Ferdous Mashiat Sharif and Aakanksha Nair are international students in Toronto, Canada. Ferdous is in the middle of her three-year study program while Aakanksha is due to graduate in a couple of months, in June 2020. We interviewed them to get a glimpse into their new normal, the emotions they are experiencing during this uncertain time and learn more about how they’re coping with all of the changes as temporary residents in a foreign land.
Efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic have affected individuals and businesses alike — it has changed the way we live, work, study and communicate with one another. The Canadian government is supporting various segments of affected populations through multiple benefits and relief measures such as Employment Insurance (EI) and Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).
In some of our recent posts, we’ve shared useful resources on coronavirus such as newcomer employment in the time of coronavirus, as well as what COVID-19 means for pre-arrivals to Canada. In this article, Ferdous and Aakanksha share their experiences as international students in Canada during COVID-19. Their stories reflect financial and emotional anxiety about their current situation, but also resilience and hope, during a time when Canada and many other countries have closed their borders. We also discuss some of the relief options that are available to them.
Coronavirus travel restrictions and exemptions for students
International travel restrictions are still in-effect and discourage individuals from any non-essential travel. However, there are exemptions in place for international students who must travel to Canada.
Here’s a summary of the student exemptions:
Students travelling to Canada
Students with a Canadian study permit are exempt from travel restrictions to Canada. According to the government, if you’re an international student who has a valid study permit or if you were approved for a study permit on or before March 18, 2020, you are exempt from the travel restrictions.
- If you’re travelling by air, you need to pass a health check conducted by airlines before you’re allowed to board your flight.
- Anyone who shows symptoms of COVID-19 will not be allowed to enter Canada by air.
- Upon arrival in Canada, your health will be assessed before you leave your port of entry. And even if you do not have any COVID-19 symptoms, it is mandatory for you to self-isolate for 14 days.
International students in Canada
- As long as your study permit has not expired, you can apply to change your status to ‘Visitor’ if you’re no longer studying OR apply for a visa extension if you want to continue studying.
- If your study permit has expired, you can apply to restore your status as a temporary resident.
Following protocols: Social distancing, isolation and quarantine
For those arriving in Canada, it is mandatory to self-isolate for 14 days, and beyond that, everyone is expected to follow social distancing. If found disobeying government orders, there are hefty fines imposed in various provinces. Physical or social distancing, isolation and quarantine are measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Here’s how they differ from each other:
- Social distancing: Making a conscious effort to minimize physical contact with others.
- Isolation: Staying at home when you are sick or have symptoms of COVID-19 and avoiding physical contact with other people.
- Quarantine or self-isolation: Staying at home when you may have been exposed or if you have no symptoms of COVID-19.
For international students, this phase can be stressful and emotionally draining as they are miles away from their family members, lacking the support network they have back home. Many universities and colleges are offering different means of help and assistance, such as virtual yoga and meditation sessions. Other methods include deferring rent for students staying on-campus, making bursary programs available, offering mental health resources and online workout sessions so their students can continue to feel supported.
Ferdous said, “I miss my parents but I can’t go back because it’s too risky to travel. My brother recently got his student permit and was supposed to travel here but now he can’t. It’s a very emotional time for me. I want to cry. I can barely express how mentally draining this is.”
Aakanksha, on the other hand, has a strong support system in place and says that many people, including some LinkedIn contacts, have reached out to her to check-in and make sure things are going well.
She said, “I try to restrict the amount of time I spend reading about COVID-19 and instead focus on staying active and taking up passion projects. I feel calmer when I exercise, so that’s something I try to do daily. Many brands are offering free fitness resources, so it’s easier to work out at home. Some online learning sites are offering certain paid courses for free. I stay busy by doing really random things like taking up virtual dance classes, for instance.”
Sorting out the housing situation
Many universities and colleges in Canada encouraged students living on-campus to vacate their dorms and residences, if they could, as measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. International students and others who could not go home were asked to be prepared to move residence buildings to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
While talking to Ferdous and Aakanksha about their housing situation, they said:
Ferdous: In the week after March 13, we were informed that we had to vacate our dorm. My friends and roommates were leaving and that led to me feeling paranoid. Then one of my distant relatives helped me out and picked me up from my dorm and ever since I’ve been living with them.
Aakanksha: I am living on-campus right now and my lease was about to expire on April 30. However, since I am an international student, my school offered me a two-month extension on my lease, so I don’t have to worry about finding another place in this situation.
Adapting to virtual classes and maintaining academic continuity
Almost all courses, academic programs and assessments have moved online to a digital format and colleges, and universities are improvising to accommodate students who were supposed to start their term in Canada but couldn’t travel due to borders closing. Students with disabilities or learning challenges are finding the transition to online learning more difficult.
Aakanksha: “The face of our MBA experience has changed completely. We now have online classes and I think they’re effective to a great extent, but of course, at the end of the day, it’s just a substitute for the real thing. The exams for my course have been cancelled. For others who do have exams, they have a ‘take home’ and online option. The professors have been very accommodating and the school is handling the situation very well.”
Coming to terms with the current job market and employment prospects
Government guidelines state that digital format of course delivery due to COVID-19 will not affect students’ eligibility for receiving the Post-Graduation Work Permit (PGWP) Program. Meanwhile, Colleges and Institutes Canada is advocating for additional flexibility to be offered to students.
While discussing employment prospects, Aakanksha said, “Graduating in 2020 feels confusing. There’s a lot of anxiety. And for a long time, I didn’t know what to name the discomfort that I was feeling. I used to read a lot about what’s happening, and I think that’s one of the main reasons why I was constantly anxious. So now I just try not to read about it as much, which is very difficult given that’s all everyone’s talking about. And on the job front, there’s so much uncertainty as well. Even earlier, it was difficult to land a job, but now it’s become more challenging. I was in the final round of interviews with two companies, and like most other organizations, they’ve postponed their hiring indefinitely. This extends the unemployment period for me, which undoubtedly, adds financial strain because my resources are limited.”
Students can use the freely available resources on sites like Prepped to build their resume, cover letter, and prepare for the job market.
Coping with the financial impact
Most students live on a tight budget and the loss of income from part-time jobs has put many of them under pressure to meet living expenses. Ferdous, for instance, is currently very stressed about her financial situation.
She says, “I lost my job and I’m broke right now. I have credit card debt. My dad has sent money but it still hasn’t arrived. My school has received some funds from the government and they’re offering a decent amount as emergency relief to approved students. I have applied for it but I’m not sure if I will get it.”
Hoping for the best
These are challenging times for all segments of society, and many are struggling. Overall, the job market across Canada has been greatly impacted by COVID-19. Students who were working and encountered loss of employment due to COVID-19, may be eligible for the EI and CERB benefits.
While the government has stepped up efforts in offering benefits and relief, we must all do our part in keeping ourselves and others safe. Communities are coming together to help the vulnerable population; you can give back by getting involved, practicing social distancing and being kind to one another. And that will help us eventually get through this pandemic.
For all updates from the university, college, and student world in Canada, check out the daily posts from University Affairs.