage dream to study music in New York City. Leaving her home in the outskirts of Tokyo, she packed her bags to start building a music career in the Big Apple.

These days, this distance is no longer a choice — it’s a necessity.

“I texted my parents and told them why I wanted to say. They agreed with my reasons,” she told Study International in a Zoom interview.

Erica is one of over one million international students currently enrolled in the US’s colleges and universities. They comprise 5.5 percent of the country’s total higher education population, a key part of many institutions’ cosmopolitan make-up and their full coffers.

As campuses empty out as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic, many of these students went back to their home countries following state-wide lockdowns. After borders shut, quite a few remain in the US. If they’re lucky, in their dorms; the less fortunate have found themselves couchsurfing in homes of friends and professors.

Japan’s borders are still open to citizens returning from abroad, but getting there isn’t safe or easy. Erica has decided to stay put in New York, currently the epicentre of the US outbreak.

Compared to late March — when New York City accounted for five percent of the world’s confirmed cases — the worst is now over. The city, however, still saw over 1,000 new positive cases and over 100 reported death every day last week.

study in new york

Medical workers arrive for their shift at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center during the COVID-19 pandemic on April 21, 2020 in New York City. Source: Cindy Ord/Getty Images North America/Getty Images via AFP

Erica is choosing to stay alone in her self-imposed quarantine in her bedroom, with two other living in the same house. For Erica, the loneliness and isolation diminish the risks when staying in a coronavirus-ravaged New York.

It’s worth the peace of mind. Under no circumstance would she want to go back to Japan and be a COVID-19 vector to her parents.

“What if my mum got it from me? That would be the worst scenario for me,” she said.

Erica’s mum works with the elderly, who are at high risk of contracting the novel coronavirus.

“I cannot get stuck in an airplane for 10 hours, get it and take that risk,” she said.

Before the pandemic, the road from high school to a career singing and promoting music in the US was pretty straightforward for Erica: graduate high school, do well in community college and then you can transfer to a four-year university — make connections and soak in all that the global cultural hub has to offer.

study in new york

Erica left her home in the outskirts of Tokyo two years ago to study in New York. Source: Erica/Study International

Today, the virus is shuttering live music bars, cancelling festivals and making buskers go without income for weeks. It’s a devastating new reality for the state’s creatives. Their — along with Erica’s — singing careers remain uncertain.

Erica’s music studies are now fully online, which looks set to continue this way indefinitely. There are more assignments, practice sessions and academic essays to hand in. She has private Zoom lessons with her lecturer for her piano classes. Her friends in other music schools are asked to record their playing to send to professors to be assessed.

“It’s really hard studying online honestly,” she said.

It’s a big change in schedule from Erica’s pre-virus days. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, she would spend the whole day in classes. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, she would work on campus as a tutor and receptionist between 9am and 5pm. In between, she would hang out with her friends from her course and with people from the international student community.

study in new york

Erica’s pre-virus activities include checking out oversized American desserts while exploring New York and the rest of the country. Source: Erica/Study International

During after-school hours, she would perform in events both on and off-campus and take part in extra-curricular activities to boost her CV. Her blog about her studies abroad was always teeming with her new adventures — checking out oversized American desserts, and posts about gifting Japanese ornaments to her homestay family.

These days, she is in her room for weeks on end. Her koishii (loosely translated to a feeling of missing) thing pre-virus used to be ramen and udon. Both of these she abstained from eating in New York because they’re way overpriced. Oh, and the insane variety of 100-yen shops back home. These days, that list is getting filled with graver and more immediate concerns.


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1st: wow this smoothie so so huge 👀💕 2nd: guess suger rush is already happening 🙊 I shared this with my friend to finish;)

A post shared by Erica EM (@thisisme.em28) on

She misses campus life. Overall, she feels less stimulated, and is encountering more worrying problems — a few weeks ago, tired and scared, she went through a mental breakdown.

It’s a lot to take in, process and deal with. Erica is positive. She plans to make it work.

Her post-graduation strategy is to find work in a marketing role at record companies or in instrument production in between landing singing gigs. To her, two things are central to her life: Music and English —  she wants to use both to bring the joy of music to more places and in order to do this she needs to stay where she is.

“Studying abroad is one of my dreams,” she said. In struggle and strife, that dream remains alive.

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