Studying Abroad During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Story by Matt Prokopchuk, Photos by Shannon Lepere

 International students Rubilyn Hortelano and Jaswanth Chadalavada

Jaswanth Chadalavada says he was hoping to wait until COVID-19 had subsided before moving roughly 12,000 kilometres from India to Thunder Bay to attend post-secondary school, but time simply ran out. The 26-year-old Confederation College digital marketing and analytics student started making plans with his family in 2019 to move abroad—the first in his family to do so—in order to better his education in the digital marketing field. Chadalavada arrived in Thunder Bay in early January, after waiting nearly a year back home, hoping the coronavirus pandemic would blow over.

“We were expecting it to go, but it was not going [away],” he says. “And we did mortgage […] my uncle’s home for this, so we had interest piling up.” Making the long trip to live and study in a new country, climate, and culture is a daunting enough reality for the hundreds of international students currently in Thunder Bay, but making that initial journey in an unprecedented time of uncertainty, worldwide public health restrictions, and ever-changing guidelines is a whole other matter.

“It’s been very challenging for the students,” says Miriam Wall, the college’s dean of international education. “Much of the international travel protocols have changed over time and many of the policies around international students being able to study overseas, study online, they also have changed, so […] the one constant we’ve had through COVID is change.” The college has “spent a lot of time updating our policies, bringing students up to date, making sure they’re well-informed, answering their questions,” she continues. “There’s a lot of anxiety and uncertainty.”

Students coming to the college from overseas are required, upon arrival, to quarantine for two weeks in campus residences under “very strict protocols,” and then test negative for COVID-19, Wall says, adding that, as of February, they must also pass COVID screening and quarantine for three days in Toronto while en route to Thunder Bay. Once they arrive, and during the two-week lockdown period here, college staff frequently check in with the students virtually and hold workshops on everything from job searching and nutrition to relaxation. Students often also start connecting with each other online.

For Rubilyn Hortelano, a student who came from the Philippines in February to study in the college’s personal support worker program, quarantining in a room by herself was initially difficult and lonely. “I missed my family,” she says. The virtual workshops and check-ins from staff, however, helped to alleviate that. “It really helped me a lot that way—the workshops, talking to other people—[with] emotions of being down.” Hortelano adds that she also connected with new friends and spoke with her family back home.

Chadalavada says he applauds the college for the measures it took to make sure the virus didn’t take hold on campus and spent his time in quarantine also attending the workshops, as well as virtually hanging out, chatting, and playing mobile games with friends and other students. The days “were not that long because the college […] made sure we were not feeling alone, even though we were locked inside our single room for like 15 days,” he says. “The college made sure we were doing fine.”

“One thing we’re amazed by is the resilience of the students,” Wall says. “The students in quarantine, for the most part, have been incredibly resilient and creative and helping each other.”