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International Students Face Challenges Studying Abroad Amid COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic is presenting unique challenges for colleges and universities, and finding ways for international students to return to school amid travel bans or other pandemic-related restrictions will be one of the most complex. Many international students finished the previous semester via remote connection after colleges and universities encouraged students to return home in March, but doing so hasn’t been simple. Students living in alternate time zones from their professors are forced to stay awake all night to complete online seminars, and some are contending with a poor internet connection as well as social isolation. There will be additional challenges for students abroad who hope to return to school in the fall, from travel restrictions to securing visas with closed consulate offices.

In July, Aradhita Arora, an 18-year old international student who intended to study at the University of British Columbia in the fall, was unable to study overseas in Vancouver due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as per The Star. The Canadian immigration department decreed in July that students wouldn't be allowed to enter the country if they received a student visa after March 18. As a result, Arora has been completing her first semester from her home in New Delhi, India, where on top of the usual stressors of beginning freshman year, she will be navigating online classes and exams amid a major time difference, unreliable internet connection, and no access to the social life so many students look forward to. 

Related Blog: What Fall Semester 2020 Will Look Like Across Universities

Immigration policies have posed a major obstacle for students attempting to study at colleges or universities in the United States as well. Andy Tu, a student from Shanghai, was enrolled to attend his freshman year at Claremont McKenna College in California, but won’t be able to make it campus in time for the Fall semester, as per NPR. Even though the Immigration and Customs Enforcement department agreed to allow students to stay in the country even if their schools opted for remote learning in the fall, new students have found themselves unable to acquire visas. U.S. Consulate Offices, where students go for an in-person interview, are closed, and even if the office reopens, travel restrictions might make it impossible to board a flight.

Administrators have a responsibility to these students to address the new barriers and challenges presented by COVID-19 restrictions and travel bans. Remote learning must be made possible for all students, and communicating any changes, adjustments, or other relevant updates throughout the semester will be necessary. 

How To Overcome Remote Learning Barriers for International Students 

Many colleges and universities aimed to combine a mix of real-time and pre-recorded lectures, these courses might present challenges to students attending class from India or Asia. The 12-hour time difference means students attending college in North America may struggle. 

Chandan Samal, a student at the University of Toronto, said he’d been sleeping during the day to change his sleep cycle to adjust for in-person classes, according to The Star. “I’m lucky because some of my classes are pre-recorded lectures however it will be hard tackling the rest. My math class starts at 2 a.m. India time,” he told the publication. Andy Tu told something similar to NPR, expressing anxiety about the feasibility of waking up in the middle of the night for a course, which might be a disturbance to his family as well. 

Administrators should consider offering additional course options for students who are unable to attend live-courses without significant disruption in their lives. Distributing a pre-semester poll for students enrolled in a course can be one way to determine eligibility, or to connect teachers with students struggling with time-differences or spotty internet connection to make an alternative plan. Flexibility will be key for colleges and universities facing the challenges of COVID-19; unfortunately, every student’s situation at home will be different, and communication will be necessary to determine alternate learning plans for those in need. 

Related Blog: Raising Campus Community Awareness around Mass Notification

While some students abroad view remote learning as temporary and are even trying to look at the situation as an opportunity to save money on travel costs, the semester is putting a strain on their social lives. “I can’t connect with a lot of people, and even with a virtual background, it’s hard to get to know people. For me, personal interaction was always the first priority,” Arora told the Star. Samal and Tu expressed similar disappointment in missing out on the social side of university - meeting new people and joining clubs. All activities planned outside of the classroom, such as orientation events or networking opportunities, can be conducted remotely, but students feel the connection isn’t the same over video chat. 

Even so, college leaders should make sure to invest in social opportunities for students, finding creative ways to help community members meet and connect. Many colleges or universities are conducting virtual orientation events, allowing new students to meet with upperclassmen and ask them questions about their experience at the school. Additionally, these virtual events can be an opportunity to connect groups of students online, encourage them to exchange contact information if comfortable. Creating a separate orientation event or breakout session for international students might be valuable, allowing those individuals to share resources or offer support to each other throughout the unconventional first year of college. 

Related Blog: Key Takeaways & Trends From Our 'Back to Campus' Survey

Professional development opportunities are also a major concern for students unable to come abroad for school. Samal expressed disappointment at missing out on key chances to get a jumpstart on his career, saying, “the reason we go to university is to build that connection and to do other activities like clubs, internship opportunities. I won’t get to do any of that.” The career services office can take a proactive role in connecting students with professional development opportunities and support. Students may not be aware that internships continue to be conducted remotely, and if the office can continue to introduce community members to alumni or distribute newsletters with relevant work opportunities.

A campus safety app can also be a useful tool for distributing resources; the add-on to your existing mass notification system allows students to access resources and information via the app. The additional time-differences may complicate student access to resources on The content portal centralizes vital information for international students as well, such as protocol and policies for the upcoming year, holiday schedules, and phone numbers for all relevant administrative offices.

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Mary Kate McGrath
Mary Kate McGrath

Mary Kate is a content specialist and social media manager for the Rave Mobile Safety team. She writes about public safety for the state & local and education spheres.

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