‘The biggest resource we have is each other’: How U of T's international students are coping with COVID-19
COVID-19 upended the lives of students across the University of Toronto, particularly those of international students whose homes are often a world away.
About one-in-four U of T students comes from outside Canada. When the pandemic reached Toronto, they were faced with a difficult choice: stay here or go home. Impending travel restrictions gave them little time to make up their minds.
U of T News spoke to two undergraduate students and Lester B. Pearson scholars, Ashley Mutasa and Katie Kwang, about how the pandemic affected them. Mutasa, who is staying with family in Winnipeg, explains how she’s finding motivation to do her coursework remotely, while Kwang, who returned to Singapore, describes the whirlwind days after in-person instruction was cancelled at U of T and the support she received from a faculty mentor who told her it was normal to feel anxiety during such a historically challenging period – and to give herself a break if her schoolwork wasn’t up to her usual standards.
Neuroscience and statistics student at U of T Mississauga
The first time I thought about how the coronavirus would directly affect me was when my friends at U.S. colleges told me they were being sent home. That wasn’t an option for me – even before travel restrictions made it much more difficult to fly.
My home is more than 12,000 kilometres away from Toronto, in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. I came to the University of Toronto Mississauga in 2018 on a Lester B. Pearson scholarship for international students in order to study neuroscience and statistics. I chose these majors because I’m deeply interested in understanding people and because I believe in the power of numbers and data to change the world for the better.
My studies are an outlet for my creativity, a means of improving my life and of achieving my goals. I didn’t realize that my familiar routine was so fragile. Not until one day in March, when the structures in my life came tumbling down.
My two roommates and I were sitting in the living room of our townhouse-style residence when one of them got an email from the university. With the number of COVID-19 cases increasing rapidly in Canada, U of T adapted classes for remote learning, closed most on-campus facilities and asked students living on campus to move out if possible.
I initially wanted to stay on campus because flying home to Harare is expensive and the end of the semester was in sight. I also thought it would make it easier to concentrate on my upcoming exams.
But as facilities closed and students packed their bags, the absence of my friends and acquaintances on campus confirmed something I already suspected: The people you meet in university are one of the best parts of the experience.
I decided I would be better off finishing the term in Winnipeg, living with my sister and her four-year-old son. If the unpredictable last couple of months has taught me anything, it’s that the world can change suddenly and in times of crisis it’s important to surround yourself with family and people who love and care about you.
When I arrived at my sister’s house, she swept me up in a big embrace. Her presence makes the situation better.
I didn’t know Winnipeg very well before I arrived, having only been there once for Christmas holidays. I haven’t gotten to know the city any better now as I stay inside to protect myself and do my part to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
My routine obviously looks much different from what it was less than a month ago. I watch video recordings of my professors’ lectures and participate in class through online forums. I sometimes find it hard to find the motivation to study, especially with the grim news in the headlines almost every day. I take breaks from reading the news because it’s enough to drive anyone crazy.
I give myself time to relax. I play a lot with my nephew, who likes video games and toy cars. I’ve tried to teach him TikTok dances, but he’s just not that into it.
I’ve found new ways of channeling my creativity. I’ll sketch anything that comes to mind or write from the point of view of an imaginary character. I’ve joined an online book club where amateur writers submit their work for feedback. I do home exercises or go for jogs, or just sit back and watch Inside Bill’s Brain on Netflix.
It’s hard to find silver linings in the current circumstances, but there are a few. I’ve reconnected with friends, including some I hadn’t spoken to since high school. It’s good to see their faces even if it’s just on Skype. Another positive has been the opportunity to slow down, re-energize and get to know myself. It’s given me time to think about what I want to do with my life.
There’s a big question mark hanging over my summer plans now. I was supposed to go back to Zimbabwe to do an independent research project on community-based interventions in mental health and substance use disorders as part of the Laidlaw Scholars Programme, and, until recently, I was working as a research assistant for a professor studying the imposter syndrome and implicit bias in STEM. Both those opportunities seem in jeopardy now.
Even still, I consider myself lucky because my friends and family back home are healthy. This whole ordeal has made me more grateful for everything I have.
My message to other students who are going through a tough time right now is: reach out to someone. The biggest resource we have is each other. Be patient and be kind. In this situation it’s tempting to look for scapegoats and spread hate, but don’t fall into that trap. When we get through this, we will be better people because of it.
Psychology and economics student at Victoria College
My trip home to Singapore during Reading Week in February offered a glimpse of what was to come.
Almost everyone on my flight was wearing a mask and passengers looked over their shoulders anxiously at the sound of a cough or sneeze.
On a stopover at the Seoul airport, announcers reminded travellers in different languages not to board a plane if they were feeling sick.
The number of coronavirus cases in Singapore was still relatively low, but the tension was palpable in the island city-state where memories of SARS are still fresh.
I figured it was just a matter of time before the virus reached Toronto. When I returned, I threw a few more cans of beans and other non-perishables in my shopping cart just in case.
In March, as the numbers of cases in Canada spiked, U of T moved from in-person instruction to remote learning to promote social distancing. I originally planned to stay in Toronto to finish the semester because the 12-hour time difference in Singapore would make things tricky, to say the least.
Then one morning at 4 a.m., my phone rang. My mom in Singapore said Taiwan and other transit hubs were starting to close their borders – even to travellers en route to other destinations. I booked a flight for 6 a.m. the next day, giving me a 24-hour window to sublet my apartment and pack my life into boxes and luggage.
I combed housing groups on Facebook and messaged about 50 people before I finally found someone to sublet my downtown apartment this summer at a cut rate. I emptied my desk drawers and put the contents into a single plastic bag. I grabbed stuff out of my closet and threw it on the bed to decide what to take with me. I packed the essentials – plus my cheongsam, Chinese gowns for formal occasions. I wouldn’t get the chance to wear one in the near future, but it makes me happy just to see them hanging in my closet.
When I returned to Singapore this time – via Tokyo just days before it shut its borders – travellers had to submit to new precautions, including a “stay home notice” whereby international visitors had to remain in isolation for 14 days in government-provided lodgings. If I broke the rules, I could face harsh penalties. I spent the next two weeks in a fancy hotel in the entertainment district, where authorities called to check in on me and verify my location. Once in a while, I was asked to send a selfie to prove I hadn’t left the room.
In Singapore, they call the lockdown measures “circuit breakers.” Schools and non-essential businesses are closed. A few days ago, I spent hours – along with about a million other people – scrolling through delivery apps trying to order one last bubble tea before those shops finally shut their doors, too.
The streets are eerily quiet and empty, like the set of a post-apocalyptic movie.
As I tried to make sense of the tragedy enveloping the world, my faculty mentor and professor of political science Joe Wong provided guidance and reassurance. I emailed him because I worried about the consequences of the pandemic – not just for my own future, but for those who will be unable to lead lives of dignity under these new and terrifying circumstances. He told me it’s normal to feel anxiety and fear as we go through a challenging period in history. His advice was to forgive myself if my work during this time doesn’t always meet my usual standards. In response to my question about how the pandemic will affect the already-marginalized people of the world, he said it will make development work all the more important. The core mission stays the same, he said: to find places where our help is welcomed and soldier on.
The university's Centre for International Experience (CIE) and accessibility services helped on other fronts. CIE helped me apply for a travel bursary to pay for my emergency flight home, while staff in accessibility services helped me obtain coursework extensions to quell my anxiety.
To stay motivated while I adjust to a new, remote-learning routine, I’ve adopted the Pomodoro Technique, breaking up my studying into 20-minute intervals.
There are many aspects of my old university life that I miss: doing research in the Einstein Lab in the basement of Sidney Smith, going to the library, seeing friends. I’d love to give each of them a big bear hug right now.
Although I usually enjoy being alone, I miss people most of all.