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The Anxieties of International Students

and Their Partners who are Waiting at Home


Brian Li

Despite many great medical discoveries and advances in the last 100 years, it is hard to believe that in 2020 we have been pushed into an uncontrollable pandemic. From the first reported case in December 2019 to the end of October 2020, over 1,000,000 people worldwide have died. Hundreds of airlines have been cut, many cities around the world have been locked down due to multiple waves of the virus. Travel bans have been implemented in many countries, which have shut down their Visa operations to reduce incoming people. (Note: This article is based on public data and interviews conducted by the end of October 2020)

With everything that has happened in 2020 so far, anxiety seems to be, understandably, at an all-time high. We are trying to live in a world with rules we are not accustomed to, with fears and uncertainties that can make us feel small and powerless.

I am the husband of a full-time MBA student at the University of Toronto Rotman School of Management. My family and I would have settled in Toronto in August, 2020 and started with the exciting overseas experience had it not been for the pandemic. Now we are still living in our home country waiting for Visas. My wife has been taking online classes late into the night and working during the day. I am with my old job and trying to get involved with the people and life in Toronto in some way. We have a five-year-old boy who is facing uncertainty about entering elementary school next year. Our funds have been trapped in the Visa application process. Our parents continuously express concerns for the future. It is hard to deny any anxiety or depression for these months and those to come. This is how I started discussion with the international students at Rotman to explore their mental well-being during the pandemic.

Daniel is a classmate of my wife; he and his wife are from Brazil, where they are still currently living. Daniel applied for a Visa in February but still hasn’t got it, and his wife applied for her work permit later, but she can't finish her application because she needs to do the next phase at the Visa Application Centers, which are closed. He told me that international students in Brazil have to endure extended wait times, and many have not received study permits. Many who have submitted applications in as early as March either have not received the approval, or have received the approval in principle, but not the final approval. Their partners are still waiting with no specific timeline. The situation, which was caused by the closure of Canadian embassies and consulates due to the pandemic, has not improved. Daniel is now expecting some progress since Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada announced updated travel policies in October.

What do their lives look like? How have their lives been affected by anxiety?

The main reason most international students haven't landed yet is because they haven't received a Visa, but their anxiety comes from a lot more than hopeless waiting. There are several problems they need to deal with:

1. The dangers of living with the virus

The most important thing International students need to do is take care of themselves and their family members. With the virus spreading so quickly, international students have to first deal with the dangerous virus itself, as well as adapting to restrictions in a new country. Perhaps more serious is the impact the outbreak has on daily living, such as coping with the death of relatives and friends, needing to protect yourself constantly, being strong for your family, dramatically adjusting your lifestyle, and coping with loneliness and isolation.

My family has been on edge since my father tested positive for COVID-19, and my partner is also disturbed by the insurmountable odds we're facing all the time. He recovered about a week ago. We haven't been able to step out, apart from medical reasons. Juggling his medical visits with the MBA has not been easy.” — Anonymous

My grandmother sadly passed away a few months ago (unrelated to COVID-19), and we were not able to have a funeral for her.” — Fabiola and Luis, Mexico

I am a physician. There is less work in private practice and more stress in national hospitals. ” — Claudia, Peru

2. Loneliness caused by social distancing

Through interviews with students, we see that lockdown causes many problems: not being able to see friends in person, feeling bored and stuck at home, not being able to exercise at the gym, shame felt by eating too much and gaining weight, etc. Dealing with these problems all at once can be overwhelming and can make the situation feel worse.

The outbreak has cut off our normal social connections, which has caused many of us to feel lonely and isolated. Unfortunately, loneliness and isolation often occur at the same time and strengthen each other; lonely people tend to isolate themselves. An Australian government survey in April found that a majority of respondents (57%) reported increased feelings of loneliness and isolation since the outbreak. Dr. Catherine Barrett, clinical psychologist and scholar, found that people deal with isolation in two ways: Some people like to spend time alone and understand that it is temporary, while others feel lost and disoriented, which makes them feel sad and lonely.

Luis and I were supposed to get married in a 220-guest ceremony and had to change it for a 40-guest backyard wedding. My brother also canceled his wedding. I find it harder to stay motivated. I feel sad because I rarely get to see my family. I feel very alone all day (Luis has to go to work in person).” — Fabiola and Luis, Mexico

3. Online classes and online socializing

Online education is a challenge for both students and teachers. There is the sense of oppression that the camera gives to people. Seeing themselves on the screen may give people different degrees of uncomfortable feelings. Realizing that others can see themselves so intimately, compared to being in the classroom, can put them in a state of tension. Second, distance is a strange thing, for courses that require a lot of teamwork or discussion, the disadvantage of online education is that, most of the time, it is impossible to accurately judge the other person's inner thoughts. After all, body language is also an important aspect of communication.

Even before I was studying online, I was sent to work from home. The screen exhaustion is real.” — Anonymous

Not being able to see people and interact with them physically has been a nightmare.” — Byron and Dirkie, South Africa

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4. Time zone problem

Time zone differences is an issue for overseas students' learning. Taking online courses while in a different time zone adds even more stress and anxiety for international students, especially those in Asia. This is a big problem because of the lack of practicality when it comes to teamwork and efficiency. Faulty internet connections could cause even more problems, especially during exam season. It may be difficult for teachers to solve these problems, but it can hurt international students’ feelings because their needs are not being taken into consideration.

Classes are from 5:30 pm to 9:30 pm in my time zone. It is easy to attend classes, but I am unable to attend any other events that happen during the day after class since it is in the middle of the night.” — Anonymous, India

The time difference is definitely very disruptive because I often have to stay up later or get up really early to attend other events, and after a long day of studying/activities, my brain is not functioning at its prime in terms of understanding and retaining new information.”— Anonymous, China

In Brazil, we are on GMT-3, so only one-hour difference from Canada. It does not affect online classes. However, my assignment group colleagues are from different countries, so it can be disruptive when finding the best time that fits everyone.” — Daniel, Brazil

5. Economic problems

The total cost for international students is much higher than for domestic students. For example, higher tuition fees and living costs, and thus international students tend to be more concerned about uncertainties in the future. For those who wish to work in Canada upon graduation, the unstable global economy has added to their anxiety.

The situation is slightly different in China and other areas that have been less affected by COVID-19 for periods. Although Visas still cannot be approved, the outbreak has been effectively controlled. People have been back at work for a long time now. International students who have been waiting are starting to think about the way back, re-examining the meaning of studying abroad with high costs and concerns about the future economy. Some of those who continue to wait for Visas say they are afraid to go, because even if they receive a Visa, Toronto’s second wave is discouraging. Students with children are more anxious, worried about whether their children will be infected going to school in Toronto. Others, however, have given up.

Also, all the worry about the global economy, people's wellbeing and getting sick was and sometimes is a real burden.” — Byron and Dirkie, South Africa

I am considering deferring, since I need to be in Canada to access money from a local government scholarship. Without the money from the scholarship we will be facing financial issues (three months in Mexico without the money is fine but more than that starts to put a lot of pressure).” — Fabiola and Luis, Mexico

Yes. Greatly. We are at a loss because we are unable to get the most out of the MBA experience and unable to do anything about it. There is no social component to the university experience either.” — Anonymous, India

We encouraged each other to make more money before moving to Canada.” — Anonymous, China

What have they done to deal with the depression and anxiety?

Going for a walk was mentioned the most, others eat more and enjoy having a beer, and reading books and listening to music are also helpful. For those who have a partner they live with, they do their best to be there for them.

My partner and I are very anxious. We've both tried meditation to relieve anxiety, but I think it works better for her than me.” — Saurav Ghosh and Krupa Kapadia, India

We try to support each other and try to go for a walk every day to relieve the stress.” — Fernanda and Alexis, Mexico

Medication.” — Anonymous

I am medicated for panic and anxiety, also a little of sleepless. Patricia is eating more and trying to exercise.” — Claudia and Patricia, Peru

We train hard five days a week - this helps a lot. It keeps my body feeling well.” — Byron and Dirkie, South Africa

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What will you do first when you get to Toronto?

Probably quarantine. After that, drink a beer and visit Toronto, because I have never been there.” — Anonymous

Explore all the parks and nature we can find.” — Anonymous

Meet up with people once out of quarantine! I really want to see my study team in real life.” — Anonymous

Can something good come from all this?

What are the long-term effects of the outbreak on us? In addition to the unpleasant aspects mentioned above, could there also be benefits? It could lead to reform of public health systems, improvements in social governance systems, profound changes in the global economic climate, and the reduction in social activity gives us the opportunity to re-examine ourselves. There's another effect that's not grand and intuitive, but it's already permeated us, and that's how the pandemic has reminded us to take care of our mental health, ourselves, and our partners.

As the sample size of this discussion was not large, the cases mentioned in this article do not represent the situation of all overseas students. In addition, based only on the feedback from the interviewees and questionnaires, most students are not anxious to the extent of mental illness. Nonetheless, the purpose of my writing is to shed light on a situation experienced by a large number of overseas students, which is worthy of our attention.

I hope the COVID-19 pandemic will pass as soon as possible so that international students can meet in Toronto. More importantly, no matter what the reality is, we should try our best to be optimistic.


Rachele Chaar and Cody Littlefield in Rotman Life Partners Club of University of Toronto. They helped me with the survey and sent it to their members.

Zihan Li for providing her professional suggestions.


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Edited by Jeffrey Lynham & Curtis D'Hollander