Being an international student during the pandemic

By Valeria Fieni a 1st Year Exercise, Nutrition & Health NTU student

I’m sure everyone has experienced that sense of excitement about finally moving out of your parents’ home and gaining some of that well-earned independence. After all, we don’t really want to live at home forever and moving to university is one very big step in the direction of autonomy.

This is quite a common feeling amongst freshers, who have just moved out and are getting their first taste of a life away from home and trust me, as an international student, I can say that it really is no different for us. Imagine moving to a whole new country (and continent) alone! Now if that doesn’t scream finally being autonomous, then little else will.

For me, there were so many exciting aspects about starting university abroad in the UK. I grew up in Hong Kong, a former British colony, and whilst the way of life there is very different, quite a few English customs stuck around. Safe to say English culture wasn’t a foreign concept to me, but actually living there would be very different. I remember being excited about being able to go to pubs and to getting my hands on some real English fish and chips (I know, very stereotypical of me). More importantly though, finally being able to move out!

Having to have the courage to make the same step everyone else makes, but on a much larger scale, is just one of the many aspects of choosing to study abroad. Sure, your flat mates may be going home over a long weekend or special occasion, but that’s simply not always an option for everyone. Whilst many are still fortunate enough to enjoy the comforts of home throughout the year, being an international student means you have to make peace with the idea that that place of comfort is not only far away, but far away for long and extended periods of time (especially with the current situation with covid-19)

I can’t really complain though. I know what being an international student entails and at the end of the day it was my decision to study here, at NTU. So, whilst the difficulties of cultural shock, language barriers, fitting in, unmet expectations and that constant, horrible feeling of homesickness are very valid challenges that shouldn’t be underemphasised, they are not what I want to draw attention to.

And yes, you can probably guess where this is going, but let’s talk about it anyway. The Coronavirus pandemic. Nobody could have predicted that we would still be dealing with the consequences of a virus more than one year since its outbreak, but what does this mean for students who have chosen to study in a country with one of the worst infection rates globally?

International student or not, I’m sure we have all questioned the quality and validity of our online degrees at some point. Whilst online teaching may be convenient and accessible from anywhere in the world, it does not leave much room for person-to-person interactions and makes integration for everyone more challenging than usual, especially for non-UK students.

With the additional restrictions for travel this past year, students are facing more uncertainty towards being able to travel home. Currently travellers who have been in the UK for more than two hours over the past 21 days are completely denied entry into Hong Kong. This would mean that if you wanted to visit family there, you would first have to travel to a different, low-risk country, spend three weeks there and then upon your arrival spend another three-weeks in a hotel for government mandated quarantine. Understandably, it’s not a very realistic option.

Another recent problem being stigmatised in the media is the hate (and often also violence) towards people of Asian communities. I imagine it would be quite a scary time to be a foreigner studying abroad. So how do we improve the situation when so many possibilities are limited? Luckily, we have recently received news that in-person teaching is going to resume for many courses. I want to urge you to reach out to others, no matter how small the gesture may seem. A little can go a very long way, and I hope readers will be smart enough to use that to their advantage!

5 tips to being in the UK from abroad:

  1. Join societies and clubs (even if only possible virtually). This sounds obvious but it is the best way to meet like-minded people, meaning you will already have at least one thing in common. 
  2. Stay open minded to the English culture, even though it may vary quite a bit to your own. 
  3. Don’t be afraid to speak out and ask for help. Most people will be happy you approached them and at the same time it’s also a great opportunity to make friends. 
  4. Be confident about your heritage. Don’t try to change yourself to fit in or to accommodate for other people. If people like you as a completely different person, they are probably not the right group for you. 
  5. Be patient. It’s difficult grasping a completely different culture, life, and upbringing. If people don’t understand straight away, don’t dismiss them as ignorant or rude, instead try explaining the differences and be aware that these things take time. 

For help and advice whilst studying at NTU, take a look at the following for sources of support.

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