The Challenges of COVID-19 for International Students

COVID-19 has heavily impacted how our businesses, governments, and healthcare systems across the world have operated in the last few months. The global pandemic has undoubtedly shaken our realities and the way we live our day-to-day lives. However, one group of people has felt this change disproportionately more than others: international students.

Being a student during this quarantine period is hard enough with the constant fear of infection and the challenges posed by online learning, but being an international student in today’s universities has an additional set of problems. 

As the situation continues to drastically change and evolve in the coming months, governments and institutions are forced to make quick decisions to adapt to the tides of the pandemic. However, as these students live their lives in between nations, many unforeseen consequences have come about due to the lack of coordination among countries and the government’s lack of consideration for international students currently living or who wish to travel and study within their borders.

Last July, for example, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced a directive that threatened to deport international students in the US who were taking an online course load. “It felt as if we had nowhere to go anymore. What would happen to our classes? Would I even be able to graduate?” says Jose, a Filipino pursuing undergraduate physics studies in California, as he recalls the frustration he felt upon hearing the news. Although the directive was rescinded, it signaled the theme for international students across the US and the world during this pandemic: the fear of uncertainty.

Sean, a Filipino undergraduate studying mathematics in Massachusetts, stresses his worries about the sheer uncertainty brought about by COVID-19. “The most challenging part currently would have to be the uncertainty of when the pandemic would end and when I can fly back home to visit my family.“

For those who can stay in their university’s country, another issue they have to contend with is the unstable living conditions. Since the start of quarantine, many universities have slowly closed down their dorms and student residences, some even evicting on short notice. This makes it especially problematic as most students rely on the safety, security, and familiarity provided by university housing. Many of them have been forced to look elsewhere for shelter. “My university was small, so they let us stay in the dorms. For other schools, it must’ve been rough for them since it would be hard to accommodate everyone.”, says Jose.

Along with those being stuck in their country of study and being unable to go home, others face the opposite problem, being unable to enter the countries where their universities are based.

Sam, a computer science student from Indonesia, shares how the crisis has made it significantly harder for internationals to enter Canada. “For those of us from the third world, since the handling of the crisis is pretty bad, there is a chance that it might take more than a year to actually be able to go to Canada,” he says.

“Getting a visa is already difficult as an international student because we have to compete for sponsorships and visa slots. COVID-19 is like adding fuel to the fire. The embassy hasn’t even issued visas yet for some people,” adds Jose about his own experience applying for a visa in the US.

Because of the high risk of an outbreak, most universities have opted to fully or partially adapt online classes. Unfortunately, the choice is nonexistent for international students residing outside the country, and they’re forced to adapt to time zone differences that are often required of online learning. For some, like Surya, who currently resides in Japan but attends a university in Montreal, that difference can be as much as 13 hours, making it so that his day is essentially reversed. The difference can be even more for some. Schools have addressed this issue by using asynchronous class models that rely on recorded lectures and assigned learning modules. However, internationals still have to get and stay up at odd hours if they wish to participate in events based in that country’s time zone.

“I looked forward to [going abroad and being on campus] for a while, and the fact that I had to spend the fall at home with online learning was rather disheartening for sure.”, says Surya. “The 13 hour time difference between where I currently reside and the college I attend has been a strain.  The repeated lecture recordings become monotonous quickly and the greater quantity of assignments only compounds the tedium of learning from home.”

This model of learning has been highly criticized by the international student community and has sparked many debates online. A common question you see on the net is, “Why should we pay full tuition when everything is online?” The argument is made all the more compelling considering students don’t have access to the facilities and environment that supposedly justifies the high tuition fees. This is all the more relevant for internationals as they have zero access to such facilities if they’re overseas and still pay more. In contrast, some local students still have the option of hybrid systems where they can still occasionally use some of the facilities offered.

“The tuition is still as expensive, even though everything is online. When you consider COVID-19, the economic devastation it delivers is massive. This makes it really hard for a lot of international students to keep on studying in Canada,” expresses Sam.

Despite the current hellhole brought about by the pandemic, international students have still made the best out of these dire times. They have displayed laudable efforts in adapting to a situation that is, by no means, easy for anybody. Even with all the challenges and problems, with support from their families, peers, and universities, international students can still expect to have a positive experience. With the right COVID-19 response from the governments of the world, they can look forward to being on campus and enjoying having a fulfilling college journey.

MG Arreza
Intern at The Commoner

Marlon Giovanni Arreza, or MG, is an intern at The Commoner. An incoming Engineering student, MG spends his time competing in debate and contributing to various non-profits in the Philippines that promote science communication, social discourse, and equality of resources for underprivileged Filipinos.

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