Overseas students stuck in China ‘confused’ about futures

Some students have not been able to leave country for more than two years, including long confinements on campus

May 21, 2022
Shanghai,China-March 19th 2022 many Chinese people line up to receive nucleic acid test for Covid-19 coronavirus at local community. Shanghai is seeing a resurgence of covid-19 Omicron
Source: iStock

International students in China are feeling “confused and perplexed” about their futures because of the lingering effect of the pandemic and its restrictive measures, a study says.

Researchers from the International School at Wuhan University of Science and Technology interviewed more than 60 of their overseas students, mainly from Ghana, Tanzania, Zambia, India and Russia, to explore the causes of their mental health concerns and to seek better practices to support them.

The study, published in a journal that is supervised by the Ministry of Education, points out that international students tend to regard “culture shock” and “different religions” as key causes of the stress of living in China. Analysis of the interviews reveals that language remains the biggest challenge for their study, as students found themselves unable to understand and communicate properly in real-life scenarios even if they had passed entry language requirements.

The study also revealed different stages of mental health concerns among international students throughout the pandemic. Surveyed students followed the advice of the university and remained on campus in early 2020, when Wuhan was under strict lockdown. “They fell into the feeling of panic and anxiety about their health,” the researchers write, because of limited information about the virus at that time and worries about whether they were infected or not.

However, in later stages of the pandemic, with students stuck in China as a result of interrupted free movement and international travel restrictions, these students suffered from homesickness and loneliness. “International students feel confused and perplexed about their future due to the pandemic, as whether they can continue their studies in China, graduate smoothly, and find a job after graduation are urgent problems to think about,” the researchers write.

“The pandemic absolutely has negative impacts on international students in China, including general impacts similar to other people in China, such as mental distress caused by lockdowns, isolation and being unable to visit family members,” Wendi Li, associate professor of psychology at James Cook University, told Times Higher Education. “There are additional impacts caused by acculturational stress.”

She emphasised potential cognitive dissonance for international students caused by different national Covid policies. “When China went into the recent strict lockdowns, the home countries of the international students may already [have] ease[d] restrictions in relation to the pandemic. Such discrepancies bring about two different cognitions in relation to lockdowns, which is termed cognitive dissonance. Other acculturation stressors may include the different degrees of willingness to comply with enforced strict lockdown measures in China and their home countries, and the level of conflicts between lockdown and personal desire for freedom.”

Universities and colleges are a key focus for China’s Covid protection policy. The long-running campus lockdowns across the country have been criticised by students and academics as damaging students’ mental health.

The inbound flow of international students to China has been interrupted by travel restrictions, while a large number of students registered in Chinese institutions who have not been allowed to re-enter the country are worried that they may fail to obtain their degrees if the country’s borders remain closed.

It was even more difficult for those who lost loved ones while abroad. The new study includes a case study about a student from Uganda who experienced serious depression and suicidal thoughts after learning that his mother had passed away after getting Covid. The student managed to overcome the hard time after a “special support action”, including being accompanied round the clock by peer counsellors.

The researchers suggest that universities help staff who support international students to improve their language ability and understanding of culture diversity.

“Many Chinese universities have certified counsellors who speak frequent English. For international students from non-English countries, it may be difficult for them to find a certified counsellor who can speak their languages,” Dr Li added.


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