1 July 2020

International student experiences during the corona crisis

Student life

Many international students at the University of Copenhagen felt lonely, anxious and useless during the lockdown of the University and Danish society. This is the conclusion of a new study carried out by four researchers at the Department of Anthropology and the Department of Sociology at UCPH in collaboration with the external research institute Epinion.

From late April to early May 2020, 881 international students at UCPH, both full degree (78%) and exchange students (22%), completed a survey regarding their reactions to the lockdown. According to the study, during the lockdown every second student sometimes or often felt useless, more than half sometimes or often felt lonely and two thirds sometimes or often felt anxious. Two thirds of the students were still in Copenhagen at the time of the survey, while one third had left.

“International students were particularly affected by the lockdown that struck Denmark when the Danish Prime Minister sent us all home in March [2020]. They have lacked a social network in Copenhagen and, in many cases, they have picked up health information from their home countries,” says Bjarke Oxlund, Head of the Anthropology Department.

Losing your sense of belonging

The students’ inability to work on campus, in libraries and cafés around the city affected their motivation but also their sense of belonging to Danish society. As  one student said: ”(I) feel more lonely and disconnected to the Danish society”. It is common for international students to experience culture shock and a lack of belonging when beginning their exchange in a new country, but the pandemic intensified some of these experiences.

Another element to students’ experience is the ability to access news from their home country. One student reflects on the difficulties in keeping up with news from the Danish authorities: “At times, it’s hard to follow the continuous updates […]. These matters do not receive the same kind of coverage as major measures. I find it the worst to not get in-class teaching, as a large part of my social life revolves around the classroom.”

Many students have found the information that UCPH has shared with the students useful. Nevertheless, it is difficult for international students to follow the continuous stream of news about guidelines and restrictions coming from the authorities.  The study shows that many students tend to follow well-known international media and news from home. This can seem easier and offers a kind of familiarity, which can have a certain comforting effect.

A very different experience

When Denmark closed down in March 2020, the University of Copenhagen switched to online lectures, but it was a very different academic experience than what the students came for, and some students found it difficult to adjust and stay motivated.

It is safe to say that a national lockdown is not an ideal situation, and it is definitely not an ideal situation for the well-being of international students. During the lockdown, 41 percent of the students felt less happy and one third of the students described their mental health as not good.

South Campus. Photo by Rasmus Degnbol
Student at South Campus. Photo by Rasmus Degnbol.

These numbers are concerning but not surprising. Considering the abrupt change of the semester, the numbers illustrate the major change of circumstances that the students had to overcome. When choosing to study abroad, students typically seek an experience where they are an active part of a study environment, meet teachers, fellow students and new friends and make use of campus and city life. The students’ encounters with life in Copenhagen ended up being very different from what they had anticipated.

One student puts it like this: “Anxious and lost over the current situation and uncertainty of the future. Longing to return to a city where I had some unforgettable experiences and hoped to make more memories.”

Social networks

It was a PhD student at the Department of Anthropology, Brian Noel McGahey, who got the idea for the study. Because of COVID-19, he was prevented from conducting fieldwork with elderly people about loneliness for his PhD thesis. Instead, he began interviewing his peers in the international student dorm in Frederiksberg, where he has spent virtually all of his time since March.

“It has been difficult for most,” says Brian who is originally from Ireland.

“As an international student, you typically have a social network that consists only of other international students. When many people went home immediately after the lockdown, this fragile network became even more vulnerable.”

According to Heiko Henkel, Head of Studies at the Department of Anthropology, there is a good explanation behind the numbers showing a strong sense of uncertainty among the international students:

South Campus. Photo by Rasmus Degnbol.
Student at Faculty of Law. Photo by Rasmus Degnbol.

“If you study at an English or American university, often you will live on the campus site and be affiliated with a student health centre. You will have a much closer relationship with the university and there will be one place to go if you need help. In Denmark, everyone is connected to a Danish-language health system outside the university, and it can be difficult to navigate this system when coming from outside.”

Lessons to be learned

75 percent of the international students were wholly or partly satisfied with the initiatives taken by the University of Copenhagen during the corona crisis, and for Henkel, it is important to stress that many Danish students have also had difficulties coping with the lockdown of society. Still, he calls the study among international students a wake-up call.

Almost every second student does not know where to seek advice or help in relation to mental health issues. “We have foreign students who feel left behind and left to a system outside the University they don't understand. If we want a good international study environment, we need to take more care of the students,” Henkel says, calling for a discussion on how the university can forge closer ties with the international students in the future.

So does Charlotte Baarts, Associate professor and Head of Studies at the Department of Sociology, who has also contributed to the study.

“We have a responsibility to help international students become better integrated at UCPH. It would have helped them with their studies during the current situation with the COVID-19 pandemic, where many have travelled home but still are following lectures online. And in general, better integration with Danish students and stronger social networks will give international students a better study environment – also when staying in Copenhagen.”

Ending on a positive note

The study has certainly given food for thought at UCPH, and we will use the student feedback in our continued work with our international students. The work with this study will be continued and different departments at the university will dig deeper into some of these results and use them as a stepping-stone in the work that they do for and with the international students.

City Campus. Photographer Jakob Dall
City Campus. Photographer Jakob Dall.

Even though there is no doubt that there is work to do, it’s also important to highlight some of the more positive reactions to the lockdown. Some of the students elaborated on their situation, some of them managed to create small communities in their dorms, and some students experienced closer connections to their roommates. One students puts it like this: “

“(I) live with other international students which is nice for us all as we have people to physically interact with rather than via social media. We have also tried to make the most of the time together by having dinners, watching movies etc.”

By Simone Hauskov & Anne Bruun