Resilience on a roller coaster: Confronting the pandemic as international students

Anya Zhao is an international student from China. Image: Calo Huang

When Anya Zhao returned to Australia from China at the end of January 2020, she thought of herself as "pretty lucky".

In a sense, she was—two days after her arrival, Australia closed its borders to all arrivals from China due to an escalating coronavirus outbreak that would soon evolve into the COVID-19 pandemic. By the end of March 2020, the Australian borders to all non-citizens and non-residents were shut.

So while hundreds of thousands of international students got locked out of Australia during border closure, Anya came back just in time so she could carry on her study and lab work.

But in a pandemic, being onshore doesn't mean becoming immune to challenges and disruptions. And to Anya, what hit her unguarded was her life's "biggest disruption".

Hard hit

"Half of my closest family members passed away during the pandemic," said Anya, "But I couldn't go home."

Due to travel restrictions in Australia and quarantine rules in China, there was no quick way back home. Even if Anya could find a flight and risk not being able to re-enter Australia anytime soon, she would have to quarantine four weeks before getting back to her family.

"Everything would have already been arranged by the time I get back," she sighed.

With resignation, Anya remained in Australia and went on digesting the grief on her own.

"I just had to deal with it myself," she said, "It was constantly stressful, but I know I'm not the only one going through this same feeling."

Indeed, while not everyone underwent multiple family losses as Anya did, many shared the feeling of homesickness, apprehensiveness and helplessness during the pandemic.

According to a recent survey by the Council of International Students Australia, nine out of ten international students reported to experienced stress during the first year of the pandemic.

"It made everything extra hard," said Khaing Phyu Aung, a third-year PhD student from Myanmar, "The pandemic not only affected me academically but also removed my chance to visit my family back home, making me extremely homesick."

"Because of stress, I was less socially active during the pandemic, and the lockdown made us very lonely. "Phyu said, "This, all combined, made me less productive overall."

International students have faced similar difficulties during the pandemic. Image: Khaing Phyu Aung

Phyu is the international representative for HDR students at JCSMR and a Senior Resident at her student accommodation. Many international students had similar experiences, "only vary in intensity," she recalled.

The life experiences of newcomers, in particular, have been pushed into a more disturbing state of flux by the pandemic.

"Not many people understand that being an international student comes with little to no social circle for the first few months," said Felix Thomas, who started his PhD program at JCSMR when the pandemic began.

A few weeks after he arrived in Canberra, Felix went into ACT's first lockdown.

Unlike Anya and Phyu, who have lived here for a few years, Felix was still familiarizing himself with the city when the lockdown came into effect.

"It was tense and confusing," he recalled, "It was a roller coaster ride both physically and mentally, as I had to balance adapting to a new environment and focusing on my doctoral studies."

By now, Felix has been away from his home in Malaysia for two years and a half. "It was not evident as most of us were too busy working during the pandemic, but loneliness grows over time," he said.

Not alone

In the face of dramatic changes in their life, the students have tried their best to explore different coping strategies. Building a sense of community has been the key.

To Anya and Phyu, staying in touch with friends and family helped a lot when they felt stressed out.

"They can see through my problems and make useful suggestions," Anya said.

"I try to call my family regularly and keep checking in on them," Phyu said, "I also have a bubble buddy at my resident, so we sometimes go for a hike and do grocery together."

Bodybuilding became Felix's new hobby. Image: Calo Huang

Meanwhile, Felix took up bodybuilding to divert his frustration from the pandemic. "I count this as a blessing in disguise as now I'm addicted to it!" he said.

Alongside individual efforts, support from the research groups has also played a pivotal role in developing resilience.

"I am blessed to have an extremely supportive research group," said Felix, "My supervisor, post-doctoral fellows and senior PhD students helped and encouraged me not to falter during the pandemic."

Anya is also grateful that she works in a team where multiculturalism and reciprocity are valued.

"My supervisor has put a lot of effort into keeping the lab connected," said Anya, "We have group activities, such as beach trips and laser tags, to get everyone involved so everyone gets to know more about one other."

With a good rapport established within the lab, Anya started sharing her personal experience with her lab members, and they with her.

"Everyone has their own struggles, so sharing these difficulties builds comradery between people " Anya added, "Our group provides me with a very friendly environment, the best environment I've been to."

As a result, Anya chose to stay at the Man Group for her Honours year in 2021.

Looking up

Going into their third year with COVID-19, international students are still striving to do their best science amid all kinds of the negative impact of the pandemic.

"I tried my best to be as productive as possible," Phyu said. Her hard work in the past year turned into a research article published in eLife.

Despite all the emotional disruptions, Anya graduated with First Class Honours and started a PhD program at JCSMR.

In the next few years, she will focus on deciphering the role of the immune system in fighting against a deadly foodborne bacterium.

Recently, Anya also reached a milestone in her PhD journey—her first-ever paper was published in the journal Cell Host & Microbe.

"I feel very excited and at the same time bittersweet, as my late grandparents didn't have the chance to read my first publication," she revealed.

"But overall, I see this as a great start of my PhD. "

"Moving forward, I want to bring in more of my own ideas and design more experiments to unravel the complexities of the human immune system," she said.

"Emerging from the pandemic, I see myself as part of the next generation of leading researchers who is strong, resilient and ready to tackle any global biomedical challenges of our times. "