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Studying in Canada during COVID-19: ‘I am on board to finish this semester remotely’

international students in COVID-19
Sudanese student Suliman Adam is studying the Master of Journalism at University of Regina. Source: SOJ

As international students in COVID-19 predicaments all over the globe grasp for answers in the dark, they look to their university for guidance. How universities communicate and aid students in times of crisis can set the tone for unprecedented stressful events such as this.

This is why the University of Regina acted quick.

On Friday, March 13, all students received an e-mail informing them of a campus-wide shutdown. International Master of Journalism student Suliman Adam immediately felt the pressure of graduate school intensify.

“I was anxious at the time as there was a lot of uncertainty about what was going on, but the university continued to update students and staff with videos on social media,” he said.

In the fallout of COVID-19 shutdowns across Canada, many international students have lost part-time jobs and will struggle to pay rent in the coming months. At press time, a Change.org petition is in circulation to cancel rent payments for international students due to COVID-19. It has almost hit its 150,000 target.

Suliman considers himself lucky that his rent is covered for the semester. But he’s already applying for online crisis communication work to help fund the next one.

international students in COVID-19

Universities around Canada have been shut down according to national pandemic guidelines, in order to flatten the curve. Source: Geoff Robins/AFP

“Most international students are allowed to work a maximum of 20 hours a week to keep up with the cost of living,” he tells Study International from his room in Regina, Saskatchewan, where he has been self-isolating since last week.

In this area, rent can range between CA$500 to CA$900 monthly.

According to Canadian Immigration News, international students in Canada spend an average of CA$ 20,000-30,000 yearly on university and living expenses. Many rely on support from family abroad, but more still take on part-time jobs to support themselves.

Suliman, who is from Sudan, was fully immersed in his second semester of graduate school before COVID-19 hit. “I was applying for part-time assistantship positions on-campus but that has been put on hold,” he said.

Course, assignments, campus activity: International students in COVID-19 maze

Assignment deadlines remained fast in place as classes transitioned fully online in three days. Production meetings, fieldwork, and classroom discussions integrated into a complex web of online learning that students are still learning to navigate.

The university posts daily updates and FAQs on their website, which helps ease worries of international students in COVID-19.

“They’ve also extended deadlines for subject withdrawals and housing services and offered to waive cancellation fees for students who’ve had to move off-campus or travel home,” Suliman shared.

“As much as we have theoretical subjects, we also have more practical subjects that require working in the field and in our editing suites. I usually have meetings with professors and supervisor to discuss updates on final projects – I’ll now resort to emails, Zoom, and Skype.”

Weekly events, trips, seminars, talks and cultural nights were all cancelled over the course of a week. Student counselling services are now online, too. International office staff assist students remotely.

international students in COVID-19

Suliman (fifth from left) with coursemates at an experiential learning session. All campus activities have been cancelled for the foreseeable future. Source: Layton Burton

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get there”

Where visas are concerned, international students in Canada are typically covered for the duration of their programme. As long as courses go on, they can proceed with scheduled passport and visa renewal measures.

Canada is exempting international students from air and land travel restrictions – under the condition that they held or had been approved for a study permit when the travel restrictions took effect on March 18.

However, Suliman’s programme gameplan has been affected.

“I planned to travel to Toronto and work on my final project in May but with more COVID-19 cases confirmed there and a partial travel ban in place, reporting from there may be challenging. I’ll just wait, monitor the situation and look into remote work alternatives,” he said.

For the million-dollar question: will he be able to maintain the momentum of his postgraduate education at home?

“It was difficult the first few days as I always tried to keep work, personal and creative spaces separate,” Suliman admitted.

“But as a freelance journalist starting out, I told myself that I must be content with working from any space. So I set up a calendar and to-do lists to find balance in bringing projects to light.”

international students in COVID-19

University of Regina will be offering refunds and extensions to accommodate international students in COVID-19. Source: UArctic

For now, he’s attending lectures virtually, working towards deadlines, staying in touch with family and friends, and building new habits.

“Now is the time to focus on a hobby whether it’s exercising, video-editing, graphic design. Pick up that book on the shelf that you never got a chance to read,” Suliman encourages.

Suliman’s experience proves that international students in COVID-19 shutdowns and lockdowns need to stick together to share resources and uphold their rights as members of the Canadian economy.

Regularly and transparently communicating with universities, faculty, and lecturers helps too.

“Our professors and lecturers are understanding about offering suggestions and deadline extensions. The faculty has also informed us that we are still on track towards finishing our final projects and graduating this year,” Suliman said.

“I am on board to finish this semester remotely but still have concerns on how our final project will be – guess we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”

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