In Conversation with Sebastian Smith: Understanding the Impact of COVID-19 for International Students in Higher Education

By Betelehem Gulilat, Lead Writer and Editor 

What makes the international student experience different from those of domestic students?  Since the pandemica new set of challenges has emerged on top of the pre-pandemic realm of campus life that international students are valiantly navigating. In turning to our vibrant and diverse community at UofT, we hope to spark discussions by bringing student stories to light.

Sebastian Smith outdoors smiling at the camera
Sebastian Smith

Meet Sebastian

had the honour to speak with Sebastian, a second-year student from the Netherlands studying English and Geology at UofT. During our Zoom Meeting, he mentioned how he’d recently arrived in Canada after being in the Netherlands since the lockdown in March. I asked him what that was like as a first-year international student. After taking a deep breath, he shared how it was a stressful experience. On-campus residences accommodated international students during the lockdown, which was indeed reassuring, but Sebastian didn’t know how long he could stay in residence. Plus, the possibility of getting sick in Canada without any family nearby was a real concern – and was ultimately why he decided to return to the Netherlands. Over this period, Sebastian expressed how lucky he felt to return home. 

The Reality of Virtual Learning  

Time zone differences can be widespread barrier for international students, especially when attending synchronous lectures remotely. I asked Sebastian whether he missed having in-person classes, and to my surprise, he said, “Not really, all my classes are online... my in-person classes have a live-stream going, but it seems to be taught for students who are able to attend inperson.” Sebastian felt that asynchronous lectures were ultimately more supportive of his online learning because it offered more flexibility for him to engage in his studies.  

Between the Netherlands and Canada, there is also six-hour time difference which meant Sebastian was unable to work since most of his classes started at night. He wondered what it must be like for international students with other obligationsstaying up all night for their classes or research, to wake up the next morning to return for work. As a Transitions Mentor at Victoria College, Sebastian mentioned how many of his first-year mentees living outside of Canada shared the same sentiment. Sebastian thinks courses can be offered in a standardized format that is accessible to all students, to help teach a broader audience.  

Sebastian was thinking of taking a gap year this school year which was mostly financially driven. When searching for scholarships, he found that international students often don’t meet the criteria. This can be an added burden if student’s families have lost their jobsare working fewer hours, or caring for family members who are ill. For many international students, the hope is to receive a permanent residence to fulfill their plans and dreams – which is only possible once you’ve worked a year in Canada. With many studying remotely in their home countries, students’ dreams are put on hold due to this reality. 

Acknowledging Types of Support

I asked Sebastian whether he felt a sense of support through his virtual learning experienceWith regard to his academic life, he expressed how he was aware of resources offered by his faculty; however, it felt like the larger issue wasn’t being acknowledged. Virtual events, like yoga or wellness workshops, are one way of supporting students. However, he also believes students’ well-being is often tied to their academic success. 

Sebastian felt a sense of support from his professors. For instance, some professors have been pro-active in making their course material accessible for all students online (e.g. readings or course materials). This has been incredibly helpful for him. Other students have noted how important it has been for required courses to be offered at different times. By focusing on ways to enhance accessibility for international studentsSebastian feels that students’ academic journey and overall wellbeing will be better supported.  

As Sebastian and I discussed many of these nuances, I appreciated how much he had thought about the needs and lived experiences of all students. Understandably, international students are navigating a foreign country at a foreign time, and as such, are more dependent than ever on the university. Through all of this, Sebastian was able to receive support from the Centre for International Experience (CIE) to work out details for his visa and plan his finances with the help of the Registrar’s Office in order to return to campus this year.  

By highlighting some of these tensions, we hope to think of how we can continually support students in these times.  

Resources for UofT International Students


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