Episode 2: Jiexiu Chen — Life as an international student amid COVID 19

Audio Podcast of Episode 2

Guest: Ms Jiexiu Chen

In this episode, we speak with Ms Jiexiu Chen, a final year PhD student at University College London’s Institute of Education (UK). Jiexiu’s experiences during this COVID 19 global pandemic could be characterised by these key words: sense of loss, danger vs safety, anxiety and uncertainty. She found the phrase ‘fighting a full battle’ (打全场) fitting in depicting Chinese international students like herself. She explained that the initial outbreaks in China had got her really worried, and now that the pandemic has been spread across the world, she experienced an overload of information. She was struggling to orient herself amid constant bombardment of fast-evolving pandemic updates. She depicted her state of mind as being ‘at a loss’ (迷茫).

Speaking of the UK, Jiexiu was confused and troubled by the shifting pandemic containment strategies, first the ‘herd immunity’ strategy, and then the tighter and stricter measures. She revealed that Chinese international students like herself in the UK began practising self-isolation strategies fairly early. However, she felt a noticeable sense of danger because in her shared student accommodation, other residents went about their lives ‘business as usual’. They continued to frequent crowded places such as bars. This made it almost impossible for her to exercise social distancing as there was no controllable social and life boundary within her accommodation.

Jiexiu was thus presented with the challenging scenario: to leave or to stay. She confided that had she got a chance to practise proper self-isolation and social distancing in the UK, she would not have chosen to leave, because of the many added uncertainties about travelling against the COVID 19 global spread. She considered returning to China, and yet the shifting provision of flights back home has posed tremendous anxiety on her. She cited a friend who has reserved a flight ticket back to China in early April and now (late March) is not even sure if the seat is still available due to the reduced flights.

Eventually Jiexiu decided to join her nuclear family in Germany where she can properly exercise social distancing and regain her feeling about being safe and being in control of her living environment.

When asked to comment on her university’s arrangements for international students, she found it touching that UCL promised to provide accommodation for international students who may not be able to return home. She suggested that this safety net is pivotal during such times of great uncertainty, especially after she learned that some Chinese students were left without a place to stay after they realised that their flights were unexpectedly cancelled. Despite this, she felt that the university’s decision-making could have been more timely, e.g. in advising students to leave their accommodation for home. This somewhat delayed advice has led some students (e.g. one of her housemates) to have to cancel his plan to return home as they missed the best opportunity to travel internationally. She, however, understood that the university had to consider many different factors before they could make their decisions.

Jiexiu suggested that she has had to learn to work from home now as she was more used to working in the library. She has also tried out having supervision meetings with her doctoral supervisors online, which is somewhat of a learning curve for herself and her supervisors. Relatedly, now she has to consider arranging a virtual PhD oral defence (viva) as her graduation draws near. It is indeed a time of marked changes with lots of adaptations to be made.

When queried about her future plans, Jiexiu commented that the COVID 19 pandemic has dealt a huge blow on her ability to plan for the future. She revealed that just in February, she could not have foreseen that the world would turn out to be what it is now. Whereas in January and February, her friends all considered returning to China to be dangerous moves, in March the table has been completely turned. Such uncertainties have posed substantial pressure and stress on international students like her, especially when they struggled to decide whether to leave or to stay.

On the more positive side, this global pandemic has given rise to unprecedented opportunities for Jiexiu to connect with her friends from all over the world. She was rather touched by her friends’ warm-hearted messages when the world learned about the UK government’s ‘herd immunity’ strategy. Likewise, when the pandemic in the US has turned more severe, she has been in constant touch with her friends there, providing emotional supports. In a sense, the pandemic has rekindled and renewed her friendships.

We are grateful to Jiexiu’s sharing and we wish her and her family good health. Keep well!

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