Being an international student during the pandemic — to stay or to not stay?

How SFU failed to support me when deciding where to locate

Photo courtesy of SFU C19 Coalition.

By My Huyen Le, Contributor

On March 12, 2020, four group members and I spent Thursday night discussing our projects over shared tuna stacks at Cactus Club Cafe. That night was the last time we got to see each other in-person, as none of us could have imagined that on March 17, the university would physically shut down. 

Of the many questions I’ve asked myself since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, one lingers. Should I be in Vietnam, where my family is, or should I be here, in Canada, where I can continue my studies and maintain student status? 

Being an international student is not easy to begin with, especially during the pandemic  — and it’s compounded by the fact that the university we attend doesn’t support us. 

I came to Canada when I was 17 and have been living alone for nearly 10 years. With no one to rely on, I am pretty much an expert in taking care of myself, even in the most difficult of times. I cautiously prepared myself for the pandemic. I stocked my shelves with rice, dried foods, and toilet paper; equipped myself with rubbing alcohol; and cleaned my doorknobs, shoes, and clothes after I came home. I was ready for the long quarantine — or so I thought I was.

Everything around me was eerily quiet. The construction noises I had hated so much had stopped. The streets were empty. The sounds of music and of laughter from people barbecuing during the weekends disappeared. If not for the weekly class on Zoom, I would have thought I was living in a post-apocalyptic world.

Not too long ago, my mom urged me to sign up for the Vietnamese government’s rescue plan to go home as soon as possible. Before hanging up, she told me, “At least at home you have me to take care of you.”

That’s when it began. I missed my mom’s wonderful dishes; her chicken mushroom recipe that she always cooks for me when I came home during Christmas, the soft but chewy texture of the chicken, the aromatic smell of mushroom that had been cooked for hours, and the richness of the soup that can be eaten with either bread or rice.

“Home” tugged at me, shattering the independent self that I had been building for years. I wanted to be with my family. I wanted to taste my mom’s dishes again, hear her nagging about my messiness, and I wanted to start stupid fights with my brothers. 

Unfortunately, there was no guarantee that I would see my family anytime soon. It made me feel more alone than ever.

It would have been nice, going back to Vietnam. Businesses there gradually reopened throughout the summer. I would’ve spent my time driving to the beach, soaking myself in the warm ocean, collecting seashells, and enjoying the finest and freshest seafood.

Despite that, I made the decision to stay in Canada to keep my student status.

I still have some savings to rely on for daily needs, which takes some financial burden off my shoulders. But other international students do not have it as easy; they must deal with the emotional toll from being away from their families and that of worrying about paying their bills — and if they’ve lost their jobs due to COVID-19, how to compete for new ones.

Most international students don’t qualify for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, given many don’t work during the school year. Also, we do not have access to the Canada Emergency Student Benefit. For all those reasons, I wished international students like myself could receive more financial support from SFU.

Other universities have taken measures to support their students during the pandemic. For instance, Douglas College negotiated a U-Pass exemption with TransLink. Thompson Rivers University cut its student activity fees by 25%, even with having its facilities opened. 

SFU, instead, raised tuition fees as scheduled by 4% for international students, doubled the domestic students’ fees, left U-Pass fees as is, and kept student activity fees, despite the fact that most of those activities are not taking place. 

SFU prides itself on being unconventional, compassionate, and “ready”. We need SFU to demonstrate its compassion, its readiness to act, and that they care about all their students.

Many other international students will have returned to their home countries under circumstances different than mine. Deciding whether or not to stay in Canada is undoubtedly one of the most difficult choices that an international student makes during what can be lonely and uncertain times. 

I hope that my story brings attention to some of the many struggles international students experience and helps them understand that they are not alone.