C/O Travis Ngyuyen

Vaccines, distance learning and living continents away present unique challenges to international students

It should come as no surprise that international students studying in Canada have faced unimaginable barriers. 

Perhaps the most visible of all is the 6.9 billion dollars of revenue earned by Canadian post-secondary institutions in 2018, a 360 per cent increase from 2007. The source of this ballooning revenue is none other than the near $40,000 difference in the tuition paid by international students, when compared to domestic students. 

Despite our long-standing knowledge of these challenges, the COVID-19 pandemic has only materialized into a steeper financial and psychological climb for international students. With McMaster University’s recent announcement of resuming in-person classes in the winter semester, it’s important to take a step back and fully internalize its impact on the international student population. 

Kimia Tahaei, an Opinions Staff Writer at the Silhouette and McMaster student who has lived in Iran for the past six years, expressed her concerns about re-adjusting socially in the winter semester.

“I’m in a small program of 80 or 90 people and I’m the only person in that program who hasn’t participated in the one or two in-person classes they had this fall. Being in a whole other continent, it’s almost inevitable that I feel left out and that worries me going into next semester,” said Tahaei.

Clearly, the pandemic brought forth a sense of isolation that persisted even while most classes took place online. While it can seem that the return to in-person learning is the ultimate solution to this problem, that may not be the case.

Robin Barala is an executive for the McMaster International & Exchange Club, which fosters connections between international students and planned sightseeing trips, who detailed the difficulties international students will face once they arrive in Canada.  

“For international students who may not be vaccinated with a Canada-approved vaccine, they’ll have to quarantine for almost the entirety of the winter break. It’s going to be even more tough if they don’t know anyone here, which is the case for a lot of them right now,” said Barala.

While Canada has expanded the list of approved COVID-19 vaccines to include Sinopharm, Sinovac and COVAXIN, barriers still exist for those who received vaccinations such as Sputnik which were offered in many countries, including India

Although international students remain exempt from vaccine entry requirements, this exemption ends on Jan. 15, 2022, after which an approved vaccine will be mandatory

“While I was lucky enough to get AstraZeneca, which is approved in Canada, I just got the first vaccine I could get. A lot of people in Iran got the Sputnik vaccine so I don’t know what other Iranian students will do when they have to go back to Canada,” said Tahaei.

Ultimately, the return to in-person will inevitably bring about both positive and negative experiences for international students. While it may breed opportunities for socialization, hesitations about mixing vaccines, finding housing and reaching out to university-provided services may be unsurprising effects of the rapid geographical and cultural changes that come with a mandatory in-person semester. 

Barala further expressed that the culture shock that many other international students face often make them more likely to reach out to informal groups at Mac, such as the McMaster Indian Association, before being directed to more formal services like International Student Services.

When asked about this phenomenon, team members at International Student Services — a division of Mac’s Student Success Centre — responded that they were well-aware of the many avenues available to international students and recognize the importance of authentic peer-to-peer connections.

“The important role we play as professionals is reaching out to these clubs so that they are aware of all of the services we provide to international students. When it comes time to give that referral, they know exactly where to refer the student to,” explained Gisela Oliviera, Associate Director at the SSC. 

While it may be easy to paint the university with a wide brush – given the immense difficulties expressed by both international and domestic students with respect to housing, socialization and mental health – progress has been made by International Student Services. 

iCent, an application that sends out exclusive information from the SSC, is just one intervention that supports international students in their journey as McMaster students.

The movement back to in-person learning this winter is an unprecedented change for all of us. It’s incredibly important for the university to be cognizant of what exactly this means for students that may have never lived in Canada before, received an unapproved vaccine or have not yet had the chance to meet any of their peers. 

There’s no doubt that there have been steps made towards increased cognizance — with the strategies introduced by the SSC — but those strides need to be so much larger to truly accommodate the unique uncertainties faced by international students and foster the connections that they need right now. 

However, being cognizant alone isn’t enough.

International Mac students deserve a university that takes on the responsibility of advocating for them, rather than turning a blind eye to “off-campus” issues such as housing, budgeting, loneliness and unique hesitancies surrounding vaccines. 

Our expectations of what international students are responsible for has to ultimately change, taking into consideration the extenuating circumstances of a pandemic and its snowball effects on mental health, among other concerns. 

It’s no longer the time for recognition — it’s time for action.

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