When Joy Xiao and Ayca Fackler decided to travel thousands of miles from home and attend the University of Georgia, they didn’t anticipate their already non-traditional college experience to be impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fackler, a Ph.D student from Ankara, Turkey, and Xiao, a fifth year senior studying management information systems and accounting from Jiangxi, China, hold leadership roles on UGA’s International Student Advisory Board. The ISAB is an organization of undergraduate and graduate international students that collects information on the wellbeing of international students and works with the university to improve their experiences.
During the fall semester, the ISAB was working to identify international students’ needs during the pandemic and report them to UGA administrators. Its most recent survey had about 127 participants, many of whom said the reasons they chose to attend college in the U.S., like the chance to master English and learn American culture and customs, aren’t being fulfilled.
A college experience upended
Fackler said taking a combination of in-person and online classes makes communication between international students and their professors difficult. Most international students speak English as a second language and have a hard time understanding their professors through computer microphones and cloth masks, which can muffle speech and make it difficult for students to grasp class material.
“New international students, or the ones that have been here for a couple years, are still struggling with language issues,” Fackler said. “They complain about how it’s really hard to understand what the instructor is saying because of the mask.”
International students told the ISAB that online and hybrid classes reduce the value of their education, Fackler said. With most classes, extracurriculars and social activities being pushed online, there are fewer opportunities for international students to meet other people, practice the language and experience life in a new country.
Despite the issues, tuition for international students is $14,415 for full-time undergraduate students and $12,593 for full-time graduate students. Xiao said some international students she has spoken to feel the same tuition during the pandemic is unfair, especially considering how high tuition is and the financial strain it places on families.
Lack of socialization on campus has also contributed to feelings of loneliness among international students. Fackler said they are stuck in their dorms and apartments, and aren’t able to interact with their peers.
“They express that they feel isolated at home,” said Fackler, who conducted the surveys. “They are happy that instruction is going online, but at the same time they are missing the social part.”
Xiao, who served as an orientation leader for international students in the summer, said this is especially hard for international students who are new to UGA. When international students first arrive, they typically don’t know anyone in the U.S., and without in-person classes and social events, it’s difficult for them to meet other students.
Navigating a pandemic abroad
International students who opted to remain in their home countries and take classes remotely are also encountering problems. Xiao said due to time zone differences, these students struggle with synchronous online classes, which often have them attending class late at night and early in the morning. While professors are willing to post recordings of the class later, the students don’t feel it’s as effective as attending class as it’s happening.
UGA spokesperson Greg Trevor said in a statement that the Office of International Student Life has worked with students abroad to explore alternate options for instruction, and will continue to do so during the upcoming semester.
Hybrid classes are not the only issue international students face. Some also worry about access to resources and treatment should they contract or be exposed to COVID-19. Under current university policies, all international students holding student or exchange visitor visas are required to enroll in a health insurance plan through UGA. However, Fackler said they are unsure if the plan would cover treatment for COVID-19.
Trevor said students should consult their healthcare provider to better understand how benefits are applied. UnitedHealthcare, who provides the plan, lists coverage for telehealth services and a support line for students experiencing mental health issues as a result of the pandemic. They advise students to call their provider immediately if they have been exposed to COVID-19, and say diagnostic testing and treatment will be covered.
The international students who live off campus are ineligible for quarantine spaces provided by University Housing. While this also impacts domestic students, international students find themselves in an especially difficult situation because they often cannot return home to protect their roommates or be cared for by their family.
International students’ families are also concerned about the COVID-19 pandemic, Xiao said. She said while China was getting the virus under control earlier this year, the U.S. continued to see increasing case numbers, which worried her family. While Xiao ultimately decided to continue her education in the U.S., some of her friends, who are also international students from China, chose to return home at the request of their parents.
“Most of the people around me from China, including my family, were asking us to go back to China,” Xiao said. “As an international student, I needed to make a choice whether or not to take a break and go back.”
Feelings of uncertainty for the spring
The OISL has worked with international students to try and support them during the pandemic, said Justin Jeffery, director of international student life. The OISL has conducted surveys to better understand the struggles international students are facing, and set up email newsletters and virtual information sessions to better distribute information to new and returning students. However, without support from higher-level university administration, Fackler and Xiao feel it’s not enough.
The plan for the upcoming spring semester, especially the decision to eliminate spring break, addresses few of the issues international students faced in the fall, and Xiao and Fackler said they don’t feel like their concerns are being heard. ISAB was not consulted when UGA’s administration made its plans, Xiao said, and as far as Fackler and Xiao know, neither were any other international students.
Trevor said that UGA worked with international students during the fall semester to address their individual concerns, and that reviews led by ISAB will continue to assist students in the spring.
Fackler and Xiao said they are particularly worried about the university’s decision to cancel spring break.
“We were not involved in that decision making and I, personally, feel upset about that break being taken from us,” Fackler said.
Without the chance to rest, the feelings of isolation and burnout plaguing international students may worsen, Xiao said. She also said she feels alienated by the university’s choice to bypass international students’ input and powerless to improve their situation.
“I don’t think there’s anything we can do,” Xiao said. “We hope we can just be involved with the decision making process. We are also part of the community.”