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Around the World: Comparing the global realities of international students

By Sebastian Vasquez Gutierrez, March 12 2021— 

One way or another, students worldwide have been affected during the pandemic — for most students, it was a relatively easy transition from campus to home. International students had to deal with a variety of different issues when quarantine measures were put in place and still continue to face them as the situation evolves. The struggles international students face are still the same — in some cases, they have become worse.

The University of Calgary is recognized as one of Canada’s best research universities, which is an exciting opportunity for international students who come from all around the world to get an education worth all the money they’re spending. As of 2020, there has been an on-going conversation regarding the tuition increase, who is affected by it and what can be done. It is a considerable amount of money, especially for international students, since we already pay a much larger percentage than domestic students. International students pay over $17,000 more than domestic students per academic year on a five-course basis across most faculties. And now with online classes, the elephant in the room is the question of whether our education is still worth the ever increasing cost of tuition. 

International students from six different countries interviewed with the Gauntlet and were asked about their perspectives on how the university is handling the situation, and how they may be affected by these changes. Phan Nguyen Gia Thu, from Vietnam, is a first-year Political Science major. Alongside them are Ranai Gosine, from Trinidad and Tobago, Clarisa Artega, from El Salvador and Valeria Molina, from Peru, who are second-year students respectively majoring in Electrical Engineering, Communications and Media Studies and Biological Sciences. Alongside them are Fenja Kroos, from Germany, and Andrea Villa, from Spain, who are third-year students in Geography and Business respectively.

The Gauntlet: Are you dealing with any time-zone problems? If so, do you think your professors are handling that issue?

Gosine: The timezone is not a problem for me, I just wake up a bit later. The university could’ve been a lot more efficient when delivering my lab kit to me as an international student because it took a month longer than it did for students in Canada. 

Arteaga: I’m not dealing with any time-zone problems at all, but I have a friend in Ethiopia, and the teachers don’t really care. I guess they try to care, but they don’t do anything about it. They say they do care but their actions don’t speak what they are trying to say.

Phan: I had a lot of time-zone problems during my first semester because I had to check my due dates relative to Calgary time since they were not the same. A small problem I had in the beginning was confusing a.m. and p.m. time because sometimes my professors would only open an examination for 12-hours instead of 24-hours. I actually missed the time for my ECON 201 midterm because of my overlooking this fact.

Molina: I have a 2-hour difference and it is not too different, but the 24-hour time to complete exams is really helpful.

Kroos: The lectures are uploaded so I can access them at any time. 

Villa: Yes, the professors were nice, but I had time-zone problems. 

The students taking classes based in South America evidently showed that they did not struggle much with time differences as it was a couple of hours ahead and did not affect them as much. But for people from Europe and Asia who have synchronous classes, it is a struggle. Some students have pre-recorded lectures in all of their classes and also, in most classes, have a 24-hour period for exam completion. However, when people are dealing with huge time differences, it is physically deteriorating to stay up for a class at 2 a.m. multiple times during the week. It can take a huge toll on the motivation of any student which leads to problems in degree planning

G: Is there a difference between online and in-person classes? If you are not in Canada, is there a difference between being at home? 

Artega: There is definitely a difference. I think that most people have taken an in-person class and they are used to learning that way, so when we changed abruptly into online classes, we had to learn a few things even though we are a generation that is more used to technology.

Phan: Personally, motivation is my biggest problem. The main difference between online and in-person classes is that in-person classes have a set timetable. Before [the pandemic] I would have the majority of my day filled out with classes that I have to go to and places I need to be. Now, being at home, I have a hard time committing to a fixed schedule because every day is the same as the next. Furthermore, a bigger problem with staying at home, especially in Vietnam, is that I can’t really communicate with my classmates about  any problems I have because our time zones are so different. On top of that, I’m a naturally shy person, so I tend to overthink and be too anxious to start conversations or attend study sessions. 

Kroos : Definitely! There is a lot less interaction between students as well as between students and professors. Being at home does not feel like I am going to university.

Gosine: I am very easily distracted while watching online classes and don’t have much motivation to participate in class activities/questions.

Molina: yes there is a difference but sometimes it is even helpful because I can manage my time. I miss being able to study with people or interacting while in school, but it’s not easy to do this through Zoom. 

The students from South America, where the time difference is just a couple of hours found that time can be more manageable. It is easier than having more than six hours of difference in which you have to completely change your life at home to adjust a schedule that can be “manageable.” 

At the same time, motivation and confidence seem to be the common ground for all students as most students don’t feel motivated to talk in break-out rooms or in-class discussions, which leads to classes being monotonous. The change to online classes was very abrupt and every student is handling it in a different way. It is clear that international students have had their fair share of problems. Although most of the opinions about online classes are negative, there are some students who have positive answers.

G: Is the University doing enough to help international students with their struggles? Have your plans with your degree or in Canada changed due to the on-going situation? 

Phan: I think the university is doing all they can for international students with their mental health programs. Although I have never used them, it shows the university cares about its students. Since I’m a freshman, I am still quite uncertain about my future plans regarding my degree. I am thinking about taking a gap year for my 2nd year if the pandemic is still ravaging [sic] and I can’t enter Canada — although it seems that Canada is at its tail end of this virus. Even though I learned a lot in my first year of university, in the back of my mind, I feel like it’s a waste of my time. So, it seems to be a viable option to take a year off and get some work experience.

Molina: I believe that they are doing what they can.

Villa: I think the University came in just in time to help students. I had Erasmus going on but it got cancelled.

Artega: I think they [the University] could help more, but they are doing what they can, and my plans have not changed. I’m still taking the same classes that I would have taken if classes were in person.

For the most part, students agree that the University of Calgary is doing the best it can with the situation at hand. Handling students from all over the world can be a difficult task, and most students seem to be understanding how the University of Calgary is taking action with all the problems that arise. At the same time, not many people have said their plans for their degrees have changed since most students are taking the same classes they would have taken if classes were in person. However, some students have taken fewer classes because online classes can be challenging for many students and the workload can be harder. Since online classes have hit students in different ways, not every single student can adapt to online classes and taking five courses can be a difficult challenge for a student who struggles with online learning, which leads to students taking fewer classes to try and adapt to the best of their abilities. 

There are resources that the university provides for international students, such as the International Student Services,  where you can find information about the border situation in Canada and how the University is navigating it. Also the Wellness Centre  provides students with various ways in which they can help with problems that may arise with the current situation.

G: With the tuition increased and online classes, is the money you’re spending on your education worth it?

Arteaga: There needs to be a change in terms of tuition, I don’t think it’s fair.

Phan: Tuition takes into account other experiences, like a sense of community and the facility, that is why I’m considering my options for my second year.

Kroos: The increased tuition — under the conditions — is not fair for students.

Villa: I believe it is still worth it, but I think it should be reduced, especially since we pay substantially more than non-international students.

Evidently, the situation can vary among international students depending on where they live. The time difference can take a huge toll on your schedule and social life since it is very hard to make connections through a screen. Even though the university is doing the best with what they have, there is always room for improvement. There are other universities in the United States and Canada that have done a considerably better job at handling this issue. For instance, the University of Wisconsin at Stout has opted to have weekly checks on international students to see how they are doing and helping them with any issues that may arrive such as time-zones. The advisors at this university go over the classes the students are taking and see if professors can talk to students who can’t attend synchronous classes to do later office hours or figure out a schedule that can be manageable for the students, and also they talk about them about their visa since that has also been a struggle for students.

Although the pandemic has slightly calmed down, there are still a lot of struggles that international students face and have not been resolved. Many students agree that all the money that is being spent is not being shown in their education and that things need to improve.

Many international students are struggling at the moment — they have to worry about many different things at the same time, such as tuition and online classes while maintaining a schedule that can fit properly into classes which is hard for students in different parts of the world. The university is doing what they can with this difficult situation, but they can do better by addressing the wellness related concerns of students taking classes thousands of miles away, who already feel that the tuition increase is an added burden to the lack of facilities they are given.

Around the World is a column about the international student experience and a platform for the voices of those students to be heard. It aims to raise topics often avoided and issues often unspoken about as they pertain to international students at the University of CalgaryThis column is a part of our Voices section.

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