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Impact of COVID-19 on International Students in the U.S: Problems Challenging Mental Health

October 10th is Mental Health Day, and there is no better topic than discussing the importance of mental health of students in the U.S, especially those who have been away from their hometowns, suffering from the plight of uncertainty, fear, and hopelessness.

Credit: Steve S. Li (The Harvard Crimson)

The pandemic has imposed great challenges on many communities, one of them is the international students. With this crazy year coming to an end in two months, great concerns continue to emerge among international students who have been tremendously impacted by COVID-19 since the beginning.

Disruption of Plans

For many people, one of the most direct impacts of COVID-19 is the disruption of plans. And for international students, in particular, this impact has amplifying consequences that have added more burden to their plate of adapting to new changes. One crucial decision that many international students have to face is to choose whether to stay abroad or travel back to their home countries. Both paths face tremendous difficulties. Staying in the U.S means that they would need to find places for long-term housing and traveling back home raises concerns regarding health, safety, and educational quality. In February and March when the pandemic first hits the U.S, for instance, many international students who wanted to travel back to their home countries had a very difficult time buying plane tickets, and many faced unexpected cancellations and ticket frauds that further added salt to their wounds.

Academic challenges

With more and more universities across the U.S. are forced to shut down or postpone their reopening plans due to raising COVID-cases on campus, many students have to spend the first year of their college at home through distance learning. For international students, however, it is not that simple. International students have long been paying more money than domestic students to attend colleges in the U.S, which makes them especially susceptible to the unbalance between expensive college tuition and educational quality as more and more schools decide to continue their school year online. Study in isolation is nowhere near in-person instructions. Students sitting in front of a laptop, staring at a few boxes of faces on Zoom, is not the same as walking across a beautiful campus immersed in inspiration and a rich, empowering academic atmosphere. There is also the issue of the time difference, where many international students who chose to study in their home country find themselves waking up two or three in the morning to take a zoom class or listen to a lecture online. Adjusting to these changes can be immensely difficult, and many expectations for an enriching, transformative educational experience can not be fulfilled.


On September 25th, the Trump administration proposed a new policy that would impose a four-year limit on student visas and demand procedures for an extended stay. Right now, international students can stay in the U.S for a “duration of status”, which means that they may stay in the U.S as long as they are enrolled in the school. Under this new policy, international students will require to request for an extended stay “if the additional time needed is due to a compelling academic reason, documented medical illness or medical condition, or circumstance that was beyond the student’s control,” While this new policy immediately raised great concerns regarding the future legal status of current international students here in the U.S, it also shut the door for the potential of integrating more creativity and innovation in world-class institutions. If this policy is successfully implemented, students who initially plan to pursue an education in the U.S may need to rethink their plans for the future.

“Sadly, this proposal sends another message to immigrants, and in particular international students and exchange visitors, that their exceptional talent, work ethic, diverse perspectives, and economic contributions are not welcome in the United States."---Esther D. Brimmer, executive director and CEO of NAFSA: Association of International Educators
Credit: WES

What factors are challenging the mental health status of international students?

Prolonged stress

Making optimal choices in difficult times undoubtedly causes greater stress and anxiety regarding plans for the future. Many students had to face problems ranging from the quality of education to the basic way of living, which only piles up the immense stress that they already have resulted from academic work and social life. Chronic stress can disrupt healthy coping and lead to increased risks of depression. With all the challenging situations that international students are currently facing, mental health concerns resulted from prolonged stress have increased substantially in the past few months.


Another factor is uncertainty about the future. International students find themselves during this time deeply worried about their choices and how they will impact their academic path and career. Concerns regarding housing options, graduation status, and new visa policies all converge to growing anxiety and stress.


Being in isolation is not easy and it has been even more difficult for international students who are away from their home and family. Despite all the stress and challenges, many students still didn’t want others to worry so they choose to bury their negative emotions instead of opening themselves up to seek help and support. Such disposition often deteriorates their mindset and attitudes that further threatens their mental health.

"The experience is powerful. No judgment is passed. Tips are offered. Hearts are connected.” ----Yi Zhou, an international student at Vanderbilt University who participated in the group from MAZE Partners

What can we do to help?


Talking to a friend or someone who shares similar experiences is one of the most effective ways to cope with the increasing stress and anxiety resulting from changes and uncertainty about the future. Finding connection and understanding within each other can be a truly empowering and supportive experience. There are many organizations that offer help to international students who have been struggling with their experience abroad. MAZE Partners, for instance, is a non-profit organization that provides services and resources for peer support groups of international students and has helped many of the lost souls to seek hope and motivation again.


Despite all the challenges the international student community has faced in the past few months, the educational community in the U.S has offered help and support that aim to ameliorate their stress and address their concerns in various ways. For instance, although there were stricter policies implemented for international students to study in the US, many universities have demonstrated immense support to international students. The lawsuit between multiple elite institutions and the ICE for the new rule on international students is a clear example of how institutions united to fight for constructing a place with greater hospitality and tolerance for international students in the U.S. As the 2020-2021 school year unfolds, some universities also offer opportunities for international students to earn academic credit in their home countries through their “Go Local” programs. Cornell, for example, partners with 16 different universities in Asia and Europe that allow international students to “study away” while still experiencing the Cornellian culture through co-curricular activities and resources.

Students protesting for the new ICE policy on international students. (Credit: Boston Herald)

International students have faced enormous challenges during this moment of history, and problems regarding their mental health have raised great concerns. However, It is crucial to raise more awareness regarding the mental health of not only those who are especially vulnerable to drastic changes but also that of many others: family members, friends, social workers, peers, etc. and offer our help. Like the theme set by the World Federation for Mental Health for this year’s Mental Health Day, we need to protect the “mental health for all”, by taking a simple initiative to care, support and act.

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