Canindia News

What the pandemic means for international students

Sabrina Almeida

Immigration minister Marco Mendicino announced during a webinar this week that Canada has issued 56,000 first stage approvals for study permit applications. This is likely to bring a ray of hope for Canadian educational institutions which have been seeing lower enrollment and revenues on account of the pandemic.

Several foreign students chose to defer acceptances rather than pay the same “high tuition fees” for online classes. The online study option, travel restrictions and the fear of contracting the coronavirus have resulted in many others preferring to study from the comfort of their homes. It also meant not having to pay dorm and cafeteria fees.

With growth among the main cohort of Canadian-born students entering colleges and universities stagnating over the last decade due to our low birth rate, colleges and universities turned to  international students to sustain themselves financially. According to the CIC, Canada’s international student population tripled over the past decade to 642,000 in 2019 making us the third leading destination for foreign students, behind the US and Australia. The largest beneficiary, Ontario, hosted 48% of international students (nearly 307,000).

With foreign students contributing around $21 billion to Canada’s GDP (in tuition fees, rent, groceries, transportation, entertainment, etc.), the impact was felt both by education institutions as well as the economy. Not surprising then that the government wants them back and quickly.

Faced with the tough decision of whether to go back home or not, some foreign students remained here fearing future pandemic restrictions might prevent them from coming back. Uncertainty, money problems and loneliness are just some of the problems they have struggled with over the past six months. 

Several relied on part-time jobs to pay for their living expenses. Unfortunately, these positions were among the first to be impacted. And although the government urged landlords to be fair, most weren’t willing to take the hit and give students a break. Thus many students who lived off campus and returned home were still forced to pay rent for the rest of the year. 

Even worse was the social isolation, especially for the newcomers trying to find their feet here.

With classes shifting online and a large number of foreign students returning home, campuses became ghost towns. School cafeterias, a source of social interaction, shut down and meals were left in packages outside dorm rooms due to the pandemic restrictions. Those that were inclined to cook had limited access to groceries because of transportation issues. The closure of restaurants and fast food eateries reduced their options further.

But mental health became the bigger issue. Three students, I met, shared how being closeted in their rooms during the initial stages of the pandemic caused them to become fearful and depressed. Family members tried to keep their spirits up through WhatsApp and Zoom calls but after a while that didn’t reduce the loneliness or despair. Since digital communication couldn’t make up for face-to-face interaction, mental health suffered as a result of it. 

An essay on suicide by one of the students caused her family to panic and fear for her well-being. For weeks they took turns making WhatsApp video calls to her throughout the day and evening hoping to avert a situation.

The girl shared how a weekend at a family friend’s home gave her a new lease on life. Being around people, especially a family, raised her spirits. She felt motivated and ready to begin the new academic year. Her parents too were relieved that she had someone to reach out to if needed.

One of her friends was fortunate to have a distant relative take her home to live with them and says she will always be thankful to them for their kindness. 

Minister Mendicino said the government is working with public health and educational institutions on how to bring international students onto their campuses. Perhaps these struggles the students encountered during the pandemic ought to be factored into the welcome plan now that we are in the second wave. 

Many feel short-changed given the “exorbitant tuition fees” they pay. 

With foreign students being critical to the economy, and given that many  are looking to immigrate and now want the process to be fast-tracked, the federal government may have no choice but to bend to their will.

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