Living alone in a foreign country during a pandemic

A few weeks ago, I came across my old notebook and I was glancing through the pages. I saw a note from one of my friends who used to sit next to me in class. It was then that the reality hit me that I miss in-person classes and that I thrive in group settings. I knew learning in isolation was going to be tough and I wasn’t prepared to face my worst nightmare. I am ironically living the dream now!

As a third-year PhD student, one would think that I usually have it all figured out. I mean, for those who know me, it would be easy to assume that this pandemic wasn’t going to push me into panic mode. But, frankly, it did.

I remember the first days when I started hearing about COVID-19 cases rising in Colorado every day. I would wake up to check how the numbers were changing. Until, one day, I realised that I was losing it all. My anxiety went through the roof when I learned that universities were to be closed and that we were going to continue the rest of the quarter virtually.

I was perplexed and terrified. I am an international student living in a foreign country during a pandemic.

Staying motivated

One of my hacks of surviving grad school as an international student is creating rapport with people. I find social networks very important when it comes to knowing and learning how to navigate the system. In-person classes created such opportunities for me to connect with other students on a personal level, which allowed me to get accustomed to the new environment, culture and system really quickly. I was leveraging this social capital until COVID-19 came into the picture which forced schools to pivot to virtual learning.

This is where the story takes a different turn.

If you ask me, this is the most challenging circumstance I have ever experienced as a student. Frankly, online learning in its entirety is great but, when you are forced to take this route because of a pandemic, the story is different. It is difficult to be motivated to stay on the course when you are isolated and all you think about is how to get along as an international student during a pandemic.

The isolation was even more difficult for me because I am away from my family and this is the time that I needed them the most. I needed the social and emotional support from my loved ones.

Truthfully, online learning has come with its perks and one them is the possibility of learning from an environment where I feel safe and comfortable. Especially now, when there is a probability of meeting people who recklessly throw racial microaggressions and comments towards people of colour, more especially Africans. I have heard enough through the years and I have trained my mind to avoid disappointments whenever I can.

Thanks to online learning, this time around, I am able to control who gets access to me and who doesn’t. Additionally, as an international student, it is sometimes difficult to engage in classes where I have no personal relationships with my classmates. Online learning eliminated the pressure of trying so hard to meet new people and get accustomed to the new classroom norms and culture.

Classes on campus

I never thought that a day would come when I was going to admit that attending classes on campus is a privilege. I am beginning to realise that I need to be in a school building to feel energised to study. I have also realised that I found safe spaces where my brain was ready to work. The swift move (to online) was a distraction. My brain is lost, so am I. While I am trying to stay engaged and focused, my brain just won’t let go. I needed to get back into that safe space again for my sanity.

I miss attending classes on-campus. While my commute was short, since I live close to campus, I still miss walking by the student dorms and seeing the crazy things happening around campus. These everyday happenings would give me something to laugh about. I remember those days when I would just tune in to my favourite podcast as I slowly walked back home. This was usually a time for me to reflect and rejuvenate after a long day of work and classes.

I have come to realise that it is these small things that kept my sanity. I have discovered healthy coping mechanisms and tools. It took the pandemic for me to realise that I lived for school and nothing else. I never had a life outside that. My anxiety was shooting because, for the first time, I was challenged to evaluate my mental health. I simply needed a break. I needed to slow down.

The more I practise self-care, the more I am beginning to realise that online learning isn’t as bad as I thought. I can still engage with people when and how I want to, but I must just put in extra effort to network. Again, this isn’t easy when you are an international student. Sometimes I am just not ready to be judged by my accent or background… but this is a story for another day…

Anyway, while online learning has been working to my advantage, I cannot rule out the hiccups I have been facing. From a lack of familiarity with some technology and online platforms to the feeling of being isolated due to COVID-19 social distancing regulations.

Also, with a possible change in visa regulations due to COVID-19 and virtual learning, the uncertainty about what the future holds for international students is also weighing heavily on me. Even with all this in mind, I still have hopes and dreams!

Rachel Kamnkhwani is from Malawi and is pursuing a PhD in educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Denver in Colorado, United States.