Being international during the pandemic

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If being a university student during Covid-19 has been anxiety-inducing, making one feel alternately forgotten and scapegoated, being an international student has been even worse. Upon going some way to finding a solution that seemingly works for British students, it feels like the University and Government see it as if the problem has been solved for everyone.

For context, the logistics of a trip home for me, in precedented times, are usually something like this: at the beginning of each academic year, I confirm the dates when term begins and ends and choose travel dates. I observe ticket prices and, usually about six to nine weeks before I have to fly, I buy a ticket. However, when regulations change so often and become ever more confusing, and when the University’s decisions
are communicated to us with extremely short notice, it makes this process all but impossible.

We were told, over and over, that we would be okay if we went home for Christmas. I scrambled to obtain a flight during the travel window, and I was lucky enough to find a seat. I booked a round trip, as did most of the international students I know who went home as this significantly saves money and time. Four days before term began, we received an email stating that all teaching would go online for Epiphany and to stay where we were. I have never met an international student who books their flights four days or less before term begins. Additionally, there’s the cost of flying in terms of feeling anxious about the risk it poses to those we may come into contact with and to ourselves.

Forgotten and scapegoated

International students also pay twice the amount of university fees that UK students do, usually with less access to loans or financial aid. Those studying lab-based subjects pay over £20,000 a year for tuition alone. When expected to study from outside of the UK, we are arguably paying double the fees for even less of what UK students get in return. The average broadband speed in Peru, where I’m from, is significantly lower than the UK’s. With a lack of digitised resources, international students have few options to access Durham’s library resources.

Though the postal service is being offered to home students, international students can’t get books posted to our addresses. Add to this the cost of houses in Durham that we are told not to return to, where most of my belongings and resources are.

Furthermore, with a five-hour time difference, I can only access half of my lecturers’ working days. This is mild compared to fellow students whose time differences can be even worse – at least I get to work in the morning, even if some of my seminars are at 4 or 5 a.m.

As far as I can remember, the time difference issue has only been explicitly addressed by the University in terms of online exams and recording lectures. While it’s good that we get a 24- hour window, a noon-to-noon window is arguably better and easier to make use of than a 5 a.m. to 5 a.m. one.

Our particular concerns are rarely mentioned, let alone addressed

I would be remiss not to talk about the impact that coronavirus has had on my, and fellow international students’, mental health. Being stuck in a different time zone than most of your friends is a profoundly isolating experience – even if they’re locked down in Durham, they can go for a run together, and they’ll be able to see each other when lockdowns are lifted. Looking for a job or an MA from outside England with no clarity on when I can return is profoundly stressful, more so when I take into account the need for a visa if I am to stay.

To get a graduate visa to remain in the UK, I have to be back by 6th April before the advised return date. Considering a return to the UK, though, is deciding whether it is worth making the trip back if it means being locked down, potentially by yourself, and far away from family with no certainty of when you may return.

I know handling a pandemic is incredibly difficult. I have no intention of dismissing the work that has been done to address students’ concerns. But I do wish to express the profound neglect that international students have felt, and continue to feel, throughout this pandemic. Our particular concerns are rarely mentioned, let alone addressed. I hope the rest of 2021 marks a change on this.

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