Since COVID-19 first broke out, and border restrictions came into place in March 2020, many international students studying in China have found themselves locked out of the country.
China is typically home to just under 500,000 international students annually, and although some are currently inside the country, many are not.
Thousands of international students have found themselves tasked with studying remotely via two possible methods:
Watching recordings of lessons and missing out on in-class participation
Attending live classes that fall outside of working hours in their time zones – leading to lower levels of participation and interaction
Initially having traveled home during the winter vacation to see family members, many anticipated returning for the beginning of the academic year in 2020. However, these international students were met with encouragement from universities not to return if they had already left to help prevent further spread of the virus.
Expecting things would quickly resolve, many willingly obliged by remaining outside of the country and patiently keeping updated with developments from their schools, only to discover that China’s border closure on March 28, 2020, meant they could not return even if they chose to.
The measures were strict, but students generally understood, especially as they were witnessing the beginning of protective measures in their own countries. After China saw great success in its measures and started to slowly relax border control and allow non-Chinese nationals to return for family, business or work-related issues, the majority of students remained excluded from the exemption. For a brief period, students from South Korea were also able to return.
As of August 2020, international students receiving scholarships from China were informed that their living stipends would be suspended – as they were not in China – and would be returned in full to the students upon their return to their universities. However, for many who are graduating this summer, it remains unclear whether a backlog will be paid. Many students are falling into financial struggles, as they relied on stipends to sustain them over the tough period.
Further issues have arisen for students who intended to suspend a semester or a whole year – students with scholarships were informed that they may risk losing their scholarship by suspending the year too, deterring many from doing so. Equally, students without scholarships have continued to pay tuition and fees as well as apartment costs – adding to their financial burdens.
Universities are still enrolling students, although many do not know whether or not they will be learning online. Students who started in the summer of 2020 will have completed a whole year of online classes if they do not return to their campuses before the end of the 2021 summer semester.
We spoke to a couple of students about their academic experiences over the past year. (These students asked to remain anonymous for this article.)
One Ph.D. student from Pakistan – whose studies are based in Chengdu – returned home in January 2020 for a brief family visit. He left his laptop and all matters related to work back in China.
When the outbreak started, he was encouraged by his teachers not to return because of the outbreak and the school put measures in place to deter students from returning.
His work is lab-based, and he has no classes, so his research has remained on hold indefinitely for a year now, but he is currently in his final year. As a scholarship student, his stipend has been paused since August 2020 and he is having trouble landing a job given that his educational documents remain in China.
He doesn’t want to give up his family’s dream of him completing his Ph.D., and remains hopeful he can return soon, but he is uncertain of what the next step is. He has said that his university is good at keeping in contact and trying to assist where possible.
Another student from Pakistan, a third-year oral surgery student based in Hubei province, also left last January to spend her winter vacation at home, and was stuck outside the country after the border restrictions were enforced. At her university, online classes could not be arranged due to time differences, so she continues to miss out on her education and dream of graduating on time with her classmates.
Understandably, there is a lot of confusion and frustration for these students who remain trapped in ‘limbo.’ While all students are facing disadvantages to some extent, those in programs that require in-person participation, lab work or compulsory internships are especially vulnerable as they run the risk of not being able to complete their degree at all.
Students have created support networks to help each other through this uncertain time, with communications and updates shared regularly in large WeChat groups, Instagram accounts and hashtags shared on Twitter, mainly #TakeUsBackToSchool and #TakeUsBackToChina.
Many students regularly contact their embassies and ask for updates to keep their struggle at the forefront of the collective mind of the diplomatic community, and to encourage the sharing of any new updates.
There is also a live petition that’s been signed by over 8,500 students stuck outside of China who eagerly wish to return.
While the pandemic is still raging on, these students remain hopeful that the situation improves and they can return to China to complete their studies at some point, and forget the past year.
[Cover image via Unsplash]