From the Classroom

The impact of COVID-19 on the physical and mental health of international students

International students faced the challenges of the pandemic and young adult life on top of the isolation and culture shock that comes with living abroad.

The students who lived across Rosa Hao in the Columbia University dormitory in New York City have left for home; Hao was left alone in the dormitory suite on Amsterdam Avenue. Homesickness hit Hao and paralyzed her as she was about to graduate with a master’s degree in Cognitive Science in Education.

“It hit like a tsunami,” Hao recalled. “I just wanted to speak in my native tongue.”

March 2020 to May 2020 had been the most challenging period for Hao during her studies at Columbia University. At the same time, it also marked the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. With no one to talk to in person about health concerns, Hao is 12,000 kilometers away from her loved ones across the Pacific in Taiwan.

A year has passed. Driving to work in the hustle and bustle in the Big Apple, Hao is now mentally strong and resilient to embrace whatever comes in life. How has Hao transformed in this journey with tears and joy? How important is her family’s and friend’s support in overcoming mental and physical challenges during the pandemic?

COVID-19 has fundamentally reshaped people’s lives since 2019, whether it is academic performance, career or other aspects of life. The pandemic scales up the level of economic, mental and physical challenges. International Consultants for Education and Fairs (ICEF) wrote that “Young adults are confronted with challenges that include interrupted education programmes, uncertain job prospects, and deteriorating mental health and finances.” International students faced these challenges on top of the isolation and culture shock that comes with living abroad.

Hao, along with other international students, experienced these challenges due to the pandemic. On the other hand, their unique experiences shined a light on different viewpoints and unprecedented insights regarding their attitudes on life, future prospects, relationships with family and friends and flexibility.

Whether studying or looking for jobs at their home or foreign countries, what have international students learned from this universal lesson?

Transformation After the Lockdown

The remaining sunshine passed smoothly through the air and the lazy doorkeeper lay spread out on the chair, resting and nodding off. It was a delightful Friday night, Linyue Zou walked out the front door of his company — People’s Daily. Feeling a bit tired but fulfilled, he was ready to hang out with his friends after another meaningful day. It seemed like his new job suited him well.

However, his life is not as perfect as it seems. This is already Zou’s third job in the last four months, shortly after his graduation from the Wuhan University of Technology in June 2020. As a rookie in the workplace, he has suffered from a period of uncertainty and frustration.

Zou, who is 23, is a thoughtful young man with thick short hair and a pair of black-rimmed glasses. He always has a clear plan for the future, and as an English student, his considerable insight and diplomatic skills made him stand out in the fierce competition. “I always feel confident because I think and take actions ahead,” he said. “But, not this time.”

2020 was a devastating year for everyone in the world due to COVID-19; for Zou, the pain came unexpectedly earlier and more impressively.

Wuhan — the biggest city in the middle of China, was locked down by the Chinese government at 10 a.m. on January 23, 2020 in order to control the rapid spread of the coronavirus. “Everyone was required to stay at home, the whole city came to a halt within a day; as darkness enveloped the city, mentally, I felt terrifyingly quiet,” Zou said, “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

As of May 27, 2020, the total number of confirmed cases in Wuhan remained at 50,340, with 46,471 cured cases and 3,869 deaths. COVID-19 patients were primarily accepted and treated at Hoshenshan Hospital, Leishenshan Hospital and 13 other module hospitals, which were built by more than 3,000 constructors around the country. That same day, the number of medical staff sent to Wuhan and other cities in Hubei province reached 42,600, including 28,000 female medical workers.

During the quarantine, Zou was diagnosed with chronic gastritis. “I just couldn’t eat anything and felt depressed,” he said. “I even lost my interest in video games.” As unhappiness and depression hung over him, Zou’s life became chaotic. He wasted his time idly staring out of the window and lost his motivation to study and exercise. Being at home and doing the same thing day after day took away his energy.

Besides, the severity of the coronavirus was reported in the breaking news every day — a surge in the number of people diagnosed and a shortage of medical supplies, e.g. masks and hospital beds. “When I saw on TV that hospitals are overcrowded, and doctors and nurses are exhausted due to overload, and there was nothing I could do to help, I felt extremely terrible,” he said. Zou realized that life is fragile and started to think about the meaning of his life.

“My parents realized that I was spiraling down,” Zou said, “They told me that what matters most is to confirm your core values and stick to them.” Lots of things crowded his mind and he forced himself to focus on one thing at a time. Zou gradually came out of the gloom.

After a 76-day lockdown on April 8, the city overcame an unprecedented lockdown and finally embraced its long-awaited restart. “Many people’s lives have been severely affected by the pandemic, but my family and I have been lucky. It taught me to cherish my wonderful life,” he said. He realized that working hard and spending time with his family are the most important things.

Zou was supposed to pursue his master’s degree in the United States after four years of undergraduate life in his hometown. However, due to multiple reasons, he chose to work for a year before his master’s program. “I couldn’t go to America because of COVID-19 restrictions,” he said, adding that he didn’t get offers to his preferred schools.

“To be honest, USC Annenberg is one of my dream graduate schools,” Zou added. He believed that given one more year, he could earn more related working experiences, which would be helpful in next year’s application process. Moreover, at that time, he could enjoy campus and academic life.

Therefore, Zou started his journey to find a job in May 2020, but it was doomed to be difficult. It was too late for job applications because many companies completed recruitment even before January 2020. Moreover, immaturity, self-esteem and pride became the biggest stumbling blocks to adapting to a new job. “At the beginning, I still thought from a student’s perspective,” he said, " I just felt lost.”

Fortunately, what he learned during the pandemic helped him get through this dilemma. “Due to the pandemic, I talked more frequently with my parents than before,” he explained, “They told me that the problem is not the job but myself.” He found out that attitude is more important than ability. The meaning of a job is to continuously embrace new things and challenge oneself. Finally, he found a suitable position in People’s Daily after resigning twice from other jobs.

“What matters most is to find a balance between work and life,” Zou added, who is still working hard to apply to his dream graduate schools. Even though he wears a mask now, it does not block the confidence and perseverance in his eyes.

Zou works hard while pursuing his ideal school in China. As for Rachel Yue, who lost her dream job because she could not come back to China, her life has been changed by the pandemic.

“Something Would Never Come Back”

Rachel Yue still felt uncomfortable remembering when she faced racial discrimination in London. As she and her friends stood in line at the supermarket, a white man spat on them and said a lot of dirty words to them.

“The pandemic did give people a good excuse for racism. These barriers and the loss of trust make some things never come back,” Yue said.

For Yue, a student from China, the future seemed full of hope when she came to the London School of Economics and Political Science last year. This was the dream place that she had been looking forward to studying and living at for the past five years. She planned to go to Shanghai to excel in digital marketing after graduation.

But the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.K. has made it difficult for her to get a plane ticket back home and, as a result, she has missed the recruitment, forcing her to take a temporary job in London to maintain her legal visa status.

According to the latest data released by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, by the end of March 2020, the number of Chinese international students reached about 1.6 million, including about 220,000 in the U.K..

Plane tickets for overseas students like Yue were limited, but as a foreign citizen staying in the local area, she received some personal protective equipment such as masks and alcohol disinfectant issued by the Chinese Embassy.

Finally, Yue got a ticket in December 2020. But due to the new variant of mutant coronavirus growing faster in London, the flight between China and the U.K. was canceled again, which also meant that she would not be able to start her job on time.

Chinese students queuing to board a flight at Heathrow Airport. (Photo courtesy of Zeran Xu).

After April 12, 2021, everyone is trying to get their lives back on track in London Shops, hairdressers, gyms and outdoor restaurants began reopening all over England. Yue has been able to catch up with her friends, but everyone seems to avoid talking about lockdown life in front of her.

“They know what I have experienced, I was so miserable and desperate during this period. I lost my dream job, I was under a lot of pressure, talking on the phone for a long time and crying with these friends and my mother every day,” Yue said.

In addition, the discomfort that the lockdown brought to Yue was loneliness. In China, the COVID-19 pandemic happened during the Chinese New Year holiday, in which families could get together and go through the hardest time together.

However, there are limited ways for international students to gain spiritual comfort. Their social circles are almost entirely dependent on communities in the universities. Now even the dormitories also have announcements that forbid visitors and avoid meeting from room to room, cutting off almost all social connections.

Now, Yue has found a job in cross-border electronic commerce between the U.K. and China in London. However, about whether she would return to China, Yue really struggles.

She is at a loss about her future. After losing her dream job, she doesn’t know what to do next. Working experience at her current job in the U.K. is hardly applicable for her planned career. Yue is really confused, and doesn’t know if going home is the right career path.

“Maybe I would still work in London for several years now, and then adjust my goals depending on the situation. But my dream career or my life has been changed forever because of the Pandemic.” Yue said.

For Yue, staying in the U.K. was a tough decision she had to make. But for Cora Li, finding a job in the United States during the epidemic is a different kind of struggle.

Challenges for Job Hunting During COVID-19

“Under the pandemic, everything seemed to come to a halt,” said Cora Li, an international student from China. She graduated from the University of Rochester with a master’s degree in Marketing Analytics.

When the outbreak began last year, she was looking for a summer internship. Even though she sent her resume to dozens of companies, she didn’t get any responses to her resume.

“Many internship opportunities have been affected,” she said. “Either canceled, postponed or moved online.” In addition, another challenge came to her after graduation: her Optional Practical Training (OPT) application received no reply, either.

According to CNBC, the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic has been widespread, leaving an unprecedented 26.4 million Americans out of work. Career prospects of international students, involving those preparing for summer internships, or graduates from bachelor’s or master’s degrees, have been greatly affected.

According to Edwin Koc, the director of research, public policy and legislative affairs for the National Association of Colleges and Employers, most employers have made some adjustments to internship programs. Those changes include: introducing a virtual setting, shortening the internship by delaying the start date, or reducing the number of interns in the summer.

“I don’t know when things will get back to normal. The coronavirus has disrupted many students’ original career plans. It was easy to get an internship in my field, but under the pandemic, everything seemed to come to a halt,” Li said.

She eventually found an unpaid internship as a marketing analyst for Boston Runner. “It was impossible, however, to organize an in-person marathon due to COVID-19, and the company switched to virtual running daily attendance,” Li said.

Another challenge came to Li — waiting for the results of the Optional Practical Training (OPT) application after graduation. Optional Practical Training (OPT) is a temporary work visa that allows international students to work in their major area of study for 12 months before or after their graduation. Nonetheless, coronavirus slowed down the timeline for getting OPT employment authorization.

“Normally, it takes two to three weeks to get a receipt... and it is supposed to take about three months to get an employment authorization document,” Li said, “I submitted my application on November 12, 2020. Not until early February 2021 was I informed that my form was received by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). According to the procedure in previous years, I should have received a reply in mid-December.”

Due to the lack of the OPT document, Li was kept from getting a full-time job. She did not have any income while still paying the lease. She also could not get health insurance since she was unemployed.

It was uncertain how long the waiting time would be. On Jan. 8, USCIS released its first public statement after three months of delay since last October, attributing their delays due to COVID.

“Many people whom I know lost their job offers due to the delays and some were even forced to head for home,” Li said. “I cannot sit back and do nothing. Some international students in the same situation said that if we want the U.S government to fix the problem in a quick manner, we have to sue them. So, I am in.”

Li and her friends joined a WeChat group chat called “OPT Lawsuit” sharing their experiences with the ongoing delays and fighting together. More than 600 people had joined by February 25, 2021.

On Feb. 16, 18 named plaintiffs from China filed a class-action lawsuit against USCIS. The suit demands the agency to “be open, process and adjudicate applications,” as stated on their OPTActionLogs website.

The case’s lead attorney, Robert Cohen, said there may be “several thousand” international students who are affected by the OPT delays.

On Feb. 26, USCIS posted its second statement:

“The agency has taken numerous steps to help non-citizens address immigration-related challenges during the national [COVID-19 pandemic] emergency, and USCIS will continue to explore flexibility options and stakeholder recommendations to minimize those delays,” USCIS wrote. “The agency recognizes the ongoing impact COVID-19 has had on nonimmigrant students and the noncitizen community as a whole, and USCIS appreciates the understanding it has received over the last year.”

Eventually, Li got her employment authorization document (EAD) card in early March 2021. “We forced the agency to improve efficiency by filing the lawsuit and it did work,” she said, “In such a massive delay, I have been lucky.”

Li and her boyfriend were packing moving bags at their apartment in Manhattan; they were planning to leave for Texas. He got a full-time paid job in Texas while she was interning remotely. “We have felt relieved since we have been paid,” she said. “Things are slowly getting better.”

When it comes to the support from her family and friends, Li said she is grateful that her mother has always encouraged her to continue to look for jobs in the U.S. and provided her with financial support. In contrast, many of her friends have gone back to China because their families advised them to do so considering the serious pandemic circumstances in the U.S.

“I really miss my family in China, I have not been home for a year and a half, and I hope I will have a chance to go home during the Christmas holidays this December,” Li said.

Li has been fortunate to solve technical aspects of life with support. What if people are robbed of these blessings? COVID-19 shattered fundamental economic support for international students to live, eat and study normally. When the pandemic hit, financial and mental challenges poured in and one international student encountered them alone. This student asked to remain anonymous due to the personal details she shared and will be referred to as “Strong.”

It is a Matter of Living Instead of Studying Alone

“I was broke, and I was almost homeless,” Strong said with tranquility and eagerness at the beginning of the interview before she was caught by other errands. Messages flooded in her cell phone with rings and tings; Strong then dashed off for the opportunity to make a living.

Having a pair of eyes that tells stories and expresses emotions, Strong also delivered her story through facial expression and body language.

Due to the pandemic, she has experienced so much turmoil but stayed strong and alone in her pursuit of a doctorate degree in social science.

Time is money for Strong. She stepped away from the interview for two hours to take a job cleaning and returned to the interview dancing around happily with her earned money. She has been flexible and optimistic and has made the best out of her life. Every single product was organic in her home. Nonetheless, Strong had to use heavy chemicals for house cleaning. “It is ok,” Strong said. She accepted the adverse reality of the job and jokily said that she had done a two-hour workout during the cleaning.

However, she did not know how she felt. She did not answer “Great!” to greetings during the interview. It was probably not just this time; it could have been years-long since the pandemic broke out.

Studying for a doctorate degree in the United Kingdom is hard; yet, what concerns Strong more are life matters. During a three-year marathon of doctorate study, she has to study, practice her expertise and make a living alone. Strong is not only a student, but a breadwinner under the pandemic.

“I have to pay my rent, find my food and put food on the table,” Strong said.

There have not just been deadlines determined by professors but a hungry stomach to fill. Airbnb-ing her sweet home in Paris, it has not been rented out for a year since the pandemic prevented visitors from traveling to the City of Love. House rent could be an additional investment for others; but for Strong, she lost the financial support for her academic study.

Not being able to go back home to Paris and stay with her family and beloved friends, she was in London alone. Without being able to pay her house rent for several months, she negotiated with the bank countless times.

Despite being financially challenged, Strong has been grateful. “At least there was a house,” said she after making legal compromises to live somewhere she did not fully love. Used to live at a cozy and sweet home in the heart of London, Strong moved to a richer part of London by chance when the pandemic broke out.

“It was a bad decision,” Strong admitted. Inside the classic Victorian building and Lamborghinis sprinting down the street, these neighbors could have become Strong’s social support. On the contrary, they dragged her into vicious habits including drinking, smoking and sometimes drugs.

She drank more and smoked more. She smoked a whole pack of cigarettes for social sake and led an unhealthy life which she did not want to.

What is worse, her neighbors accused her of stealing money. Fragile and unhealthy relationships in her neighborhood endangered her own mental stability. She was determined to terminate the relationship with these neighbors with the courage to be mentally strong.

Academic life has not been smooth and came with additional challenges. Strong worked with a colleague who did not have a strong mindset, which affected the grade of their final group project presentation.

Amid the living and academic challenges, something unexpected occurred.

When Strong put on her perfume one morning, she did not smell a thing. A night before, Strong felt she was literally dying when the pain in her chest raged on. She didn’t know if she had COVID-19, though. She recovered eventually; however, she has not been the same girl in terms of mental and physical status.

“I don’t want to see anybody,” Strong said. She experienced isolation not due to the lockdown but on her own during her visit to Egypt in January 2020.

Despite bearing a strong sense of guilt and the disappointment of her friends’ hospitality in Egypt, Strong just wanted to be alone. The heaviness of her mentality has robbed her of her contagious laughter.

Mental challenges did not come alone. When Strong returned to London, waves of tiredness struck her physically and mentally.

She could not get out of bed. She had been a vegan who loves exercise, however, she even ordered KFC. Strong shook her head with a raised eyebrow when she recalled the tough period. Clearly, she knew what she had been doing, yet, at critical times she could not behave as she wished.

Was it psychological or physical influence? Was it a deficiency in Vitamin D or the aftermath of getting COVID-19? Strong could not identify the underlying cause.

“Nothing is certain. That is life,” Strong said. “What does not change in life is change. The more we want to harness our life, the more we feel uncertain and insecure, and the more we feel anxious.”

These times being alone proved important to her. “I need the time and not to be good. The more I accept my weak moments, that is when I can feel,” Strong said.

“Our social bonds are what we rely on to make us feel safe and secure when threats loom,” Steve Joordens said.

As a professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto Scarborough, Joordens has also been active on TED talks and on Coursera where he launched a free course to share his expertise in tackling mental crises under the pandemic. When dealing with something “dangerous and mysterious” like COVID-19, he added that, “Family and friends’ support is critical.”

Strong did not have strong social support; she embraced uncertainties and anxiety alone. Gradually regaining the power to lead a life she used to have, Strong lives a regular routine and healthier lifestyle as she used to have. She has not smoked or drunk for five weeks.

“I don’t know if I feel better or I have done everything in order to feel better,” Strong sighed gently.

Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” With or without support in tackling academic and life crises, Strong may have compromised at times when she broke into pieces; however, she gets back on her feet fighting for her own ideal life step by step.

In the darkest moments, Strong remained genuine to her emotions which fuels the gratitude of life and wonders of happiness. Unexpected challenges and uncertainties shine her life attitude bright. Strong has become stronger with a clear mindset of what is critical in life.

Strong demonstrates the powerful mental strength we have alone against challenges. With families’ and friends’ support, Rosa Hao embarked on a journey where she built lifelong resilience with strong company.

Family’s Support Portrayed in Resilience

Hao, with long hair and a delicate V face, laughed with her bright smile and white teeth shining in the air. She graduated with a master’s degree in Cognitive Science in Education from Columbia University and is now working. This was the first time she spoke on the record about her emotions.

A full year has passed in this reflexive journey during the pandemic. Who has been there for her? What has made Hao such a rational and mentally strong girl enjoying life against all odds?

“Homesickness eats your mind and spirit up if you leave it unattended,” her father, Eric Hao, said.

“Sometimes, we just want to do nothing and it is ok,” Eric said. He wears a small ponytail and is filled with wisdom from his rich personal experiences.

Losing dad at the early age of 25, Eric grew to be independent and sympathetic. At this crucial period when his daughter needed him, Eric was ready.

“You are my only daughter. I don’t want to lose you,” Eric jokily said when the pandemic broke out in the United States.

It was a joke in disguise; the universal fear that parents have for their children out of their reach was deepened within the flesh and soul. It is also the same fear that families and friends have for their loved ones against the COVID-19 battle when numbers skyrocketed every day.

Having a background in Chinese medicine and acupuncture and living through the SARS outbreak in 2003, Eric knew what he should do. He also shared with Hao all precautionary measures to keep herself safe and healthy.

“I do not worry about Hao’s physical health. I care more about her mental health,” Eric said. As a doctor, a father and an experienced international student for decades, he nailed the underlying crises that undermine people throughout the world.

This is the first time Hao left her home country. This is also her first encounter with a pandemic outbreak.

“Give me a call anytime you need me. I promise I will answer you immediately or get back to you shortly,” Eric told his daughter.

It was a simple line, yet it was powerful. What Eric said has become a strong support for Hao. When Eric flew back to Taiwan leaving Hao physically alone in the U.S., their intimate relationship did not make a slight change. “When Hao calls, I will put down everything I am doing and listen,” he added.

Not a single word of “love” has been mentioned throughout the entire interview, but her father’s unconditional love for his only daughter without indulgence was portrayed in every action and word. Family support underlined Hao’s mental resilience in her transformation and adjustments during the pandemic.

“I turned my head away when I saw the dad-son scenery,” Hao said. The warm sight tore her heart apart. However sweet and joyful a memory has been with Dad in Oklahoma for two and a half months during Christmas, Hao was physically alone in contrast.

“When Hao called, she cried first,” Eric said with a slight hesitation when he described Hao’s tears. Tears have been a symbol of weakness that people tried hard to hide; instead, Hao and Eric proved that mental strength blooms from the genuine exchange of emotions and crying is part of them.

One to two hours of talking three to four times a week, Eric employed mindful listening without a single expression of negligence. Listening is the key to a quality talk; listening let alone mindful listening, though, is easier said than done.

“I listen,” Jessica Kong said. “Students have done everything they could do. What students want is possibly someone to talk to.”

As a dedicated associate study advisor in the London School of Economics and Political Science, Kong provided library support to students with any academic worries or life concerns. She listened to students’ sharing instead of giving advice.

The best company is to listen. Eric adopted mindful listening according to how he wanted to be treated by his daughter. He also taught his daughter family values and philosophies that glowed in the darkness.

“Only on two occasions will people change: we learn to or we are so hurt that we have to change accordingly,” Eric added. The pandemic served the latter.

To stay or to leave has been a big question for international students throughout the pandemic. Hao made decisions and performed her duty by taking references from the life sharing of her father. At these critical life intersections, Eric let go of Hao and allowed her to learn and become resilient and persistent.

Besides, the rising Asian hostility revealed in the Atlanta Shooting has ranked one of the primary fears for international students. Hao’s friends have once been spit on the shoes; Hao did not change her behavior or become afraid accordingly.

“We are all human.” Hao said with complexion, “How could you judge or even kill somebody just because of the color [of their skin]?” “It is them who have to correct their behaviors rather than Asians living in constant fear,” Hao said firmly.

Hao was not strong in the beginning; she has wiped up her tears and seized the opportunities to learn and transform. She has also invested her meaningful time in rigid learning and carried out the strength and personality in her graduate pursuit.

“You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only option,” Eric said.

It was not an easy path for Hao to stay in the United States during the pandemic; however, she took the road less traveled with her family’s upbringing and spiritual support. She has transformed into a stronger Hao with the mental resilience to reflect on her seemingly weaker self in her reflective sharing.

“Steve Jobs once said, ‘We could only connect the dots backwards’ [sic]. Everything happens for a reason,” Hao said.

She smiled back at her job-hunting experiences and the delayed arrival of OPT after her graduation. She exercises, she writes and she cries when facing challenges. Hao carries on her learned qualities and a strong mentality as to how her dad raised her throughout her life.

Life is full of surprises and challenges. The pandemic has disrupted the lives of all walks of life.

“The hardest times will be the greatest moments in life.”

That piece of wisdom from Hao’s dad highlighted the pandemic as a blessing in disguise. Struggling and tumbling with or without support, international students have transformed to embrace humility upon uncertainties, acceptance of self, sharpened prospects and physical and mental resilience.