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Interviews with international students in Canada about the Covid-19 situation

Three international students from India, the Netherlands and Mauritius share how they have been continuing to study and stay connected to their classmates and families

    Atharv Agrawal


    Anya Haldemann


    Brandon Tan Chin Hian


    Joseph Wong

    May 11 2020
    international students, student, canada, studying abroad, coronavirus, covid-19


    Atharv Agrawal is from Mumbai, India. He is a student at the University of Toronto in the Munk One program, a special cohort of 25 students from all over the world, including Singapore, Malaysia, Peru, Senegal and the United Arab Emirates. Atharv is studying economics, data analytics, and peace, conflict and justice studies.

    Where were you when you heard about the Covid-19 pandemic?

    I was sitting in the dining room of my student residence when I heard the news. It was very sudden. I wasn’t mentally or emotionally prepared to be done with my first year at university. It was the first time in the entire year that, ironically, I had skipped a class to finish an assignment. So I felt sad that I wouldn’t get to say goodbye to everyone in person.

    Was it hard to get a flight home?

    Things escalated quickly. I was supposed to fly out on a Sunday. Then India announced a blanket ban on incoming flights so I had to move quickly. I decided that if I had to contain within four walls during a pandemic, I might as well be with my family. So I moved my flight to Thursday and got the last plane out to Mumbai. There is no good place to be stuck, but home is better than a dorm.

    What has it been like?

    Thanks to social media, our cohort has proceeded as usual and have recreated our classroom through social media.

    Munk One has been holding seminars every week, even after classes ended. We just get together and talk about everything, from the geopolitical implications of the pandemic to Netflix recommendations.

    We are all from all over the world and we are all going through the same thing but in different ways. Students from the Netherlands are experiencing the pandemic differently than I am. And even in India, there is a huge variety of experiences.

    What has been the most helpful source of support from the university?

    The most helpful thing is the personal connection with the professors. They have been understanding and accommodating. They are going through the same changes and have more responsibilities than we do, but they have helped humanise the experience. And they made active efforts to carry on with the personal seminars even though they are not part of the curriculum. This is very helpful. 

    How has the pandemic changed you?

    It has reinforced my belief that I am studying the right things. We are seeing how opinion is so divided and there are such global disparities. We studied these things in the classroom, and now we are watching them unfold in real time. 

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    International perspective: a Chinese student in Canada during the coronavirus outbreak
    Coronavirus: the abrupt end to my year abroad

    Anya Haldemann is from the Hague, Netherlands. She is a first-year Munk One student who has now returned to the Netherlands and is trying to sort out her summer and decide on a major – possibly peace, conflict and justice studies and ethics, society and law.

    Why did you decide to return home?

    It seemed like the campus got more and more quiet each day and the city was shutting down. I decided I didn’t want to risk getting stuck in Canada so I managed to organise a flight to the Netherlands and had to pack up my dorm room in a day. I wish I could be sitting in the sunshine in the quadrangle talking to my fellow students but instead we are sharing different perspectives during weekly Zoom calls.

    What is it like in the Netherlands?

    We are gradually reopening. The Dutch are very pragmatic so we never had a total national lockdown. Kids can still play outside.

    But I find returning to my teenage room in my parents’ home really hard. It is like reverting to childhood and re-navigating the family dynamic. My father is working from home as well. However, my parents have been supportive and have understood my need for independence.

    What does the future hold for you?

    I am really hoping to return for the fall because I don’t think I could cope trying to study from my parents’ home.

    I was also looking forward to working at a camp in northern Ontario this summer. But now I’m not sure camp will go ahead, so I am just waiting to see what happens with that. I might try to get a job as a cashier in the meantime, just to do something.

    What has been helpful?

    The weekly meetings on Zoom with university friends have really helped me feel a sense of solidarity. Social media has helped us check up on one another. It makes you realise how important personal relationships are. A few of us recently began a book club online and that has also helped. I also have begun journalling as an outlet.

    We all want to see how the world will react to this pandemic in the coming weeks. We are all international relations students and we are living through a global crisis.

    Brandon Tan Chin Hian is from Mauritius and is still living in Chestnut residence at the University of Toronto. He is a second-year student majoring in physics and philosophy.

    What is it like in Toronto right now?

    It definitely feels strange. A month ago, we didn’t expect such a radical change of lifestyle would occur. I would say that socially my residence has done a fairly good job at supporting students.

    Academically, I appreciate the measures that have been put in place. Studying feels different now that you can’t use study spaces in residences or libraries. The fact that some people, including my friends, had to fly back home and live in a different time zone certainly adds to the strangeness and affects studies. I think shifting to online take-home exams was a good decision. 

    How do you communicate with your family?

    I Skype my family once a week for half an hour and my father texts me updates about what is happening at home. 

    Joe Wong is vice-provost and associate vice-president, international student experience at the University of Toronto.

    The University of Toronto has just under 21,000 international students, accounting for approximately one-quarter of our student body (inclusive of both undergraduate and graduate students). In mid-March, containment measures were implemented in Canada and around the world. At the time, we had about 700 students studying abroad in various countries around the world, many of whom were international students. The university worked closely with each of these students to ensure they returned safely to Toronto or to their homes in other parts of the world.

    Students living in our residences (dorms) were asked to return home, if they could, to help curtail the spread of Covid-19. However, the university made it clear to students that they were welcome to remain in their residence if they were unable to return home. We also ensured student services were maintained for our international students, especially continued access to health and wellness services and the university health insurance programme, as well as programmes to ensure students remain engaged, and to develop a sense of community. 

    During these difficult times, our international students’ mental health and wellness is of paramount concern, especially as we move to online and remote platforms during the current period of self-isolation and social distancing. Students are continuing to use the MySSP student support programme, which offers health and wellness support in 146 languages.  

    Read more: An international student’s countdown of feelings during the coronavirus


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