Supporting international students in HE during COVID-19

“As we enter a new normal, we must ensure that no student is left behind”

Covid-19 has thrust the Higher Education sector into the realities of ‘Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity’ (VUCA)  writes senior international lead at the University of Sussex, Tosin Adebisi. As a result, many universities are responding quickly, creatively and moving in-person teaching to online platforms.

I commend universities for developing robust solutions; however, as we develop these learning platforms, how are we supporting international students, especially those unable to fly back to their homes and families? How well are we creating a level learning field that promotes accessibility, participation and inclusion?

In this opinion piece, I argue that we can do more to support international students. I also present suggestions to help universities develop human-centred solutions for this group.

For many students, the transition from on-campus to online learning will be challenging. In addition, the lack of access to support services and regular social contact could be problematic in terms of overall wellbeing, mental health and learning outcomes.

I have been following online discussions and this issue is not getting equal attention in the ongoing debates. Why is this important, I hear you ask? Simply put, as we enter a new normal, we must ensure that no student is left behind.

As a former international student turned educator, I had a fantastic experience as a postgraduate student. Having spent over 10 years in international student recruitment, I have the privilege of working closely with students from around the world and in the process, hear their frustrations.

Students like Samantha, a final year overseas student who said “we believe the move online discriminates against people who may be forced back to homes that are less than peaceful, and are poor working environments. We have heard from many international students who have been forced to leave the country, returning home to live a completely alien life”

Let us consider for a moment two student ‘user groups’ (UK and International) and the different ways in which these groups will engage with this new reality over the coming weeks. Are there sub-groups who may struggle due to socio-economic, psychological, and geographical constraints? Harvard professor, Kathy Pham heard some of the challenges from her students.

Unlike their UK classmates, international students face unique challenges. Many may have no choice but to remain in the UK and find themselves isolated in near-empty accommodation and campuses. Others may return home (in some cases, to different time zones) and potentially struggle to access stable internet, face visa issues to re-enter the UK, have to stop part-time work in the UK for safety reasons (ending source of income) and worse, fall sick to the virus, without family support structures.

Jimin Kang, a current junior at Princeton said “it is a lonely time for all of us. A simple greeting, whether on the phone or computer, can offer warmth that slowly chips away at the isolation”.

” International students face unique challenges – many may have no choice but to remain in the UK”

Providing support to international students to help reduce feelings of isolation should not be underrated. In her piece, Monica Chin describes some of these challenges, and Jafia Naftali Camara shares the anxieties of a current PhD student here

To humanise the tech- and based on conversations with students, here are tips for universities to offer additional support to international students at this difficult time:

Keep it personal and accessible
o A kind and personalised email goes a long way
o Where necessary, consider individual FaceTime or voice chats
o Coordinate cross-university student support to develop holistic remote alternatives o Waive rent or on-campus accommodation during the affected period
o Consider virtual campus activities such as gym classes, meditation and social events o Record lecture videos in reduced file sizes

Get creative with seminars
o Use Flipgrid or Padlet for seminars to accommodate time zone differences

Co-create student-led online communities
o Expand existing ‘Buddy Schemes’ to offer a medium for isolated students to chat with

Staff and student volunteers
o Consider food drops for students in need of help
o Reach out to students to find out most significant ‘pain points’
o Start a #KeepInTouchDaily campaign
o Start solidarity groups on relevant platforms such as WhatsApp or Facebook

Higher education can learn from Richard Branson when he said of Virgin Voyages “We didn’t build a cruise: we built a voyage”. Therefore, let’s empathise with and humanise the international student experience to cope with the challenges of Covid-19.

Thanks for reading. Let’s share good practice- how is your university supporting international students during Covid-19?

About the author: Tosin Adebisi is Senior International Lead at the University of Sussex.