How is the pandemic affecting international students in New Zealand?

international students in New Zealand
The pandemic is also serving as a lesson on resilience and being adaptable to change for international students in New Zealand. Source: Marty MELVILLE/AFP

For Barathwaj Rameshbabu, a university student in Auckland, New Zealand, 2020 is proving to be a lesson on adjusting his sails to the winds of change. With COVID-19 still ravaging abroad, international students in New Zealand have little choice but to make the best out of a bad situation by staying and adapting to changes brought upon by the pandemic. Shifting from on-campus to remote learning, throwing job prospects post-graduation into the air — these are things most international students have to contend with these days.

“The pandemic is a bit of a disappointment to most of the international students who are pursuing their studies here,” says Rameshbabu, who is studying his Master of Engineering Studies in Construction Management at the University of Auckland. “I, personally, hate online study culture and always prefer face-to-face classes. I was taken aback when the announcement was first made and was not sure how I would manage this. We had to shift the whole education module to online modes which initially was stressful to adapt to,” the 26-year-old from India adds.

Auckland’s level three lockdown went into effect on Aug. 12, 2020 following 102 days of zero infections in New Zealand. It is scheduled to last until 11.59 p.m. on Aug. 29, 2020 at the time of writing.

Managing expectations as a university student in Auckland

university student in Auckland

Pursuing a degree abroad has always been Rameshbabu’s dream, which eventually led him to become a university student in Auckland. Source: Barathwaj Rameshbabu

According to a New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations (NZUSA) study, 30% of students said they need more help to pay for housing and food during the lockdown. Around two-thirds said they are significantly more stressed and anxious about money, housing, and their studies. The study surveyed domestic and international students at undergraduate and postgraduate levels.

For those in practical courses, things can be even tougher. Rameshbabu usually makes site visits as part of his curriculum. During the lockdown, these were cancelled and converted into theory-based lessons instead. His building software lab sessions were affected too.

The University of Auckland, however, is doing their best to minimise the disruptions faced by students. Laptops are provided, as are internet connections for those who need them. Faculties are making online classes as interactive as possible as well.

Goodbye for now to jobs and practical experience

Many international students in New Zealand seek part-time work to not only experience the Kiwi work culture but to support themselves. Rambeshbabu is lucky his family helps him with his living expenses; his friends, who lost their part-time jobs, aren’t as fortunate. The upside is universities, NGOs and religious groups are offering groceries and food supplies to affected students.

“We also had hardship funds provided by our university and the student associations for those who weren’t able to manage their weekly expenses or lost a part-time job,” Rameshbabu told Study International, adding that there were also virtual counselling sessions for those who need emotional support. Many other organisations, including the Red Cross and Immigration NZ, provide supermarket coupons and financial support to students in need, he said. 

Uncertainty over what the future holds

university student in Auckland

New Zealand’s economy suffered its biggest contraction in 29 years during the first three months of the year, official data showed, with worse expected as the COVID-19 pandemic’s full impact emerges. Source: Greg Bowker/AFP

New Zealand is a popular destination for international students — over the past few years, it has seen a steady growth in foreign enrollments, particularly those from India. With its successful handling of the virus crisis, it’s set to attract even more international applicants. A Navitas Insights survey found that New Zealand is now the most attractive study destination in the world today, ahead of Australia, Canada, Singapore, the UK and the US, due to its swift elimination of COVID-19.

For international students in the country, however, the pandemic is proving to be a full-contact sport. They are affected on all fronts, from their finances and mental health, in addition to their schooling and work.

Rameshbabu is set to graduate next year. The Tamil Nadu native is eager to apply for a post-study work visa that will let him stay in the country for up to three years, but being in the throes of a pandemic means there is now a question mark over his future.

With Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the helm, however, Rameshbabu is optimistic life has a good chance of gradually returning to normal. Despite the resurgence of COVID-19 cases in the country, TIME reported that New Zealand has been lauded internationally for its handling of the pandemic, with some suggesting Ardern is “the most effective leader on the planet”. 

Rameshbabu concurs. He said the government is “taking good measures to control the pandemic” with residents cooperative towards Ardern’s efforts. 

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