Student wears a mask during the Covid-19 pandemic
Student at school during the Covid-19 pandemic. Source: Unsplash

International students in the UK who admitted having struggled during Covid have mixed feelings about their universities’ support, finds Jessica Piazzi.

International students represent a large part of the UK student population. 

In 2018/2019, the last academic year not influenced by the pandemic, almost half a million university students in the country were internationals, around one-fifth of the total. 

This year, probably because of an apparent initial easing of the restrictions and the expectation of many courses returning to be taught in person, they re-populated the university cities of the UK.

However, the situation soon turned out to be very different than expected. 

As the restriction got every week tighter, and in November the first lockdown started, students found themselves unable to socialise, and often stuck in their accommodations with people they did not decide to live with. 

Nayana Garcia Karunanidhi, an 18-year-old fashion student from Dubai at Nottingham Trent University, said: “Even if the only friends that I initially had were my flatmates, it was quite hard adjusting to British culture, because I personally grew up with Asian friends.”

Nayana Garcia, international student
Nayana Garcia, 18, international student from Dubai. Credits: Jessica Piazzi

Many British students decided to go back to a safe environment and follow their lectures from home, waiting for the lockdown to ease. For foreigners the choice has been more difficult. 

Some of them, like Vlasis Terzis, 26, decided not to go back home for economic reasons.
Nayana said that she did not have the chance to go home for Christmas too, because her parents, facing financial difficulties due to the pandemic, could save so much more by just letting her stay here.

Others, like Sébastien Samara-Milthorp, 18, went home and had to postpone their comeback for months, losing a big part of the experience of studying abroad.  

The unpredictable sequence of events has inevitably influenced students’ mental health. Vlasis, Nayana and Sébastien all admitted to have experienced anxiety, which led to side symptoms such as insomnia, fatigue and lack of motivation. 

A surge in mental health issues related to Covid-19 mainly affected Western countries such as America, Canada and the UK, where more than 70% of students admitted having suffered throughout the year.

However, while home students in Asia might have had a milder psychological impact, the situation for internationals there was different too.

Japan denied entry to students coming from abroad, who were often forced to “wake up in the middle of the night to take online classes.” Their educators declared being “worried about their wellbeing and learning outcomes.”

On the other hand, British universities gave their international students the chance to decide whether they wanted to come back or study from home. Moreover, the country itself never banned students from any country from returning, even if the tight travel restrictions in some cases made them decide to study from home. 

To support all those who were getting back on campus, British universities “have implemented a number of Covid-19 support services that international students can access, such as helplines for students that run 24/7 and facilitating free counselling and mental health support services.”

However, the students themselves have opposing views. 

In Nayana’s opinion “the university did a wonderful job” and “understood how a pandemic can affect the well being of any student,” with an “extra support” for internationals.

In contrast, Sébastien thinks “the lack of clarity in some of the communication from the university was frustrating,” but admits that “effort was definitely made to highlight the mental health resources available, but was lost in the sea of emails students get bombarded with.” 

Vlasis, who tried to acquire help from student support, thinks that universities should have spent more resources on this type of service. In fact, after some initial assistance, he was told that every student can only book a certain number of sessions per year. Also, he said that he did not know about any 24/7 support service, and that this could represent an issue for all those facing an emergency. 

Nottingham Trent University, however, provided a wide range of suggested free support services to contact in case of emergency, as well as a easy to access support hub. Moreover, as international students have been identified “with special circumstances” throughout the whole academic year, they were always been granted access to support in person and university facilities.

Nottingham Trent University has been contacted for further comments.

It is evident that a huge number of students had to deal, in different ways, with mental issues and hard times throughout the year. 

Universities have for sure put more effort in supporting their students, especially internationals who found themselves vulnerable. However, many of the services provided have clearly been lost in the information overload where students ended up. 

All the interviewees admitted understanding that this confusion has likely been a result of the Covid-19 situation. 

Sebastian Samara-Milthorp, international student
Sébastien Samara-Milthorp, 18, international student from Geneva. Credits: Sébastien Samara-Milthorp

It is still unclear how the situation will be during the next academic year. Despite the vaccination program, many fear the threat of the variants. 

While everyone hopes that in-person learning will be resumed, as well as all the events and opportunities typical of the “student life,” universities will mindful of the possibility that Covid-19 could change their plans again. 

International students are a cultural and economic resource for their host countries, and the pandemic has highlighted the importance of giving them adequate support, not only during this unique historic situation, but when life will be back to normal too.

 

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