How to Help International Students Succeed During COVID-19 Pandemic

Another semester in higher education begins in the middle of theCOVID-19 pandemic. Asa teacher of English as a second language and English as a foreign language for more than 31 years, I have seen firsthand the devastating effects that the pandemic has had on some of my students’ ability to cope with the disruptions to their educational journey. It can be a difficult journey to navigate, especially for international students.

Policies on remote and online learning were developed quickly out of necessity, and students abruptly found themselves being asked to continue their education in a new and unexpected way. It was a very shocking turn of events for students comfortable and familiar with an in-person classroom setting. Many of my students—particularly my international students—became discouraged. Some went back to their home countries, some wentto their home states, some to their home city nearby, and some continued to live in their on-campus dormitories. 

It was not surprising, therefore, that student success (measured in terms of GPA) and students’ involvement in many classes decreased significantly after the higher education institutions’ new online education policies were implemented. My students were affected, too, but the toll on my international students was more pronounced. For example, many were not as lucky as their peers in terms of access to remote learning. Some no longer had access to the Internet or a laptop, while others who were now living in their parents’ home lacked a suitable room and overall environment conducive to learning. Other factors likely played a role as well in the decline of student success and engagement in their coursework.

Time-zone differences, for example, proved to be quite challenging not only for me but also for my students. Many students had returned to distant home countries, including China, Japan, and Malaysia. For some of these students, the time difference was more than 13 hours, making it difficult to schedule an appropriate time for a Zoom meeting. In addition, some international students did not have a free Internet connection or any access to the Internet at all—especially for the U.S.-related sites. In countries where the Internet is under state control, some students needed to use a VPN to access the Internet; however, even when the VPN was able to connect to the Internet, service was interrupted by government officials in the students’ home countries because they believed the connection was a threat to the state.

The international students who remained in the United States experienced anxiety over the pandemic and felt deserted by the students who left the university for home in other parts of the country or abroad. Most of the international students who stayed in dormitories did not have their own vehicles. In small towns where public transportation was poor or did not exist at all, even doing simple tasks such as shopping for essentials was a problem.Public libraries were closed or were open for limited hours because of the pandemic added to the strain on the international students’ well-being. An even more troubling problem for some of my international students was discrimination based on the erroneous perception that students from outside the United States—especially those who were assumed to be from the Far East—were contagious and could spread the COVID-19 virus to others and, perhaps even more absurd, that they caused the coronavirus pandemic. Most likely, these challenges are only a small portion of the obstacles my international students faced; however, even these few examples may be enough to put them in a disadvantaged situation compared to other students.

Having been an international student myself, though not in the middle of a pandemic, I could relate to my students’ struggles. I came to realize that although I worked hard to understand their situation and to be flexible in how I taught each class, the educational system also needed to do its part and be more understanding about the problems and stresses my students—particularly my international students—were facing. Many of them have experienced difficulties, often due to political reasons, from their home countries and/or from the countries where they traveled to study for a university degree. When an educational system does not support students with flexible policies, those students may experience issues related to inequality, anxiety, and victimization for a second time at the hands of the educational system.

Flexible policies that could help these international students navigate their education odyssey during the pandemic should include financial assistance; accommodations regarding homework assignment deadlines and course schedules; the ability for students to add, drop, or withdraw from a class without penalty; and the ability of faculty to make adjustments to their courses to meet the unique needs of their students. Such flexibility can prevent students from failing, from being victims of inequality, and from being victimized again—this time by a state institution of higher education.

Arzu Gul, Ph.D
Arzu Gul, Ph.D
Arzu Gul, Ph.D. is currently the ESL Program Coordinator at the State University of New York (SUNY) in Plattsburgh. She has a master’s degree in Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL) and a doctoral degree in Curriculum and Instruction, both from Kent State University. She has experience in teaching ESL courses both in Turkey and the United States over 30 years. She worked in the Ministry of National Education in Turkey and served on the committee that wrote the textbooks for English language learning used in Turkey’s public middle schools. She has been tutoring and co-teaching conversation sessions for adult language learners for Literacy Volunteers of Clinton, Essex, and Franklin Counties of New York State.