Image of a student looking sad on campus
For two months straight in the summer, the only meals Ashwath Param could afford were instant ramen noodles. Photo:Dasser Kamran/Fulcrum
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International students are caught between a rock and a hard place

“It was literally do or die for me to pay that months’ rent, or how I would get my next meal,” said Ashwath Param, a University of Ottawa international student discussing the months following the outbreak of COVID-19. 

Param, who is a third-year international development and globalization student, received an emotional call in mid-March from his parents in Dubai, asking him to come home. They had just lost their jobs and could no longer support him with his $40,000 annual tuition and costly rent. 

With the future bearing substantial uncertainties for so many, the ripple effects of the COVID-19 pandemic remain difficult to comprehend, let alone observe on a global scale. Needless to say, students are living through it and in turn, have generated a resilience that extends beyond what many thought was possible, particularly international students. 

As immigrants to the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) from Mumbai, Param’s parents saved throughout his life to afford to send him to school abroad. But losing their jobs meant that all funds needed to be re-allocated to maintain the bare minimum cost of living in Dubai. 

Before Param could react, the United Arab Emirates closed its borders, leaving him stranded in Canada having to independently support himself. Not wanting to worry his parents, Param went on a desperate job hunt in Ottawa; it wasn’t easy given the struggling job market, and without any prior work experience. 

He was given a chance by a hiring manager at his local Domino’s pizza but the six hours or so a week at minimum wage was barely enough to cover rent. For two months straight in the summer, the only meals Param could afford were instant ramen noodles, which he allowed himself to eat once every other day. 

“It’s really hard when you are so hungry, but you realize you have already eaten your soup for the day, but even tomorrow it is just the same soup you had today,” he said.

Param also racked up a sizable credit card debt to be able to keep up with his other bills, and no reassurance as to when he would be able to pay it off. 

With the fall semester approaching and the decision of whether or not to renew his lease looming, Param and his parents decided it would be best if he stayed in Ottawa. They relied on the belief that the winter semester would be held in person and therefore justifying his rental expenses. Finding out that it would be online was a hard blow to his family. 

“Everything my mom and dad planned and saved for is being sold off just because I am here.” 

Double edged sword 

While there are benefits to staying in Ottawa and Eastern Standard Time during what students are calling “Zoom university,” it can be hard to be away from the comfort of home.

On the other hand, being away from the place where many international students have grown into young adults, and to be back in their parents’ homes far away from their university friends can be equally as isolating. 

Param noted that if he were to return to the U.A.E., his parents are now living in different cities to both search for employment and all their family friends have returned to India. 

To make things harder, Whatsapp, Facetime and Skype are all banned in the U.A.E. This means keeping up with any friends, near or far, would be difficult while alone at home. There is part of him that struggles not to feel selfish that he hesitates to go back to this lonely reality that would bring on its respective mental health challenges. 

A similar dilemma is presented with the pros and cons of asynchronous versus synchronous courses. Asynchronous can mean the comfort of maintaining healthy working hours depending on your time zone, but dealing with the reality that for many professors, this results in a heavier workload and what can feel like a self-taught course.

Fourth-year Telfer School of Management student, Audrey Dam, now home in Hanoi, Vietnam, talked about the struggles of online learning.

“Honestly, for the past five weeks, I don’t think I have learned anything, I’m just pushing through… it’s been hard… I just do what I gotta do,” she said. 

Alternatively, for synchronous classes Dam has no option but to be present between 12 a.m. to 3 a.m., as her fourth-year seminars are participation-based. This can be taxing on mental health and well-being when arranging a day and sleep schedule around when classes are, let alone being alert and engaged at those hours if one does manage to attend.

Darina Stoytcheva, a fourth-year Bulgarian international student in international studies and modern languages, spent September at home in Sofia while dealing with the realities of distance learning with a seven hour time difference. She decided to come back to Ottawa after the summer to better focus on her courses and continue to practice her French. 

Stoytcheva, like many other international students in Ottawa, was attracted to the school for the benefit of not having to pay international fees if you study in French. As the vice-president of finance of the International Students’ Student Association, she shared that many students are feeling the financial burden of the pandemic. 

International students already struggle feeling like “cash cows” for the University, and would have benefitted from a specific bursary or grant for them, maybe even tuition payment plans.

They do not receive federal support such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit or the Canada Emergency Student Benefit, but rather receive countless emails from the University reiterating the school’s support, which does not amount to meaningful action. 

Student-led efforts to mediate the challenges of being an international student are being rendered more difficult by the University.

Dam is a student mentor in Telfer International, a club to welcome and support international and exchange students. The club could not identify a set list of registered international students, making it extremely difficult for them to reach out to those in need of their services.

She shared that with the International Office on campus already overrun by emails of students needing assistance, clubs like Telfer International should be uplifted by the school, not have their benevolent intentions made more laborious.  

Silver Linings 

Dam has made the hard decision to stay in Vietnam for the duration of the year, leaving behind the life she built for herself in Ottawa; the rent is simply not worth it. She, like Param, is taking six courses this semester. For many students, overloading one’s course load is a way of saving money later on. 

However, the turmoil of the pandemic has inspired her to want to pursue a career in organizational psychology, promoting healthy work environments and destigmatizing access to mental health in East Asia. 

For Param, staying in Ottawa allowed his home to serve as an impromptu storage place for many of their friends that had to flee the University residences with little notice back in March. 

In turn, he has felt the breadth of support he has among his diverse community of friends here. 

Param’s sudden weight loss this spring was noticed by a friend. When inquiring about it, Param confided in his friend, who then secretly sent hundreds of dollars of groceries to his house the next day. Upon sharing this story on social media, many others reached out to Param with community resources which bring meals to students each week. He did not have to pay for groceries for the rest of the summer. 

In the 2019-20 school year, the University of Ottawa was home to nearly 8,000 international students, all of whom were forced to make some difficult decisions mid-March 2020, whether they wanted to or not. 

Stoytcheva, Dam and Param have all loved their time studying at the U of O and recommend it as a school to study at. Biking and being active outside has been a coping mechanism for many.

But as the winter looms, things might get bleaker for international students still in Canada’s capital. 

Though, on a more lighthearted note, Param says — in reference to his own humid country — “No one ever said there was anything beautiful about a sandstorm, but a snowstorm… that is magical.”