Travel uncertainty, mental health, costs: international students recount unique challenges during COVID-19

Remaining in Toronto, returning home both pose difficulties
The Centre for International Experience is a central space of support for international students. WYATT CLOUGH/THE VARSITY
The Centre for International Experience is a central space of support for international students. WYATT CLOUGH/THE VARSITY

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many international students are facing travel restrictions, aggravated mental health struggles, and difficult decisions on whether or not to return to Toronto. 

Numerous countries have imposed travel restrictions in an attempt to prevent the virus from spreading. Consequently, many students are unable to return home. Second-year student Iben Jvrensburg, for instance, was unable to get home to her family in Doha, Qatar before its borders closed, and she struggles with the uncertainty of when she can return.

“I luckily live with friends so we can support each other through isolation but it’s definitely harder if you aren’t with your parents,” Jvrensburg wrote to The Varsity. “As an international student, you miss having the ability to return home especially during times like these.”

Jvrensburg had hoped to find a summer job prior to the pandemic, but now, she has fewer options. 

One student who did lose a job due to the pandemic, second-year Chloe Chayo, wrote that she “was counting on [her] job to contribute to tuition payments” and was disappointed that U of T has expressed no intention to lower tuition payments. 

International students are not eligible for the same COVID-19 relief programs that domestic students are, such as the Canadian Emergency Student Benefit. International students also pay considerably higher tuition fees, leaving some to advocate for considerations of tuition reduction or freezes during the pandemic. 

Still, international students who were able to return home face other challenges. After leaving school and heading back home to the US, Lucy Stark, who just finished her first year, wrote, “It’s been most difficult to go from being surrounded by my friends at university and having insane amounts of freedom… to now being back home with my family with little to no in-person contact with friends.”

In this regard, international students who returned home face the uncertainty of whether they can return to the social atmosphere that universities provide. 

While students have access to numerous extracurriculars during the academic year that may help with mental stress, they may be separated from these activities during the pandemic. One student who was unable to return home claimed that their “body image issues” had become exacerbated by having limited access to activities that they normally relied on, such as going to the gym or hanging out with friends. 

While some are unable to return home due to travel restrictions, those from countries not under lockdown may be financially unable to travel because of rising plane ticket prices. According to one student, because fewer flights have flown out, the airline price to return to their home country has increased to an amount that does not accommodate the financial status of every international student. 

Facing high flight costs and difficulty in finding accommodation in Toronto from abroad, many international students are struggling with the decision of whether or not to return to Toronto after the university announced that the fall semester would be a mix of in-person and online classes.

Janhavi Agarwal, an international student from Dubai who has just finished her first year studying economics and statistics, ultimately decided not to return to Toronto for her studies this fall, citing the difficulty of finding a place to stay. In addition, Agarwal was concerned about the possibility of the number of cases increasing again and — in the case of a new outbreak — the uncertainty of not being able to get home again. 

She hopes that online learning in the fall will be “feasible and fair for all students.”

— With files from Hannah Carty

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