While it’s been a rough couple of years for all of us, international students, or as the University probably refers to them, ‘our largest source of income’, have had a particularly tough pandemic. Otago Uni reports that out of the 20,700 students in 2020, international students comprise 9% of them — around 2,300 (this doesn’t include Australian, Tokelauan, and Cook Islands students). China, the United States, Malaysia, India, and Singapore make up the largest percentages of international students, but more than 30 other countries were represented in 2020. These students have not been able to return to their home countries or see their families for the last year and a half, and in many cases even longer. Each of those 2300 students is someone, perhaps in one of your lectures, that made the tough decision to choose an academic path rather than seeing their family and being at home.
There are two types of international students: those who come here on exchange for a semester or year and those who come here for their full university degrees. Once the first lockdown happened in March of 2020 many of the semester exchange students received hostile emails threatening to pull their scholarships, university-based housing, and other support systems these students use if they didn’t return home; ultimately making it impossible for them to remain in Dunedin. A fortunate small group of these exchange students were able to remain at Otago for the remainder of their semester, waiting out lockdown to travel the country that many of us have been so fortunate to have already explored. The full-time international students on the other hand were never planning on leaving, as Otago is their home university, pushing them into the situation they are in today.
International students don’t know when they can go home next. With the international border being shut, students who only have student visas are not able to return home and return to New Zealand afterwards. They are effectively stuck in the country until the borders open back up again. And as seen with the Australia bubble, an open border can shut again without much notice.
Lok said that international students “can't go back home even if we want to, because it will mean sacrificing our tertiary journey or chances to live their life here in New Zealand. Rather we have had to find a unique support system and adapt to it.”
The choice to study at Otago pre-pandemic was made under the assumption that international students would be able to return home but “suddenly we’ve signed onto two to three years of our life without being able to go back home and check in on things. You have to ask yourself ‘is it worth it?’ If you answer yes, you have to deal with the disadvantages of being a foreigner,” says Fox, another international student. The lack of assistance for international students can be grim, especially since international students are paying around 3.5x domestic course fees. The international office sent out notifications two days into lockdown directing students who may be struggling to send an email to a University email account. This can feel like not enough when there’s no family nearby to help you. Fox reckons the international students have to become incredibly self-reliant. “We can’t just borrow a car, crash at our parents’ house, or rely on the communal infrastructure that a whānau provides.”
A lot of internationals really miss their families and friends back home. “I just really miss my family, no amount of video calls really can make up for it. Beyond not getting to eat my dad’s food or spend time with my siblings, I really yearn for the sense of just being at home,” says one international named Hannah. She continues, “it’s really the small things like the noises, scenery, and food that I became so accustomed to growing up and now I feel like I’m losing them and a small part of my identity with the continued border closure.” The feeling of uncertainty creates a deep impact on many of these international students.
Many international students have also had to overcome survivor’s guilt over the past year and a half. As Covid-19 affects the older generations more or even just as families age, there is a lot of anxiety of when or if international students will be able to see their older family members again, especially when most people in their home countries know at least a few people that have died from Covid. Fox is worried that if there is an older family member that passes away he “won’t be able to go home and mourn for them, an exception would not be made for that.”
There is also an internal battle with guilt that comes from being ‘stuck’ in Dunedin. Hannah says “New Zealand provides access to most everything a person could want; it is not a bad place to be. So the feelings of selfishness and ungratefulness arise when I’m claiming to be stuck here, but I know I’m not ungrateful, I just want to visit home.” Hannah’s experiences are not uncommon though, many international students have to battle the feelings of being fortunate enough to travel and live abroad while still feeling homesick and yearning for the sense of home.
Creating a support system within the international community seems to be what most internationals have turned to. The Otago International Student Association [OISA] has created a network by students for students so internationals can find other people who really understand what they’re going through. Over this past lockdown, they have been incredibly active providing cooking tutorials, study sessions, and game nights, all online.
If you are an international student reading this, just know all your feelings are valid and there are others who are experiencing something similar to you. If you are a domestic student, Lok suggests “listening to [international students’] stories and being their listening ear” if you want to help them with the hardships they are undergoing. When you’re on the piss this weekend, pour one out for the international students in your life.