What it’s like to be an international student in Ontario right now

Travel restrictions. Family members far away. During the COVID-19 outbreak, international students across the province are facing difficult choices
By Nick Dunne - Published on Mar 19, 2020
Darshan Shah is a second-year engineering student at Laurentian University, in Sudbury. (Nick Dunne)

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SUDBURY — Darshan Shah, a second-year engineering student at Laurentian University has been fielding questions from his fellow international students. That’s because he’s the person behind the social-media pages for Laurentian International — a university-run program for international students. Classmates want to know about exam-schedule disruptions, online courses, and more. But Shah, a 19-year-old from Ahmedabad, India, has few answers. “It's kind of a challenge,” he says. “But it's okay. Everyone is going through it, so everyone is understanding what the situation is.”

According to an email from the Ontario Ministry of Colleges and Universities, there are 169,689 international post-secondary students in the province; according to the federal government there were more than 721,000 international students in Canada in 2018. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of them are facing difficult decisions.

For example, there’s the question of whether to return home to their families or to self-isolate in Canada. Those looking to travel must navigate an increasingly complicated system involving airlines, Canadian authorities, and evolving travel restrictions in their home countries. Some, like Shah, are holding onto already-purchased plane tickets in the hope that such restrictions will be eased or lifted. His flight is scheduled for next month, but rules may have changed in both countries by then. “I booked my flights with Emirates, so I'm looking forward to hearing from them, because flights might begin to be cancelled because they don't want any new virus [cases] in the country,” Shah says.

Sam Kaiser, on the other hand, didn’t want to wait that long. The film student at Queen’s University has a flight to Hong Kong booked for Saturday. “That's essentially what the plan is — just to go home and be with family,” he says. He is, though, worried that travel rules could change before the weekend — and that, if he is able to leave, the airport will be crowded and tense. “I just know that there's going to be a lot of anxiety in airports just with lots of people around,” he says. “Being in a small metal tube with lots of people for a long time is kind of stressful in this time.”

Others have decided to stay put, at least for the time being. Shaun Phuah, a 22-year-old English student at Trent University, is concerned that he could catch COVID-19 while travelling home to Malaysia and then spread it to his family. “Even if I did go through the airport — is it worth maybe contracting this thing?” Phuah says. “Do I want to do this? And trying to see my mom but then possibly get her sick?

“On a personal level, I'm not too worried, but I am really frustrated with the fact that I may not be able to go home and see my mom this summer,” he says. “She's really my only family member at this point … I go home just specifically to see her.”

Phuah has been closely following the situation in his home country, which has 900 cases as of March 19 — making it one of the hardest-hit countries in southeast Asia. “It's such a weird thing having to hear about everything through text,” he says, “and not be able to physically even be there in person to support people.”

Laurentian has told its roughly 700 international students that, if they want to go home, they should do so as soon as possible. Residences will remain open after the end of the semester for those who stay. “Those who decide to stay on campus, they’re welcome to stay in residence, and we can accommodate different styles of meal plans for those students,” says Justin Lemieux, the director of student recruitment. “We’re not trying to evict them. They need to understand that.”

Incoming international students for the spring semester, which begins in May, will have to defer, Lemieux says: “We are going through this day by day as an institution, alongside all our of peers in the province and across Canada. But we want to ensure the students are well taken care of.”

Lemieux says that post-secondary institutions have been getting daily updates from the Council of Ontario Universities but that, as yet, there’s no provincewide approach to dealing with international students. The COU told TVO.org via email that universities in Ontario continue to follow the guidance of Public Health Ontario and their local Medical Officers of Health. Our universities are responding in different ways to the pandemic based on the local recommendations, the nature of their facilities, needs of students and the societal need to help with efforts to flatten the curve.’”

Ross Romano, the minister of colleges and universities, said in a public statement that “we continue to work with our public health partners at all levels, alongside our postsecondary partners, to protect students and faculty at this critical juncture by providing regular updates on COVID-19 and campus safety.”

Shah has been conferring with family in India. His parents advised him to avoid travelling for the month. “Staying in Sudbury is the safe thing for me to do,” he says. “Even if I go home, I need 14 days of self-isolation.

“Obviously, I’m a little bit upset, because I already planned to go home,” he says. “This thing is really a big deal for me. I have survived this much, though.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Shaun Phuah's surname. TVO.org regrets the error.

Update: This article has been updated with a response from the Council of Ontario Universities.

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northeastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Laurentian University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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