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How COVID-19 has impacted Chinese international students

May 4, 2020 |   Nicolas Chu

Arguably one of the hardest-hit demographics during the COVID-19 crisis has been international students. They are faced with the tough decision of whether to remain in their host country or return home to their families. If they stay, they stand to face economic hardship, accommodation uncertainty, and isolation from their support network of friends and family. If they leave, they face the logistical nightmare of trying to arrange transport home, strict quarantining, and the difficulties inherent in remote learning.

International students make a substantial contribution to a nation’s economy – in the UK, they contribute around £22.6 billion to the economy; in the US, that figure is around US$45 billion; and in Australia, it’s around A$32 billion. In short, they are a demographic that countries can’t afford to lose. And with Chinese students making up between 20–50% of the international student population, they are especially critical. In order to support Chinese international students (and international students in general) in the best way possible, universities need to have a full understanding of the many challenges these students are facing.

Impact of COVID-19 on Chinese international students

Let’s take a closer look at the impact COVID-19 has had on Chinese international students.

Financial hardship

This is probably the biggest stressor Chinese international students are facing. The average annual fee for international students in Australia is over A$30,000; in the UK, students can be expected to pay anywhere from £9600 to £58600 a year; and in the US, they’re paying an average of US$26,290 – and that doesn’t include living costs.

To help pay for accommodation and other expenses, many international students rely on casual jobs in industries like retail and hospitality – industries that have suffered huge job losses as a result of social distancing measures. Having found themselves suddenly unemployed, these students sometimes slip through the cracks of government welfare programs too, because they’re not citizens. These students are also less able to rely on their families back home for support, as their families are often going through similar financial difficulties themselves. Many international students have had to resort to food relief and support charities to help them get by.

Insecure accommodation

Many international students are also facing the pressure of insecure accommodation. Often this is inextricably tied to their financial difficulties, with students unsure how they will afford next week’s or month’s rent. But sometimes this is a result of decisions that universities have made in response to the crisis.

According to Chinese news site Sina, on 10 March Harvard University informed students they had five days to vacate their dorms. On 17 March, New York University sent an emergency email to students requesting that they leave their dorms within 48 hours. As one student said, “Many of us feel we have no time to pack our things and find alternative accommodation, which brings both psychological and economic pressure.”

The pressure is very real, with some students describing themselves as “weeks away from homelessness”.

Inferior/delayed educational experience

As I mentioned above, international students pay significant fees for their overseas education. Of course, under normal circumstances Chinese international students are happy to pay these amounts for the cultural experience and high-quality education they will receive. With social distancing necessitating the move to remote and online learning, however, many students feel the quality of education has dramatically decreased, yet many have been offered little in the way of recompense.

As student Boxuan Ding, who is in his second year of his Master of Linguistics degree at the University of Sydney, told me: “Online classes have caused me so many headaches, and even when the technology works properly, they are less efficient than face-to-face classes. I think universities should give financial rebates to all students taking online classes.”

Students whose studies are heavily reliant on practical experience or laboratory work are also finding themselves particularly disadvantaged, as this type of work is not easily replicated in an online environment.

Students who have prerequisite classes are also facing the tough decision of whether to defer and delay finishing their degree by a whole year because prerequisite classes typically only run once a year.

Students who have opted to return home are also grappling with the difficulty of being in a completely different time zone to their teachers and peers. One student in Singapore (which is in the same time zone as Beijing) relayed the challenge of trying to keep up with her classes in the US: “My schedule here will be upside down,” she says. “I will have to be awake at night and sleep during the days in order to attend classes.”

Unfortunately, watching the recording of the lecture at a more convenient time was not an option due to the interactive nature of the class. “If I want to feel at least that I’m in some way participating and gaining something from the classes, I have to do them live,” she says.

Stress of being a foreigner in a foreign land

On top of the stresses of financial hardship, insecure accommodation and navigating the challenging world of online learning, Chinese students who have opted to remain in their host country are unfortunately finding themselves the subject of racist attacks. One teacher in Los Angeles related the racist experiences of her Chinese university students, including receiving dirty looks and nasty comments, and being actively avoided. She then experienced this first-hand, when she and her Chinese students were refused service from several restaurants.

Chinese students are also finding wearing masks in foreign countries is sparking hostility towards them. While in many countries the advice in regards to COVID-19 is to not wear PPE equipment such as masks, in order to preserve them for healthcare workers, in China, it is mandatory to wear masks when outside. Even under normal circumstances, wearing masks is considered a normal part of Chinese culture, whether it’s due to the poor air quality or to prevent others from getting sick if the mask-wearer is unwell. Yet few seem to understand this cultural aspect, and feel that these students are being “selfish” by using vital PPE equipment.

The flipside of this is that Chinese students interpret the lack of mask-wearing and other health protocols such as wiping down tables and chairs with disinfectant wipes, exhibited by those around them as a lack of due diligence, giving them the impression that people are not taking the virus seriously, and inciting further anxiety that the virus is more likely to be spread.

Technological challenges

While those Chinese international students who are in foreign countries are undoubtedly doing it pretty tough, things aren’t exactly smooth sailing for Chinese international students who have remained or returned to China. They are forced to contend with the Great Firewall in order to access the materials they need to complete their online learnings.

“It’s harder to get onto American websites when I’m in China, especially a lot of schools are using like, for example, school emails are all like Google, Gmail, [and] we can’t really use Gmail in China,” said Tony Zhu, a graduate student at New York University. Tony said he would have to set up a virtual private network, or VPN, to get around Chinese internet censors – and while this is an option many students have taken up, it is not exactly legal. And even with a VPN, there are issues with connectivity, with servers becoming so crowded it can take a long time to access pages.

Psychological distress and anxiety

All of these challenges, with the added stress of being isolated from support networks of friends and family, can contribute to psychological distress and anxiety. Many Chinese international students are understandably suffering from poor mental health as a result of all the uncertainty and upheaval they have been forced to contend with.

Vincent Lee, a second-year linguistics student at the Australian National University (ANU), told SBS News about the toll having to undergo self-quarantine was having on his mental health. “I’m a fairly extroverted person and I don’t tend to stay indoors very often,” he said. “It might have an influence on my mental health but I do have arrangements with my counsellor in the next few days.”

This support has made a significant difference: “I do have mild anxiety issues that come up quite often, so normally I will seek help with my counsellors … I think the information they have provided me was quite holistic and they gave it to me in a timely manner,” he said.  

But he is aware he has an advantage over some of his peers: “I have been lucky enough to speak English like a first language and I am fine expressing my emotions in English … But that’s not the case for all international students like Chinese students [who] are the group that are affected the most. If universities are able to offer more linguistic and diverse counsellors, that would be really great for some students who might be unable to express themselves really well in English emotionally.”

How universities can support their Chinese international students

As you can see, Chinese international students are currently facing an uphill battle. But universities who stand by their students and support them during this difficult time will be sure to earn their students’ loyalty well beyond the COVID-19 crisis. Here are some of the ways universities might be able to help.

Financial support

For many students, their most pressing concern is financial hardship. Here is where universities can perhaps have the biggest impact on students’ wellbeing.

In some countries, international students are able to access government welfare programs. New Zealand is not restricting international students and graduates from accessing its wage subsidy scheme. Britain and Canada allow international students and graduates access to the Coronavirus Job Retention Subsidy and the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, respectively. In Australia, international students aren’t eligible for JobSeeker or JobKeeper payments – however, every state except New South Wales has offered support packages that include international students, such as Victoria’s $45 million International Student Emergency Relief Fund or  Tasmania’s $3 million package for temporary visa holders. Universities should be across what federal and state support is available for their students, and offer any assistance they can to help students apply for these payments.

Many students have also called for fee rebates, particularly for courses that are being delivered completely online, and some universities are heeding this call. Griffith University, for example, are offering students a 20% fee discount in this year’s second trimester.

Secure accommodation

Having insecure accommodation is highly stressful for students, many of whom have nowhere else to go if they were to be turfed onto the streets. Universities can let students know that their university accommodation is secure, and offer measures that students can take if they are concerned about not being able to pay rent or accommodation fees. Reassuring students that they won’t end up homeless will go a long way towards relieving stress.

If students must be vacated from their university accommodation for health reasons, universities should help students find suitable alternative accommodation, and if possible offer financial support to help them move.

Mental health support

As student Vincent Lee said above, having access to counselling services can make a world of difference when students are stressed. Many universities already have such services in place; it is just a matter of reminding students that these services exist.

As Lee also points out, some students may be reluctant to take up such services due to a lack of English proficiency. If possible, universities could perhaps offer counselling services in Mandarin for these students.

Improve online learning where possible

Online learning has been a steep learning curve for all involved, and many universities are still working out the kinks. Lowering any confusion and frustration involved with online learning will also help Chinese international students enormously.

ICEF Monitor advises that universities:

  • Show they care with authentic, caring communication. Simply acknowledging when things don’t go to plan and reminding students there are humans on the other side of the screen, facing their own challenges and frustrations, can help ease any dissatisfaction they may be feeling.
  • Be flexible. For example, some students may find it difficult to participate in live group discussions due to the time zone they’re in, so perhaps make them optional rather than mandatory, and/or provide alternative exercises for these students.
  • Add additional – optional – content at no extra cost to make up for areas where students may not be receiving proper instruction. For example, the dance department at the University of Washington added some “small, not-for-credit technique course options specifically designed for small spaces.”

Provide resources for students

Even simply providing an information resource for students to refer to will help show students they are not navigating through these waters alone. Universities can create a resource that outlines all the services they offer, as well as the other options available to students, such as assistance from the government or Chinese embassy. Ensure this is a resource available to Chinese international students both in and outside China. You could even supplement this with your WeChat channel, by using keyword auto-responses so students can quickly find the information they’re looking for.

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