Are international students better prepared for COVID-19?

International students make vital contributions to campuses in the United States: They bring distinctive cultural perspectives and ideas, power innovation in their fields and promote economic growth domestically and internationally.

While it is well-documented how international students impact the campus communities they belong to, less often discussed is the kind of people international students become in college. Whether they return home or stay in the US after graduation, what kind of neighbours and citizens will they be?

Led by research teams at the Ohio State University, North Carolina State University and Interfaith Youth Core, our national mixed-methods study (IDEALS) is uncovering how rich diversity in college affects domestic and international students at over 120 colleges and universities.

Given the current global challenges brought on by COVID-19, we are particularly interested in students’ level of agreement (for instance, if they strongly agree or somewhat agree) with these statements:

• I frequently think about the global problems of our time and how I will contribute to resolving them.

• I am actively learning about people across the globe who have different religious and cultural ways of life than I do.

• I am committed to leading efforts in collaboration with people of other religious and non-religious perspectives to create positive changes in society.

We discovered that overall, international students in their senior year bested domestic US students in their likelihood to somewhat/strongly agree (hereafter “agree”) with all three of the statements above.

A higher percentage of international students agreed that they are frequently thinking about how to resolve global problems (80% vs 78% of domestic students), actively learning about people across the globe (78% vs 70% of domestic students), and committed to leading efforts to improve society (66% vs 63% of domestic students).

COVID-19 introduces an important context for interpreting these data points. Rarely does an issue – health or otherwise – grab global attention to the degree that COVID-19 has.

World Health Organization (WHO) Chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus recently suggested that a lack of global leadership and solidarity in combating the virus is perhaps an even greater threat than the epidemic itself.

“The world is in desperate need of national unity and global solidarity. The politicisation of the pandemic has exacerbated it,” Tedros said at a virtual health forum in Dubai. Our findings suggest that international students are best prepared to answer this call.


To better understand the survey data, our research team interviewed students at 18 colleges and universities around the country. One of the prevailing themes from our interviews with international students is that they often join international student clubs, which promote frequent exchanges with peers of diverse backgrounds on campus.

One student at a small private religious college told us: “Our international student club is the only club on campus that will never endorse or be affiliated with any certain religion, because we are an organisation comprised of students from all different countries, all different faiths and we are open to discussion of all different faiths.”

Each year, the club arranges a highly popular international education week on campus. Events throughout the week celebrate diversity on campus and offer opportunities for all students to learn about different cultures.

Many of our interviewees were eager to study international business, where they collaborated with peers from around the world on class projects. One student at a public university in Illinois told us about a group research project on a start-up company in South Africa.

“There were four team members: One from Japan, one from the US, one from South Africa and I am from East Asia,” the student said, adding that each group member drew from their cultural background to make a unique contribution to the project.

Other students described encounters with diverse peers at international student orientation, on excursions with their host families and on special days when they wore their cultural clothing on campus.

One student at a public university in Iowa told us that, on the day of multicultural gatherings on campus, it was common for students to wear their traditional garb throughout the day. This drew curiosity and questions from domestic students. “People usually comment, ‘Hey, you are differently dressed. So what is this? Tell us about your rings or your shoes or whatever,’” the student explained, adding: “This is how these conversations started, and now we are getting closer.”

These recurring encounters with diverse peers pushed international students to become very comfortable living, learning and leading in pluralistic settings. “Being an international student...it is comfortable for me to be in more diverse settings,” one student told us.

Another student said: “I've been given opportunities, skills and resources to help develop myself, better the life of myself and others around me and finally leave the world as a better place.”

These perspectives dovetail with the many inspiring stories of international students leaving a positive mark on the world. In a 2017 piece entitled “Why we need international students”, Arizona State University President Michael Crow tells the story of Ngoni Mugwisi, an electrical engineering student from Zimbabwe who grew up without electricity. Mugwisi was awarded a Rhodes scholarship to study at Oxford, in the hope that he could help provide solutions for Zimbabwe’s energy issues.

“Not only has he launched a project to extract ground water for wells using solar energy, he also started a student group called Africa Rises to promote African culture and dispel myths about his continent,” Crow remarks.

Addressing the COVID challenges

Our findings on international students are timely, as COVID-19 is making it extremely difficult for them to study in the US next year. US embassies around the world are closed. There’s no way to get a visa. Across higher education, students are choosing to attend remotely or defer their studies for a semester or a whole year. Those who have funding to attend school (including most graduate students) are required to be in the US physically or they have to forfeit their funding.

Furthermore, the Trump administration continues to pass legislation that undermines the desirability of studying in the US in the first place.

Many international students pursue a college degree in the US in the hope that they can work in the country after graduation. President Trump’s recent executive order to suspend non-immigrant work visa programmes, however, extinguishes that possibility for the time being.

While pushback on the order revolves around the economic impact of losing international students, an argument could be made that the greatest cost to the US will be losing out on international talent that is better prepared than its own citizens to address the massive challenges that COVID-19 brings.

“Nations have largely struggled to confront COVID-19 in isolation rather than teaming up on global solutions,” writes Katie Shonk, a researcher at Harvard Law School. “That ‘go it alone’ approach had bred dysfunctional competition for scarce resources, a shortage of creative solutions and enormous inefficiencies.”

She concludes: “Greater collaboration and coordination are needed to improve global leadership surrounding the crisis.”

Our findings suggest that US international students, of whom over 300 current and former world leaders are a part, are poised to play a significant role in fostering this collaboration and coordination. For example, Haiyue Huang, a graduate student at Northwestern, collaborated with a team of international researchers to identify new ways to stop the spread of infectious diseases. “Crises like the COVID-19 pandemic transcends all types of boundaries...I hope to see people breaking the boundaries and working together to create solutions,” Huang said.

In this season marked by unprecedented challenges across the globe, colleges in the US and abroad should prize their international students not only for how they benefit their campuses, but for the undeniable contributions they will make toward solving those challenges brought on by COVID-19 in the coming years.

Kevin Singer (@kevinsinger0) is a PhD student in higher education at North Carolina State University in the United States and a research associate for IDEALS. Matthew J Mayhew (@MattJMayhewPhD) is the William Ray and Marie Adamson Flesher professor of educational administration at Ohio State University in the US and co-principal investigator of IDEALS. Alyssa N Rockenbach is a professor and alumni distinguished graduate professor of higher education at North Carolina State University in the US and co-principal investigator of IDEALS.