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What it is like to be an international student in times of COVID-19

It goes without saying that everyone is suffering due to COVID-19 in different ways. Whether it is financial troubles, fearing for your health, or feeling isolated, we are all frustrated with our current situation. That’s why I sometimes find it hard to express my own struggles, considering that some people have it so much worse. After all, I’m healthy and with family, so what more could I ask for? But the reality is that, as an international student, COVID-19 has significantly affected my education and life.  

I started university in the fall of 2019, and within no time I felt completely at home in Guelph. My classes were everything I’d hoped for, and I made tons of great friends who I felt certain I would stay in touch with for the rest of my life. But then March 2020 came, and suddenly the university closed with little to no warning. 

I ended up flying home to the Caribbean two days after getting the news that the rest of the winter semester would be online. I made it home just 24 hours before my country closed its borders and suspended air traffic. I followed the news as many countries went into mandatory quarantine and scientists tried to predict how long the pandemic would last. All the while, my friends and I were planning for the start of the fall semester. We didn’t think for one moment COVID-19 would still be an issue come fall.  

Now it’s September, and I am studying from home. After weeks of trying, it became clear that I wouldn’t be able to return to Canada for the fall semester. While the Canadian government had initially promised that international students could return without any problems, they soon changed their minds and implemented impossible requirements for entering. You now need an ‘essential reason’ to be in Canada, and studying is not considered to be one.  

And so I’m typing this article on my laptop. I spend 8 hours a day staring at my screen. Where I used to charge my laptop at night and use it throughout the day, I now need to keep my charger on hand as my lectures, seminars, assignments, and quizzes drain both my battery and my energy day in, day out. Some of the required textbooks for my classes are not available in my country, so I have to make do with whatever pictures classmates feel like sharing that day. While I got through the course material fairly easily last year, everything seems a thousand times harder to understand now.  

I still talk to my friends almost every day, but I still feel isolated. Most of them stayed in Canada and are now back at Guelph, though they are struggling too. It is isolating to not see them face-to-face, to not be able to talk to professors and classmates. Above all, I’m furious I’m still paying international tuition, which is almost three times Canadian tuition, despite getting the exact same online education as Canadians. All the while, I am not even allowed to return to Canada. 

I don’t know what winter will bring. My current plan is to try again to enter Canada for the spring semester, but I’m not sure I’ll succeed. The uncertainty is frustrating, but I realize I’m still very lucky. I know international students dealing with six-hour time differences, watching lectures late at night. My younger sister was supposed to start university in Miami this fall and had to defer a semester because she’s unable to go there. She’s not even going to get the first-year experience I had. I know there are people stuck in leases they can’t get out of, people unable to pay their tuition at all. 

Above all, I am safe and healthy. So what more could I ask for? 

Maaike is an international student from Curacao in her sophomore year at the University of Guelph. Originally from the Netherlands, she loves cats, grilled cheese and reading (and watching the movie adaptations!).If she could live anywhere, it would be on Broadway.
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