Overseas, high fees, and a lack of guarantees: We spoke to international students about online term

‘Most of us do not have the privilege of casually catching a train home’

As an international student, the news of a third lockdown and an online term caused a staggering range of worries: most of us can’t exactly ask our parents to pick us up. Many international students have been left in the lurch, asked to stay where they are for an indefinite period of time, with no idea what the immediate future holds.

We spoke to international students across the university dealing with vastly different situations and concerns: travel chaos, financial strain, hauntingly empty gyps, online teaching woes, and more:

‘I feel like the university and college have learnt very little since last year’

We’ve collectively had to deal with cancelled and postponed flights, oscillating airfares, spiralling emotions, skyrocketing anxiety, and having to adopt a nocturnal schedule that isolates us from our families like stressed-out bats.

Krystian Schneyder, a Polish second year told The Tab Cambridge: “I feel like the university and college have learnt very little since last year. There is still almost no flexibility.

“International students are being expected to stay in Cambridge even though the entire term has been moved online… most of us do not have the privilege of casually catching a train home.”

‘I just can’t stop wondering why I’m still here’

As expected, the emotional toll of the disorientation and chaos has been high. Yasi Zhu, a fresher from China, said: “When I first got my offer I definitely didn’t expect that I would be stuck in my room at college alone right now, with an empty corridor and barely a living person out of my window… now I just can’t stop wondering why I’m still here.

“I’m missing my friends, my family, my adorable dog, and authentic home cuisine…what accompanies loneliness is homesickness, usually triggered by really trivial things.” 

Photo Credit: Camfess via Facebook

Natasha from Australia agreed, telling the Tab Cambridge that whilst she is “ultimately grateful to be here in college with good support and friends”, there remains a “constant comparison between being in a worse off country Covid-wise and back home where it’s easier and friends are out having fun.” 

Some fatigued freshers have grown resigned to their fate –  an American fresher said: “With nobody left on campus, I am enjoying my newfound BNOC status.” I guess that’s one way to win The Tab’s annual BNOC competition…

‘It makes no sense to pay this much when I can’t access university resources’

Many international students are concerned about the impact of the lockdown on their finances. An American fresher told The Tab Cambridge: “I’m on a floor all by myself, the gym is closed, the music practice rooms are closed, the buttery is only open for an hour each day, all the gates but one are locked… my rent and tuition are the same.” 

Many have found the university’s financial concessions inadequate and badly handled. Anya Gupta, a student from India added: “This is not a reflection on the lecturers and DoSs who are working really hard but it makes no sense to pay this much when I can’t access university resources. Rebating rent was not a favour– it had to be done.

“Although lectures may be pre-recorded, we can’t ask questions live. We also miss out on society events which are late in our time zone.”

Another Indian fresher said: “Disadvantaged students with poor study spaces are being effectively ‘forced’ to pay rent. This also applies to internationals whose term-break arrangements were meant to be temporary.”  

On a slightly more positive note, some second years claim the situation is less of a dumpster fire than last year. Ragavi Vijayakumar, from Singapore said: “Since last March, the university/college response has gotten (relatively) more coherent.

“Last year Downing charged us for storage over the summer because a lot of internationals left without packing and couldn’t collect their belongings by August. At one point they asked us if we could ship our belongings back home.”

‘It sucks not to be able to take part in the Cambridge community’

Undoubtedly, much of ‘normal’ university life has been eroded by online learning. Anna, a fresher from France who is currently at home, said: “I do think this is probably the fairest treatment they could give us but it sucks not to be able to take part in the Cambridge community in any of its usual sense since this is the main selling point of a Cambridge education.” 

A totally candid photo showing the struggles of being an international student (Photo credits: Anna)

Many internationals (and probably many domestics) feel disoriented, frustrated, stressed, and besieged by a deep fear of missing out on life, milestones, and adulthood. Arianna Muñoz, a fresher from America said: “Last term at Cambridge was the first time I felt like I belonged, that I had friends, that I was becoming my own person. Now that I’m back to studying in my childhood bedroom I find myself regressing to the insecure and unhappy person I was in high school.”

‘We’re quite motivated to make the most of this situation’

While everyone has had enormously different experiences, and not everyone is in a space where they have the mental energy or resources to look on the bright side, some students have definitely managed to find support or a sense of community that they wouldn’t have found otherwise. Zuzka Nevyjelová said: “In the Czech Republic universities were shut from the beginning…most of my friends haven’t even been at the university where they are studying, so in a sense I am better off.”

Meanwhile Ragavi Vijayakumar said: “The ‘university experience’ is as good as what you make of it and I’m quite glad to have two other international students living with me right now and we’re quite motivated to make the most of this situation.”

An accurate representation of how we’re all feeling about Lent term (Photo credits: Arianna Muñoz)

Juliette Guerón Gabrielle, from France, told The Tab Cambridge that she felt supported and welcomed by her college, saying: “I was quite happy with how Selwyn dealt with it. We had the ability to come back without excessive justification.” 

Arianna Muñoz, from America, has also had a positive response from her college, saying: “My DoS is adjusting my schedule to fit the time difference between the US and UK, and my tutor will hopefully have some of the books I left at college shipped to me!

As internationals navigate between essay crises, baking banana bread seasoned with tears, and cranking out tired jokes about university being an exorbitantly expensive streaming service that hit uncomfortably close to home, somehow we will get through this. 

We will learn to love Zoom socials, shoot our shots via the private chat feature of Zoom lectures, have the occasional mental breakdown on Camfess, and acknowledge that we’re living through a shitstorm where it’s okay to cut ourselves some slack.

As always: cheers to Easter term, where things will definitely be much better (famous last words…)

Feature image credit: Amelie Lam, Bomin Choi, Ragavi Vijayakumar

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