University students are experiencing drastic life changes with the recent coronavirus outbreak, and many of them have been impacted in different areas of their lives. Both local and international students come to university and bring their cultures along to these central melting pots to learn from and to experience everyday life as a community. However, the recent worldwide spread of COVID-19 has disrupted these environments and caused major uncertainty about the future of higher education.
So, what effects have already started to take place? The virus has created a demand for physical distancing, meaning students can no longer pack themselves into lecture theatres, laboratories, or even the library. However, despite the closure of institutions, universities have been very quick to respond, with most of them going virtual within a few weeks of the announcement of the outbreak, and so international students were encouraged to return to their home countries early to complete the rest of their classes from home.
Student Virtual Experience
One of the main issues of online learning comes during the examination period. Universities have been working hard to find and place alternatives that do not compromise academic integrity, and this has led to the introduction of different applications and systems to monitor students performing exams online. Again, universities have been quick to implement these practices so that they don’t fall behind on their curriculum schedule. Applications such as ‘Canvas Lockdown Browser’ and ‘Proctorio’, for example, have become popular in UBC, and a student must have either one of these before performing a remote examination.
Campus closure has also forced faculties to interact with their prospective students through virtual campus tours and webinars. While they still may be informative, new students do not have the chance to physically experience campus events and tours, which are usually the most impactful for students who wish to explore their future universities. Every year, Student Recruitment and Advising at UBC hosts its annual ‘Destination UBC’, an event that introduces high school graduates to UBC and allows them to explore and experience the campus first-hand. However, due to the physical distancing policies this year, the program reformed itself into ‘Virtual Destination UBC’, the online version of the program. The same goes for the annual ‘Jumpstart’ orientation program that welcomes new UBC undergraduates to the campus with activities and social sessions. Orientation is usually an exciting time for new students as they get the opportunity to make meaningful friendships that may last throughout their university life, and universities recognise that many aspects such as this are hard to recreate online, but COVID-19 policies have been strict and so university coordinators have no choice but to host it online.
Impact on International Students
A large percentage of international students make up universities’ population, and with the Fall semester approaching, many of these students may be sceptical about their future plans for their education. The COVID-19 impact has thrown students into uncertainty as many find themselves reconsidering returning to university at this stage, and if embassies do not open in time, then it will delay the admission of new and returning students. Some may choose to take the semester off and rejoin in January, and others will have no choice but to take their classes online from home.
On the other hand, some international students are stuck at their universities and are unable to fly back home due to travel bans. Since the outbreak of the virus, they are now not only concerned that their studies have been interrupted, but also that they are susceptible to contracting COVID-19 and could become infected at any time. In a period like this, people would want to be closer and seek emotional support from their families, but for international students, their families are thousands of miles away.
Given these concerns, it is very important to focus on the mental health of international students. They often experience loneliness in various forms; personal loneliness from lack of contact with their families; social loneliness from the loss of familiar networks; and cultural loneliness from the absence of their own cultural environment. As an international student, I can attest to experiencing some of these feelings on a normal day, so I can only imagine how this pandemic magnifies the emotions for other international students that are stuck abroad. So, it is extremely necessary to provide accessible mental health services for students who are struggling to cope with the effects of the outbreak.
Additionally, COVID-19 has brought up more concerns than just health. The pandemic has brought out people’s fears and judgements, and since the virus is seen to be spreading more rapidly in some countries than others, this could lead to discrimination and segregation of groups of people. Emotional support is critical in this time, especially for international students who have no safe haven to support them while the outbreak continues to intensify. If this issue is not addressed, there could be a secondary outbreak of xenophobia, hate and exclusion.
There is also the issue of time difference, international students may find it difficult to participate in live online lectures depending on which time zone they’re in. This puts them at a disadvantage as many of them may have to adjust their schedule to the universities’ time zone or they will have to keep catching up with their assigned work.
Remote learning essentially means that there will be no practical sessions being offered, such as lab experiments, research programs, and Co-Op jobs for students. Universities will not be offering them while institutions are closed, and secondly, these programs require physical presence for one to get the full experience. For this reason, students will have to miss out on work opportunities for the meantime until it’s proclaimed ‘safe’ to return to campus.
Universities have done a tremendous job in adapting to the changes so far in response to the pandemic, but they still have to prepare for any uncertainties in these unprecedented times. With the virus continuing to spread, universities and colleges will remain closed, many jobs still suspended and visa processing slowed down, meaning that students will have to get comfortable with this new virtual lifestyle because it will be around for a while.
However, we are currently living in a virtual age, and the internet has provided universities with the necessary platform they need to continue providing education for their students.