Solitary studies

The unique remote experiences of McGill’s international students

Sarah Farnand, Sports Editor

This school year has presented unique challenges to McGill students around the world. With remote classes, fluctuations of public health measures, and ongoing travel restrictions, many students have had to adjust their academic plans. Now, students attend class from all over the world, often making it difficult for these individuals to keep up with their courses and stay connected to the McGill community.

As someone who is currently attending their second year of university from their childhood bedroom, far away from the McGill community, I can attest to the simultaneous joys and challenges of online learning. One major struggle I have faced is the loneliness of being isolated from McGill and from Montreal.

Studies have shown that attending classes remotely has had disastrous impacts on students’ mental health. Natalie Schwarz, U1 Kinesiology, spent the Winter semester studying from her home in San Antonio, Texas. In an interview with the McGill Tribune, she described feeling detached from her friends in Montreal.

“Especially with asynchronous lectures, I don’t talk to a lot of people in my classes,” Schwarz said. “I am not as close with [my friends] because they are so far away, so I definitely feel isolated.”

Hamza Chikhaoui, U2 Engineering, who stayed in his hometown of Casablanca, Morocco this semester, emphasized that studying alone was the hardest thing about being home.

“I personally think the hardest [part] of studying from home is not having peers to study with,” Chikhaoui said. “So you are kind of responsible for a lot more stuff with regard to course material.”

This feeling of loneliness is especially present among first-year students who haven’t had the chance to make real friendships with their peers. Having only visited McGill once last year, Ella Vanderkop-Girard, U0 Arts and Science, explained that making friends remotely has been difficult.

“I have started talking to a few people,” Vanderkop-Girard said. “I have a study group for my linguistics class, but I definitely think it has been a lot harder with everything online.”

Time zone differences have made it particularly difficult for some students to stay on top of lectures and assignments. The inability to attend class can hinder one’s learning experience, with work piling up quickly due to the lack of synchronous lectures. Chikhaoui has also found these new circumstances to be especially challenging during exam periods.

“Time difference is a big [issue],” Chikhaoui said. “I have been having exams at 1:00 [or] 2:00 in the morning sometimes.”

Eleanor Davis, U2 Arts, also struggled with the time difference, especially after clocks moved forward an hour for daylight savings. After spending the Summer and Fall semesters at home in Hampshire, England, she found the change to be incredibly jarring.

“When the clocks changed in Canada nobody told me, and so I missed class for like a week straight because I had no idea what was going on,” Davis said in an interview with the Tribune.

Davis added that while she was home, assignment deadlines and office hours for her classes were catered toward those in Eastern Standard Time.

“Deadlines are always at really [bad] times and office hours were always at midnight,” Davis said.

Davis also faced internet connection difficulties studying from rural England, adding further obstacles to finishing her assignments or attending live lectures.

“I live in the country and our wifi [is really horrible],” Davis said. “Sometimes I’d be logging into a class and if it rains the wifi would just stop and I’d have to email my [professor] and they would get really [mad] about it.”

Just over half of the world has access to the internet—yet even among those with access to wifi, maintaining a stable connection is still an issue. Certain situations, like storms and natural disasters, can cause unexpected connectivity issues and other complications, such as food and water shortages.

In late February, a winter storm in Texas caused major power outages across the state, resulting in shortages of electricity, heat, and water. Schwarz recalled going without water or stable power for an entire week.

“During the storm, I did not have water the entire week and my power was not great,” Schwarz said. “I was having midterms, so I had to email my teachers to tell them ‘hey, I don’t know if I will be able to take the midterm because of this storm.’”

Hemrajani also spoke about storm-related wifi issues, noting that although the internet connection at her home in Panama has been fairly stable, a hurricane in early November nearby caused a temporary outage.

“[The] wifi here is okay, [but] there was one time that there was a hurricane close to here and the wifi was out for a couple of days,” Hemrajani said. “Sometimes weird things happen just in your country and you have to email your professors like, ‘hey there’s a hurricane and I don’t have wifi.’”

McGill is one of the most international universities in the world, yet most professors do not prioritize the needs of international students, especially during the pandemic. By making attendance compulsory, and sometimes being inflexible toward unexpected disruptions—whether internet connection issues or natural disasters—students are not set up to succeed. This can force students to make repeated requests for accommodations from a hard-to-navigate and underfunded university bureaucracy.

On top of connectivity issues, students living in different parts of the world are faced with a variety of health and safety measures that affect their daily lives. In some countries, the situation is worse than in others. In the United States, despite warnings from health officials, Texas governor Greg Abbott recently lifted the mask mandate and permitted businesses and restaurants to open fully.

“It’s just kind of crazy here with the anti-maskers,” Schwarz said. “It’s pretty much like COVID does not exist, which is just bizarre. It doesn’t make me feel super safe. Honestly, I would prefer to be in Montreal right now.”

For others, however, the remote circumstances have offered some opportunities that would not be possible with in-person classes in Montreal. Vanderkop-Girard has enjoyed spending time with family, friends, and pets at home. During the pandemic, their relationship with their parents has strengthened.

“I love spending time with my family and I think during the pandemic we have gotten a lot closer,” Vanderkop-Girard said. “I have my animals here and my friends, so that is also nice.”

Serena Rita Hardan, U1 Science, who has stayed in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, this semester has also taken time to enjoy time spent at home. Hardan told the Tribune that many public health restrictions in Abu Dhabi have been lifted, which has allowed her to engage in activities that improve her mental health, such as going outside regularly.

“The situation here concerning COVID is much better than Montreal,” Hardan said. “Going out is easier, [...]there is no snow, [and] I found myself back with my friends and family, in my comfort zone. I am way better now than I was back in December.”

Hardan also enjoys the consistently warm weather in Abu Dhabi, which allows her to engage in more outdoor activities.

“I can go to the beach whenever I want,” Hardan said. “Even in January most days, you can go to the beach if you want to.”

Warm weather seemed to be a common positive about studying remotely from home. Chikhaoui also prefers the warm weather in Morocco to Montreal’s cold winters.

“One of the good things in Morocco right now is probably the sun,” Chikhaoui said. “Morocco is one of the sunniest countries in the world, so it’s definitely better than the [weather] in Canada.”

While my mental health has suffered as a result of being away from my friends and the McGill community, I enjoy the freedom of being home in New York, without a curfew and with milder weather. However, there are a lot of great things about Montreal that cannot be experienced at home, and some, like Hemrajani, are excited to experience the city’s different seasons and finally set foot on McGill’s campus for the first time.

“[In Panama], it is really warm all the time, so I feel like it will be really nice to have all four seasons,” Hemrajani said. “[I am] also [looking forward to] being on a campus and meeting a lot of new people.”

Hardan is looking forward to making new friends at McGill when the pandemic begins to subside.

“Hopefully when things get back to normal I can meet all types of people,” Hardan said. “I want to actually be able to see the diversity there [....] I find that amazing because growing up, I was mainly with Arab people and Lebanese people [....] Other than that, I was in a little bubble, and I chose McGill because it is so international.”

Many international first-year students have never visited McGill’s campus, and while the university provides virtual tours, they are limited in what is shown, focussing only on the highlights of the campus. Where university resources are lacking, other McGill students, such as Inara Qamar, step in to help, sharing more thorough McGill campus tour videos on YouTube to give viewers a better feel for the campus. With some international students paying up to $55,000 in tuition just for virtual courses, the university should allocate greater resources to help these students feel better integrated within the community.

With in-person learning set to take place in the Fall, international students will hopefully have a return to some normalcy. Despite the lack of support and services, McGill’s international students have shown resilience, persevering through these unfavorable circumstances and helping to shape McGill into the diverse university it strives to be.

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