In March 2020, I received a post-graduate work permit that allowed me to establish a career in Canada. I was thrilled: It was proof that my hard work as an international student away from my family had finally paid off. I was set to go back, work and make them proud. Before the coronavirus news officially broke out, I was in Turkey with my family, and I was almost done packing in preparation for gaining my financial independence. I talked to a few employers about possibly being hired, and my father had bought his ticket to attend my graduation; it was all jolly. Then, came the news: the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China.
After thinking about the risks of taking a flight in April, I canceled my ticket and began what was to be several months of self-isolation at my family home. My family had no problem affording essential needs unlike those who weren’t as lucky. However, this did not change the reality: I was officially unemployed, and it felt as if my life was on pause. I had zero motivation to take online classes, continue writing academic papers or finding a new hobby. All of a sudden, I had this vast amount of free time, and I didn’t know what to do with it aside from worrying about where my life was heading – I wasn’t alone.
I conducted a short survey and sent it to current students, hoping to find common ground in what we are all experiencing. With the coronavirus outbreak, most universities continued to teach their students online, and the change in the learning environment significantly affected their learning. Most students (52.8%) stated they were unable to focus on their studies, and 27.8% found themselves feeling stressed.
A senior undergraduate student said: “Uncertainty and stress (are my) biggest concerns. As a music major, it depends heavily on in-person learning. I don't think it is worth my time or money to invest in an online education that will be much less beneficial to me in my educational goals."
While completing written assignments is not much different whether in a classroom or online, fields that require repetitive physical practice are bound to face difficulties. A music student cannot have her teacher helping her fix the way she holds the violin during a videoconference; likewise, a biology student cannot complete his laboratory practices at home.
The Daily podcast by The New York Times tackled the effects of the pandemic on relocating students earlier in May. In the episode "Bursting the College Bubble," a student of Haverford College in Pennsylvania, Tatiana Lathion, leaves campus to move in with her family and finds out that her parents’ food truck business is about to collapse.
By being at home, Tatiana, in her words, becomes an extra expense for her family, and she deals with severe anxiety, which makes it hard for her to complete her studies. In the survey, 55.6% of the students reported that they did not work or were unable to work during the pandemic. One student stated: “I just graduated into a time with incredibly high rates of unemployment. I want to work but finding a job is incredibly difficult.”
The pandemic-era graduates start their job search in a disadvantaged position. The post-pandemic job market will not be much different, as no business will pull through the pandemic unharmed. Companies may also have to change their business plan based on COVID-19 restrictions. This may create a higher unemployment rate and difficulty in finding jobs for new graduates.
Many students had to move in with their families or relocate elsewhere during the crisis for economic and safety-related reasons. Many (44.4%) now live in a different city than where they study, and some traveled across national borders (16.7%). Half of those students who now live in a different country are international students.
In July, many students were still uncertain about the future. “I'm supposed to start a master's degree abroad this September, but I'm scared that won't be possible if the situation isn't resolved by then,” said a recent graduate with a bachelor's degree. Uncertainty about travel restrictions has led many to hold off on their plans.
Several countries updated their policies on international students. Before COVID-19, Canada granted a post-graduate work permit (PGWP) to students “who completed a study program at a designated learning institution that was at least eight months long and that led to a degree, diploma or certificate,” according to the governmental website. The previous requirements for the PGWP did not allow students to count their online studies toward their application for a work permit.
However, Canada recently changed its policy due to COVID-19; the country now offers a tentative solution to international students who may not be eligible to travel to Canada during this unusual time. The study permit applicants who are “approved in principle” can begin studying abroad online, and the online time they put toward their degree will be counted toward their post-graduate degree.
While Canada offers a promising solution to maintain the country’s education-supported earnings, the U.S. risks losing international students due to dubious policy changes. On June 7, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced students who attend schools that offer entirely online courses cannot enter the U.S. In other words, international students faced the threat of deportation just a few weeks ago.
Shortly afterward, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University sued the U.S. government for the ICE policy. According to the court brief, the complainants did not mean to question “the integrity of the student visa program.” However, the government failed to “encourage schools to reopen” and, in turn, failed its incoming students.
“This pandemic has created immense unknown,” said an anonymous respondent. “I found myself not only stressing about finishing the most difficult academic semester of my undergrad but grieving a multitude of things that used to be normal and fearful of the future.”
This is true for many local and international students. As the public health crisis continues, students are anxious to be heard, and they want to receive transparent news and fair policies that support them.
*Freelance writer based in Canada
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