Supporting international students amid the Omicron wave

According to the Open Doors enrolment report, the total number of international students at universities in the United States dropped by 15% in the 2020-21 academic year, down from 1,075,496 in 2019-20 to 914,095.

Also, there has been a decline in the number of students from China (14.8%) and India (13.2%), which are the largest two sources of origin for international students coming to the United States.

First-time enrolment of college freshmen fell 26.3%. International student enrolments in graduate programmes also dropped 12.1% on the previous academic year.

However, the findings from the Fall 2021 International Student Enrollment Snapshot “point to a potential rebound of international student totals in the 2021-22 academic year, with further recovery in future years”.

There are many factors that may be influencing enrolment rates, such as US immigration policies, including the threats to the Optional Practical Training programmes, the stability of the economy and finding employment after graduation, and travel and visa delays.

The global COVID-19 pandemic has also offered additional hurdles. Many students fear for their health and their families’ health as well as their job stability and their ability to pay tuition fees as many have been facing economic challenges in their own countries.

As we started the 2022 year, the Omicron variant has given us a hiccup in the higher education system. Many universities and colleges were looking to a new year that would provide us with new hope for things to go back to normal and in-person classes once again.

With the rise of COVID-19 cases at the beginning of the year, many colleges and universities decided to start the semester virtually. That means that many college students will be completing about half of the semester online and then possibly transitioning to in-person teaching later.

As we continue with these COVID uncertainties, there are a few things that we can do to assure international students that the campus is supporting all of their educational needs whether they are studying remotely, hybrid or in-person. We need to support international students whether they are in the United States and away from their family members or in their home countries taking remote classes.

The following are some ideas.

Increase mental health support

Many students have lost loved ones due to COVID-19. Besides everything that is happening with the pandemic, students may be feeling overwhelmed by the pressure to support their families abroad emotionally but also financially as the economy is suffering in many countries.

Those are just a few issues that international students may face currently besides having to adjust to a new culture and way of life far away from home.

Providing mental health resources to students is one of the most important ways to help them during these difficult times. Resources can be shared via emails, newsletters, social media, workshops and during appointments. In many countries, seeking help for your mental health is stigmatised. Therefore, we have to instil the message that seeking help for their well-being and mental health is crucial.

Use campus resources

The pandemic is affecting each student differently. Besides mental health issues, students may also face financial barriers. Many students may be relying on income to pay for tuition and expenses.

As the economy has been struggling during the past couple of years and many are losing their jobs, some international students may struggle to get food or other personal care items.

Therefore, we should be reminding students of the different resources available on campus with regard to food security and personal care products that can be accessible to them.

Instil a sense of belonging

With the rise of the pandemic, many international students across the United States have reported some experiences of discrimination. We have to help students feel that they belong in the community.

We should promote intercultural engagement and one way would be through campus and department events that spread and promote a message of safety and belongingness.

Finally, we have to ensure that staff working with students are culturally competent and that they are able to identify micro-aggressions when witnessed and act on them.

These are a few suggestions that campuses can consider when working with international students.

Dema Youhanna is a masters programme advisor at the University of California, San Diego in the United States, and has a master of science degree in counselling.