During the Spring semester 2020, The Student Union of the University of Turku (TYY), in cooperation with the University's management and Wellbeing Services, conducted a survey on how the COVID-19 pandemic affected student's daily life, study ability and wellbeing. A total number of 1201 students took part in the survey, representing all Faculties and study fields. Altogether 48 answers were received from international students. Both undergraduate and graduate students from all three University campuses (Turku, Rauma, Pori) shared their experiences. In this blog post, we are going to examine the key answers received from international students.
COVID-19 impact on studying
In the graph below (graph 1), we can see how the corona situation affected international students in different aspects when it comes to studying. Study burden, often linked to enormous pressure, had significantly increased for a whopping number of 46% of respondents. For many, it was difficult to adapt to the quick change from classroom to online teaching. While some were struggling with inadequate place to study, others felt completely alone and were worried that the workload has increased too much. They also expressed missing face-to-face interactions with other students and teachers. Similarly, the availability of material and necessary software got more complicated than before. Some students even reported that accessing library and printing material became difficult. All of this, in turn, affected the students who were struggling to finish their thesis on time and eventually graduate.
The only thing that did not change as much as all the others is study methods, meaning that different departments of the University were able to successfully ensure that teaching continues. Interestingly, more than one third of the respondents (37%) argued that they did not notice any cancelled classes, while another one third (35%) suffered from cancelled classes. Here, the success may very well be because of the fact that Finland is a rich and digitally advanced country. Students were also happy with the network speed. Therefore, University of Turku was able to quickly adapt to the rapidly evolving situation by making the most out of digital learning tools available. University, however, still has a lot to improve, as half of the respondents (50%) pointed out that quality of teaching, to some extent, has become lower and more complicated. Also, aspects such as study motivation, ability to concentrate and study routines severely worsened during the pandemic when most students were forced to stay home and study online. This correlates to mental wellbeing and will be discussed in more detail.
Graph 1: COVID-19 effects on studying in different aspects
The struggle of graduating and thesis
When talking about COVID-19 impact on studies, one cannot avoid the topic of graduation. When asked how the corona period has impacted the writing of one’s thesis (graph 2), 21% described the situation as extremely complicated and 35% said it is complicated. Graduating, and especially graduating on time, for international students has always been a big issue. Unlike Finnish students, many international students worry about the financial and practical issues that may occur if their graduation is postponed or delayed, e.g. issues with a scholarship or residence permit. Furthermore, it is no secret that COVID-19 is having a major influence on international students’ financial security. If one fails to submit his or her thesis on time, then he or she must pay tuition fee for another semester. Moreover, international students also pointed out that finishing their thesis is linked to losing study benefits and later facing difficulties of finding a job in one’s field. Study debts and loans were also mentioned as worrisome topics.
Graph 2: Impact on writing thesis
Rise in student mental health and well-being problems
Many reports, including this one, indicate that international students face distress on daily basis. Also, our questionnaire indicates interesting results that require University’s immediate response to the mental health and well-being needs of their students. Graph 3 displays that more than half of the respondents (54%) are facing challenges in relation to general life management. International students also admit no longer being as active as before, since hobby activities (60%) and physical exercise (71%) have both decreased. While CampusSport may still be available for students, several restrictions have been implemented, thus no longer making their services available for as many students as before.
Results show that aspects such as sleep and rest times, regular eating and use of intoxicants have not changed much. However, shocking results show decrease in social contacts (85%) and increase in loneliness (48%). What people often tend to forget is that international students, in most cases, come to Finland alone, and thus establishing a social circle for them takes a lot of time. What makes it even more challenging is the language barrier and cultural differences. When students have no other choice but to study online and avoid social contact, serious health issues can develop. With the increased loneliness and lack of social interaction our fellow students are facing right now, one can only be concerned about the mental health and well-being problems others are facing.
Graph 3: Everyday life changes after COVID-19
How to help international students?
For some international students, the stigma and shame associated with mental help reduces the likelihood of them reaching out for help. However, TYY encourages all students to openly talk about their experiences and to always reach out whenever help is needed. Our organisations, too, are advised to include international students in their activities, whether that may be a Zoom coffee break, cottage weekend or others. As a community, students are strong and supportive, so why not extend the help? For Finnish students, establishing close relationships with international students can serve as a unique way of home internationalization that is very much needed these days.
Through these difficult times, it is crucial to stay positive and get in touch with others online. That is why International Sector will go live on Zoom on Wednesday, September 30 from 15:30-16:30. Join our live session with or without a video and with or without a microphone. Chat is an option, too!