Picture this: It’s after midnight and the room is dark. Your family is asleep, but you are just getting started for the evening. You boot up your laptop and log in to your online lecture, a textbook beside you. Your professor has opted to have synchronous classes to better interact with students, and for many of your fellow classmates in Canada, it’s early afternoon. At first it was difficult, but several months into the fall semester, you’re used to the new schedule. This is your university life in the time of COVID-19.
International students have always faced some challenges at Canadian universities, from language barriers to cost. But this fall, students dealt with a university semester like no other. These six accounts, from students across the globe, show the highs and lows of virtual learning. They touch on the difficulties that international students have faced whether they’re studying remotely from their home countries or in Canada, but also the surprising benefits of online learning. Here’s what they think university administrators and instructors should know about the international student experience right now.
Third-year undergraduate student, political science
University of British Columbia
From Mumbai, India
Currently in Vancouver, British Columbia
I’m really lucky that most of my professors are really good orators. They have been able to make the lecturers really interesting, but I do miss the social aspect of classes. When you’re on Zoom and you see people’s faces on the screen, it’s harder to reach out and make a friendship with them. I miss going to the library or getting food. Just hanging out with my friends. And if you do see anyone, there’s a level of paranoia, because you have to be careful in every situation. It’s not just you that you’re responsible for, it’s other people too.
It’s also more difficult to get motivated. I live on campus, so I’m in my dorm room most of the time. It’s getting hard to decide “hey, is this my comfort zone? Is this my work zone? Where exactly am I in this entire space?” It just takes three times the amount of effort that it would take if you were going to a class and walking back, and then doing your work after that.
Tuition fees are a big deal, especially for international students. Paying as much for an online class when we’re not getting the same interaction, it just doesn’t seem fair. And I do think that, with so many services closed or potentially unsafe, we shouldn’t be charged for them. Fees for my courses, or my UPass, those are completely legitimate because I’m using those resources. But there’s a bunch of other stuff that I’m just not using, like the fitness centre, and I feel like you should at least have the option of opting out of those things.
“Paying as much for an online class when we’re not getting the same interaction, it just doesn’t seem fair.”
I think the university has communicated with us really well, they really keep us in the loop. I like that they’re trying to include the entire student body and keep us motivated, but there’s only so much they can do. It’s not the same as being on a regular campus where you can see people and see life happening. The campus should be more than just a school.
Editor’s note: In a message to the university community in August, UBC provost Andrew Szeri addressed student requests for a reduction of fees and tuition for 2020-21. He noted: “It’s crucial for everyone to understand that tuition is vital to the ongoing operations of UBC. Without it, we cannot continue to meet our academic mission.” He said a tuition reduction would also constrain the university’s ability to support its students with financial aid and to offer student services and programs.
First-year master’s student, health sciences
University of Ottawa
From Enugu State, Nigeria
Currently in Enugu State, Nigeria
It’s October and so far, the fall semester has been interesting, and frankly, a wonderful experience. The biggest help has been the staff and faculty. My professors are really helpful with any issues that pop up. They are fairly quick to respond to messages and they work to resolve any issues effectively. I’ve been impressed at how they have been willing to assist myself and other students at any time. It’s been amazing to see.
There’s also a big plus of studying virtually: I’m more relaxed in the comfort of my home. Taking courses online has given me the gift of time, because I no longer have to worry about a long commute or getting prepared for a day on campus. Instead, I’m comfortable and ready to go right away. It’s certainly been harder to interact with other students, which means I have fewer opportunities to get to know my classmates and learn from them, but I’m trying to find ways to work with others.
“I’d like to meet my classmates and engage with them, integrate more into Canadian society, and enjoy the typical university experience.”
Luckily, the basics seem to work well for me. There is a small time difference, so my morning lectures are actually in the afternoon, which is fine for me. I have had a few small fluctuations with my internet connection, but no major issues. I’m able to access all the school sites and everything I need for my courses.
I’m looking forward to coming to Canada to study in person when I’m able, because I’d like to begin my laboratory work. Completing my lab work will help me to work on my thesis, which has been delayed so far. But mostly, I’d like to meet my classmates and engage with them, integrate more into Canadian society, and enjoy the typical university experience.
Hesham El Hamshary
Third-year undergraduate student, computer science
University of Prince Edward Island
From Cairo, Egypt
Currently in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island
This semester has been weird. I’ve had one in-person class, but the rest of my courses are online, which isn’t my preference. There are usually online meetings with the professors live for the lectures, and they often post videos in addition to class. You can reach out to the professors if you have questions, but I prefer being in an in-person lecture so I can ask questions as they are going through their presentation. Plus, I’m worried about my internet connection. I know that while I’m doing an online quiz or something on Moodle, if my internet cuts off that’s the end for me. But most of the faculty have been understanding about technical issues.
In fact, the professors do seem to be putting more effort into making the online learning experience better. I think they’re focusing on it a lot, which is good because it’s a resource a lot of students need.
The biggest stress right now isn’t actually my coursework but staying in touch with my family back in Egypt. I usually call every other day or so on Facebook Messenger. I don’t know when I’ll be able to go home for a visit because I’ll have to quarantine and the COVID situation has been pretty bad in Egypt.
Money has also been a big issue this semester. I know that there are limited scholarships and over the summer, the student union was successful in getting the school to remove at least one of the fees that international students pay. But money is definitely a big worry for international students.
I’ve mainly been receiving money from my family in Egypt, but their work is starting to be affected by COVID. I do have a study permit for the rest of the year, so now I’m able to look for a job. Honestly, I don’t think any of my friends would be able to afford tuition without having their jobs here.
First-year master’s student, neuroscience
From Seoul, South Korea
Currently in Seoul, South Korea
One thing I didn’t expect this semester was gaining back a lot of free time. Obviously, with all of my courses being online, I don’t ever have to go to campus, which is nice because I don’t have to spend extra energy getting ready, walking to campus, waiting between classes and other little things that all add up. Usually, when I would return home from a day on campus, I was pretty exhausted. Now, since I stay home for all my courses, there’s nothing like that at all – it’s all really convenient.
On the other hand, I’m getting sick of studying in my bedroom. The feeling of physical distance is always there. With Zoom, we can effectively do everything we can in a physical classroom, but it’s hard to replace the environment of being in close proximity with professors, friends and colleagues.
“One thing I didn’t expect this semester was gaining back a lot of free time.”
There’s a disconnected feeling and I’m starting to miss studying or working in the library with a chance to meet people. There are clubs and student societies offering some virtual events and meet-ups, but it’s not the same. I’ve spoken about these trade-offs with my friends a lot lately, and we’re all in the same boat.
It can be tough to connect with students through virtual learning, because it’s never going to be the same. My professors are definitely trying, and they have been very understanding and accommodating, especially with delays. There’s a 13-hour time difference between Montreal and South Korea, which means my courses start after midnight. That hasn’t been too hard to navigate so far, but I hear that’s not always the case, and I definitely consider myself lucky.
Federal government lifts pandemic-related travel ban for international students
At the start of the 2020-2021 academic year, few international students were actually able to travel to Canada to pursue their university studies because of strict COVID-related travel bans that prohibited non-essential travel to the country. The federal government only lifted the bans for international students late in October, when Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) posted a list of “designated learning institutions” (DLIs) that have been approved to welcome international students from abroad. To make it to the DLI list, a university must have a COVID-19 readiness plan approved by its provincial or territorial government. Most universities anticipate a significant influx of international students to Canada for the start of winter term in January. The DLI list is periodically updated and posted on the IRCC website.
First-year master’s student, tourism development
Université du Québec à Montréal
From Marsa, Tunisia
Currently in Montreal, Quebec
Coming back to Montreal this fall was a real headache and very stressful. The study permit renewal process had been extended for several months. Even though I knew that the ESG (École des sciences de la gestion, UQAM’s school of management) was shifting its courses to online learning, several factors pushed me to return to Canada. First of all, I didn’t have my own study space at my parents’ home in France, plus the time difference made the task completely impossible. I couldn’t start my master’s degree under these conditions, so it was necessary that I come back.
Since the start of the semester, my biggest challenge has been dealing with the social isolation. When you start a program, you expect to meet people. It’s that social support that helps us to integrate. In my case, I know I’m not going to meet this year’s cohort of students. There is also a lot of disappointment in terms of what we have been promised and what we are really going to experience. I chose this program because it includes field courses, but they’ll all be done remotely.
On the other hand, one of the advantages of distance learning is that I waste a lot less time commuting, which reduces stress. That also means I have more time to study. And, let’s face it, it’s cool to be able to attend classes from your couch in your pajamas! I also noticed, to my surprise, that we feel closer to our professors. There is a certain empathy that is developing in the context of the pandemic, everyone is sharing their news with each other.
I am also vice-president of academic affairs in the graduate students’ association at ESG. From the association’s perspective, we feel that there is frustration on the part of the students as well as the professors. We receive a lot of complaints from students about the lack of academic accommodation being offered by professors. However, the school is working hard to show that they’re there for us and are being flexible. For my part, my professors are very present. One of them even asked us how he could improve his course and he has already implemented some of our comments.
First-year PhD student, engineering
University of Windsor
Currently in Iran*
The best way for me to describe this semester is that it’s a soft start. After speaking with my supervisors in August, I decided to defer my PhD studies until the winter 2021 semester, but I’ve started with readings for my research project. Since I’m not able to start my own research from a distance, this is all I can do for now.
The hardest part is dealing with internet issues. Within Iran, there are internet blocks and sanctions, which can affect the speed of our connection and the websites we’re able to use. Some software and programs, like Zoom, are either censored by our government or filtered due to sanctions, which makes it really hard for us to attend online meetings and classes. Sometimes I have to use apps that change my IP address and location, and even then it’s hard to see a clear video. Imagine that you are attending a class which is in your second language, with an unstable internet connection.
“The hardest part is dealing with internet issues. Within Iran, there are internet blocks and sanctions, which can affect the speed of our connection and the websites we’re able to use.”
The internet can make researching difficult as well. Instead of borrowing books from the university library in person, librarians will sometimes scan books or documents and send them to me, but that also has challenges. Thinking about taking my exams via Iran’s internet connection is very frustrating for me.
Many students in Iran are unable to get student visa’s approved, which means we have issues getting proper tax documentation as well as grants and funding. It makes for a very uncertain future for many of us. A number of schools are considered “Designated Learning Institutes” by the Canadian government so students should be able to travel to attend classes at these institutions. But the DLI list changes and it’s difficult to make a plan when things are in flux. It’s created a lot of tension for many students in Iran.
The one positive that I can see is that this virtual education is helping to slow the spread of COVID-19. In the face of this pandemic, we should care about ourselves and the other citizens of the world. But I believe border closure to students is not the best solution to this global health issue.
*Editor’s note: Elnaz’s last name and place of residence have been withheld out of concern for her personal safety.
First-year certificate student, business
Manitoba Institute of Trades and Technology
From Quezon City, Philippines
Currently in Winnipeg, Manitoba
When I decided to come to Canada for school, I chose to live in Winnipeg because my sister and her family were already here. I’m actually living with them now. That’s made a big difference for me this year. I’m away from my parents, but it’s really fulfilling, because I see my sister and her husband, and my nieces and nephew, so I’m not alone right now.
It can be hard juggling all my classes and work, all the different priorities. In the Philippines, we would only have one job at a time. If I was in school, I would just study. Now I’m studying and I have two part time jobs. But it’s cool to be here and learn in this new environment. I work at an elementary school and at a pharmacy, and I’m taking all of my classes online.
I already have a bachelor’s degree in film, but I wanted to learn business and marketing so I’m taking this one-year course. Maybe I’ll transfer to the University of Winnipeg next year. I believe that learning is ongoing, and you can always learn more in life. But the online classes are harder in some ways. We usually only meet for an hour or so online, and then the rest of the time we can discuss or study on our own. It can be very isolating, not being able to study with your classmates or be social with your friends. But the positive side is that I don’t have a long commute anymore. I can wake up a few minutes before my class and log on instead of riding the bus for an hour.
My school has mostly been good to the students, but I did have a few issues when I was trying to get a letter to show to the airlines that I had a reason to travel here. I did have to email the school, and I showed them copies of letters that other schools in Ontario and British Columbia were giving to their students, but they took a long time to get back to me. I got a letter a day before my flight, which was a little stressful. That was just my experience, but I felt like the school could have been more supportive.
But I am lucky. I found a job after going store to store applying. It’s a lot to deal with at once, but the hardship that I’ve been through back in the Philippines, it’s really worth it. When you have a dream, you have to work hard for it.