When we think of international students in monetary terms, we are ignoring their very human needs and challenges. Australia’s Covid-19 recovery will require these foreign visitors, but we need to rebuild trust and care. By Melanie Cheng.

Supporting international students

Jemish Lakhani, a student at the University of Wollongong, talks with his older brother in India.
Jemish Lakhani, a student at the University of Wollongong, talks with his older brother in India.
Credit: Loren Elliott

In 1998, I boarded a plane in Hong Kong, headed for Melbourne. I had visited the city only once before, during a fleeting trip to sit the medical entrance interview at Monash University. My only memories of that first visit were of the heat – dry and intense and so different to the steamy Hong Kong summers I was used to – and the flies. Big, loud, lazy flies. But this journey was different. I was moving to Melbourne to begin my undergraduate medical degree. For the next six years, at least, this unfamiliar Australian city would be my home. As the plane made its descent towards a sprawling patchwork of red roofs and green lawns, my heart thrummed with a mix of excitement and trepidation.

In October 2019, nearly 51,000 new and returning international students made the journey from their respective home countries to Australia. No doubt a few of them felt something akin to the nervous anticipation I experienced all those years ago. For some, the physical separation from loved ones would’ve held the promise of reinvention. For others, the journey would have been heavy with expectation – of academic success, a prosperous career, an improvement in their families’ fortunes.

These students want to interact with Australian students and the wider Australian community, as research from Australia Education International confirms. Finding occasions for such interactions, however, can be difficult. Many students are living away from their family for the first time in their lives. While there may be a perception international students are wealthy, in fact many spend a lot of time and energy simply trying to survive – working casual jobs, looking for accommodation and studying a course in a language that is not their native tongue. There can be limited opportunities for socialising at the best of times. Last year, as we know, was not the best of times.

I have never felt quite as helpless as I did counselling international students during the Covid-19 lockdown. They told me stories of arriving in Australia only to be plunged into isolation and starved of human company for months on end. In response, I could offer appointments with psychologists, via Zoom, two weeks too late. As I looked into their eyes – mercifully pixelated as a result of my poor internet connection – and as I launched into my practised spiel about sleep hygiene and regular exercise, I felt like a fraud.

My heart went out to them. Many, like me when I first arrived in Melbourne, had no friends or family in the city. But unlike me, who moved straight into a residential college with a ready-made network of friends, these students were deprived by the coronavirus, and the restrictions imposed to contain it, of all opportunities to socialise. Instead, their lives shrunk to fit their computer screens. They became an audience to their first year of university, switching between lectures and psychology appointments and yoga sessions with the cool detachment of someone confined to bed, flicking through channels on daytime TV.

Many international students either lost their jobs or were unable to enter the job market at all. Surveys conducted by Unions NSW between March and May 2020 found that 60 per cent of international students lost their part-time jobs during the nationwide lockdown. Ineligible for JobKeeper or JobSeeker, their financial lifelines were severed. Research from the University of Technology Sydney reveals that in 2020, nearly a third of international students went without meals, 23 per cent had trouble paying their electricity bills on time and the same percentage had asked community organisations for help.

And yet the students I saw in my practice were more concerned about their families back home than their own welfare. Many hailed from countries ravaged by Covid-19.

If they didn’t have relatives who were sick and dying from the disease, they had parents who had lost their means of earning a living as a result of the pandemic. More often than not, they elected not to tell their families that they had failed their exams or had severe health issues, for fear of adding to their loved ones’ mounting stress and despair.

It was not unusual last year, for instance, for me to spend days trying to persuade a student to go to hospital for further treatment. They shared the same hesitations as the local students – fear of exposure to coronavirus and long waiting times – as well as one other critical concern: just how much was it all going to cost? When faced with a potentially life-threatening medical condition, many of these young people decided the emergency department bill was money they simply could not afford to spend.

For the few who did agree to go to hospital, they did so alone. I made sure they took a bag of essentials with them – a toothbrush, a change of clothes, a spare pair of underwear – because I knew they had no friends or relatives they could ask to deliver such necessities once they had been admitted. On those nights, cocooned in my comfortable bed, in a household of sleeping loved ones, I tried to fathom the depth of the loneliness these students must have felt, lying in a hospital bed, scared and probably in pain, thousands of kilometres from home.

In Australia, we speak of international students in monetary terms. And there is no denying the sector is big money. At its peak in 2019, international student trade contributed more than $40 billion to the Australian economy.

But while we may treat international students as a commodity – lamenting the loss of their trade in the same detached manner we might bemoan a drop in the price of iron ore – the reality is, these economic fluctuations represent dramatic shifts in individuals’ lives. Hundreds of thousands of people, and their families, with hopes and dreams for the future.

Once we view the issue through a humanitarian lens, however, we are forced to confront some uncomfortable questions. Questions about our duty of care. Who, for example, should step in to help when a student loses their job and can no longer afford their basic needs? The university? The state government? The federal government? Charities? The local community?

In the Covid-19 era, our empathy stores have been depleted. Throughout the course of 2020, we have been asked to feel compassion for the suddenly unemployed, the small business owners, the front-line health workers. We have collectively grieved for the 900 Australians who died from the virus, and for the Australians stranded overseas, the elderly Australians in aged care. But the truth is that our communities comprise more than just our fellow Australians.

University campuses are beginning to show signs of life again. It’s a long way from what I remember of my first year – the O-week shenanigans and sausage sizzles around every corner – but it’s something. Even my standard advice to students – to spend less time on screens and to schedule social activities with friends – doesn’t sound quite so absurd anymore. But like all beginnings, it is fragile.

Australia’s Covid-19 recovery will necessarily involve a revival of the multibillion-dollar education industry. But if we are to attract new students to this country, we will need to demonstrate that we are a safe and welcoming place for them. It comes down to trust. Trust that when caught up in a state of emergency or disaster, international students’ basic needs of food and shelter and healthcare will be met.

If we are relying on international students for our own economic salvation, that doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 1, 2021 as "Shrunken lives".

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Melanie Cheng is a doctor, writer and The Saturday Paper’s health columnist.

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