International students brave COVID uncertainty, from Hamilton and beyond
PHOTO C/O Govind Krishnan, Unsplash
Midnight exams, sky high airfare and unpredictable COVID regulations now a reality for many of Mac’s international students.
Starting on Jan. 29, 2021, alongside the Canadian government requiring all international travelers to Canada submit proofs of negative COVID-19 tests administered at time of landing, new quarantine restrictions for travelers were introduced amidst rising concerns for more infectious variants of COVID-19. The differing and often conflicting COVID-19 travel restrictions administered by governments globally only exacerbated pre-existing difficulties and delays travelers outside Canada experience, and, as a result, transformed international traveling into a grim, confusing undertaking for even the most experienced of travelers. The impact of ever-changing travel policies imposed in early 2021 hit the new and returning international students of McMaster hard, where reaching campus for many has become a source of difficulty. While all of McMaster operated from home in the 2020-2021 academic year, the hybrid 2021-2022 academic year poses interesting challenges for the upcoming plans of international students.
Vaibhav Arora, a second year health sciences student from Kolkata, India who, after a year of online school, has finally moved to Hamilton, and has faced many barriers due to COVID-19
“COVID had an immense impact on my travel plans and I think the same can be said for pretty much any student coming from India . . . We all had to take long indirect routes to come to Canada, and when landing in other countries, we had to submit negative COVID tests. As a result, obviously air fares were much higher. So, getting to Hamilton in and of itself was a huge challenge,” explained Arora.
Kimia Tahaei, a second year arts and science student who completed her first year online from Tehran, Iran, and is choosing to stay in Iran for the Fall 2021 semester also faced a similar situation.
“It’s really hard to get a visa from Iran to Canada normally and even more so now that there is COVID, and Iran's vaccination and travel policies are very different from Canada’s. Since I would have to make such a huge move despite the uncertainty of the Winter semester being in person or not, on top of the cost of airfare, it financially made more sense for me to resume school from home for now,” explained Tahaei.
While travelling has become increasingly difficult and inaccessible, many international students are frustrated about the trend of rising tuition this academic year, especially for programs that tend to receive more international students, like engineering. Unlike domestic students who have access to financial aid bursaries and provincial benefits such as the Ontario Student Assistance Program, international students do not have any such services in place for them, and hence are subject to significantly higher tuition.
Tahaei maintains that the online accessibility of all her classes and the accommodations made for her two in person classes following her academic experiences last year has greatly impacted her decision to stay in Iran for the Fall semester.
“Online school wasn’t the most pleasant experience, especially the seven and a half hour time difference. The time zone was really hurting me because I had a really difficult time figuring out when to sleep or do class. My classes ran from 10 p.m.-4:30 a.m., which really messed up my sleep schedule since I would sleep [until] 2 p.m. and consequently I would only have a few hours before classes to get all of my work done. Now everything is posted so that I don’t have to do that as often,” explained Tahaei.
Arora shares Tahaei’s mixed sentiments about online academics.
“Tests were all situated at midnight, which was really difficult, and it was hard coordinating group meetings with my classmates about different projects. But I think academically besides that, it wasn’t too bad. Most lectures were recorded, most assignments had 12- or 24-hour submission windows. Profs were really understanding if I had to submit assignments late for any reason,” explained Arora.
While campus and provincial policies such as MacCheck and vaccine passports respectively allow some reassurance to professors eager to resume in-person lectures, faculties across Mac have nonetheless been going above and beyond to make all academic work equally as accessible online. The willingness to accommodate the academic needs of international students who are still not on campus is an initiative students doing school from abroad have taken to.
“There is only so much professors can do for me. It will always be hard, but at Mac I would not even have to contact my academic advisors. I would just email the profs about my situation and they would be down to help. I was not expecting this much empathy, so it was extremely appreciated and is a really positive thing I’ve noticed at Mac,” explained Tahaei.
Unfortunately, many international students, both abroad and who have recently moved to Hamilton, feel highly alienated from the McMaster community and campus life. There are over 300 clubs under the McMaster Students Union, many of which are centered on identity, religion or culture. Despite this, many international students are unaware about these clubs, or unsure about how to join them. This has been detrimental to their ability to engage in campus life.
“There were certainly issues in getting involved with clubs and extracurricular activities for Mac students from India as most of the club meetings would be held in Eastern Time. However, I wish Mac had done more to help second-year students new to the country for the first time adjust to university life. I know the university has many events that are offered virtually, but many international students are not even aware of what those resources are. There is no way to know anything if they are not actively following social media pages or receiving mandatory emails,” said Arora.
As of now, Mac will continue its hybrid learning approach, with plans to expand vaccination status monitoring on campus. There are currently no released plans for the Winter semester in the event provincial and health regulations impose lockdowns. McMaster has made no comments on the position of its international students.