It’s Not Just Academic: Challenges faced by international students during the Covid-19 pandemic

Title:The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on International Students in a Public University in the United States: Academic and Non-academic Challenges

Authors: Nara M. Martirosyan, Dana Van De Walker, and D. Patrick Saxon

First author institution: Sam Houston State University, Texas, USA

Status: Published in Journal of Comparative & International Higher Education [open access]

This post is a part of a series of posts by the Astrobites DEI committee.

International students face additional challenges and barriers to their work and education relative to their domestic peers. We’ve highlighted some of these challenges in a previous bite. In today’s bite, we summarise a paper that attempted to investigate the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on international students at Sam Houston State University in Texas.

The Challenges Before Covid

Additional challenges faced by international students compared to their resident peers make them a group vulnerable to financial, academic, and health difficulties during a global pandemic. In the US, these challenges are well documented. Miscommunication is common when your native language is not the same as the primary language of the university. It also results in barriers to accessing resources, and isolation. Even native speakers can face issues with communication as they face different dialects and cultural expectations, while academic cultures and classroom styles are often wildly different between nations, which takes time to settle into. Homesickness (or as I experience it, hiraeth) manifests as a result of cultural differences in various aspects of daily life, from food and drink, to entertainment and community, to accessibility of services and transportation. In particular, international students are susceptible to financial instabilities as a result of unexpected educational and living expenses such as inflation-busting rental increases and potentially paying higher taxes compared to their domestic peers, the changing exchange rates between their home country and place of study, and the fact that their visa prevents them from working off-campus to supplement their finances. Finally, racism, xenophobia, and unequal treatment compared to their domestic peers contribute to the negative experiences an international student is likely to face.

While all students were adversely affected by the pandemic, the additional challenges faced by international students were particularly amplified during this time. For example, the uncertainty and discrimination unleashed by the Trump administration during the summer of 2020 caused significant harm to the mental health of students, as students were unsure if they’d be allowed to stay in the US or be deported during a global health crisis. This paper surveyed a population of international students at a rural public university in Texas to understand how their challenges changed and/or were amplified by the pandemic.

A lack of support

In the survey, the students were asked to identify the challenges they faced when taking classes remotely due to pandemic restriction, and the challenges outside of academia. Their responses are shown in Table 1.

Table 1: Academic and non-academic challenges experienced by participants. This table lists the top five challenges identified by participants, and the percentage of participants that identified them. Table 2 of paper.

The academic challenges typically faced by international students involve communication due to the remote nature of pandemic work, which was exacerbated by language barriers and contributed to a sense of isolation. However, 41% of participants indicated that they didn’t face any academic issues. The authors note that most participants were seniors and graduate students, therefore they likely had already developed strong self-learning techniques and could depend on themselves more. Additionally, I’d note that international students are more likely to be high performers already because they sought out a university education in a new country.

In contrast, only 5% of participants indicated that they had not faced any non-academic challenges. A whopping 73% of participants indicated financial hardship, while mental health issues and food insecurity were also commonly indicated. There could be many reasons for these responses: loss of work, loss of income from family abroad, increased rent and inflation, investing in equipment to work at home, for example. In the US, their domestic peers were given “stimulus checks” by the government to help them but international students were not.

Table 2: Top 5 university support services rated as helpful,’ as a percentage of participants. Table 3 of paper.

The authors also asked which academic and non-academic university support services that the students found ‘helpful.’ They found that financial support was frequently mentioned, as well as some academic support services. It is shocking that the university’s Office of International Students (the administrative office that supports international students) had a low percentage. Perhaps the participants didn’t need it, or perhaps the office wasn’t helpful during such a tumultuous time. More information would be required to determine if the university’s international student office requires improvement. It’s also concerning that some students required access to food pantries and emergency aid. No international student should ever have to move to a new country for education and struggle to feed themselves and it highlights a significant failure in the international education system.

An unprecedented situation hints towards structural issues

The authors highlight some of the shortcomings of this paper. Only 37 participants answered the questions in the survey out of 231 who were enrolled at the time, at a single university in rural Texas. Experiences may differ in a larger, more metropolitan university located in a state that is less hostile to immigrants.

However, this study shows evidence that international students faced significant difficulty during the pandemic in the US. Those difficulties were less academic and more non-academic, relating to finances and general wellbeing. Being an international student is hard (trust me, I know), but it’s being made unnecessarily harder by a lack of basic support to live in a new country. I look forward to a significantly larger survey being conducted on international students to fully understand the depth of the situation in the US.

Edited by Samantha Wong

Featured image credit:, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

About William Lamb

I'm a 5th-year PhD Astrophysics candidate at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN. I study nanohertz gravitational waves which we hope to detect using pulsar timing arrays, and I want to understand the astrophysical and cosmological sources of these waves! Outside of work, you can find me swing dancing and two stepping, hiking, cycling, or reading Welsh-language YA novels

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