International students facing altered plans, tuition fees, and homesickness amid COVID-19

Lifestyle Sports | Lifestyle

The Martlet reached out to three international students to see how their lives have been impacted

Illustration by Austin Willis.

For international students, COVID-19 is causing unique struggles. With international travel halted for the foreseeable future, international students are stuck behind borders. Those struggling financially are finding it difficult to figure out how to afford international student tuition — which equates to about $27 000 per year. 

The Martlet spoke to three international students at UVic to find out how their lives have been impacted. 

“They are treating us like cash cows”

Vinay Rohra is a third-year mechanical engineering student from Mumbai, India currently living in residence. 

Due to his heavy course load, Rohra has not been working during his degree so he does not qualify for the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). He has been trying to get a co-op for the last eight months, and had interviews scheduled in March. 

When COVID-19 hit, his interviews were cancelled. He will try again to get a co-op in the fall to help pay for his expenses, but right now Rohra is trying everything in his power to apply for bursaries and aid that he qualifies for.

“My grandfather used to say whatever things you can control you should,” Rohra says. “I’m not a rich person that has a lot of money… I just take it one day at a time.”

After calling multiple support lines, and applying for UVic’s emergency bursary, Rohra resorted to putting his expenses on his credit card and deferring the payments. 

21.5 per cent of UVic students are international students, and 39 per cent of the university’s tuition revenues come from those students. Despite encompassing only  one-fifth of UVic’s entire student population, the Food Bank on campus estimates that almost half of the students they serve are international students. 

While domestic tuition increases are capped at two per cent by the provincial government, international student tuition levels are decided unilaterally by the universities  themselves. Since 2018, international student tuition at UVic has gone up by approximately 38 per cent.

Rohra says he feels that the university needs to offer international students more support and lower tuition. He added that Residence Services have been helpful in guiding him financially, but he says that overall, international student tuition is too costly. 

Some other students have asked for a tuition reduction as well, but the university remains adamant that tuition will not be discounted for the forthcoming year.  

For Rohra, whose parents help him with the tuition, he doesn’t see it being fair for students to pay vastly different prices for identical courses. 

“For the same seat [in class], my father pays around $2,300 dollars,” Rohra said. “Not to disrespect the university, but they are treating us like cash cows.” 

Although the high price of tuition is putting a strain on his parents, he says they will be able to continue to help him going forward somewhat, as his dad’s construction business in India is closed for the foreseeable future due to COVID-19.  

Rohra pointed to the significant economic benefits international students pose to Canada. In 2018, international students contributed $21 billion to the Canadian economy, which is more than auto part or lumber exports. In B.C., international students contribute $1.7 billion to the provincial GDP every year, according to a 2018 report from the B.C. Federation of Students.

After Rohra finishes his degree, he wants to work for a renewable energy company, and continue living in Canada. He also hopes to give back to his parents so they can retire.

Taking UVic classes online in South Korea

Daniel Lee is a fourth-year psychology and business minor student with a South Korean passport. Lee says that most international students he knows have returned to their home countries.

“A lot of us didn’t get the same jobs that we had, or some of us had less hours, or [got] laid off work,” said Lee. “There were more advantages for going back.” 

Lee originally had an international internship in Egypt for the summer, but those plans were derailed due to the pandemic. After the internship fell through,  Lee returned to Seoul and is taking online courses from UVic.

He joins UVic Zoom lectures that begin at midnight South Korean time.

“I’m just glad that we were at least informed of the possibility of getting online courses,” said Lee. “I just wish it was earlier so we could’ve made plans beforehand.”

Lee echoed Rohra’s sentiments that there isn’t much support available to international students at UVic. International students often face systemic barriers in obtaining the part-time employment that would qualify them for CERB, and are explicitly barred from receiving the Canada Emergency Student Benefit (CESB). 

Since May 15, 2020, Canada has allowed international students to complete up to 50 per cent of their degree outside of the country.

While Lee would have preferred to stay in Victoria for the summer, he says he feels safer in South Korea than in Canada. New daily COVID-19 cases there have been reduced by 90 per cent, and schools and businesses are now open. 

“Right now, we are given that option to stay [in our home countries],” he says. “I can get a [free COVID-19] checkup today if I wanted to, and I know exactly where to go to get it,” said Lee. 

Constantly changing travel advisories and the difficulty of international travel also factor into an international student’s decision to come back. For Lee, staying safe is priority number one. 

No trip home in sight due to COVID-19 

Marion Choong is a first-year Health Information Science student from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. She planned her only trip home during her degree for this summer, but ended up stuck in Canada.

“It just kept cancelling and cancelling and just being postponed,” said Choong, who ultimately decided to stop trying to get a flight home, and is now taking three summer courses in addition to working a part-time job at a local Victoria restaurant. 

Even though Choong is feeling homesick, a short trip back home would not be feasible — both Malaysia and Canada require travelers to undergo 14 day quarantines upon arrival. 

Choong isn’t happy about classes being online for the next semester, though she understands the circumstances that have led to the decision. 

“They’re doing what’s best for the school,” said Choong. 

Online classes have their perks, as people can learn at their own pace and rewatch recordings despite a need to adapt, says Choong, who is juggling with her 20 hour per week part-time job. 

Choong says she would prioritize in-person learning if it’s available for the next semester. “I don’t want to be back in Malaysia doing online school at midnight.” 

Choong hopes that she will be able to make a short visit back to Malaysia when quarantine restriction eases. Until then, international students like her will have to live with the tension of having their lives and connections scattered across a world splintered by a global pandemic.