Concerns about exams, accommodation and travel during the Christmas period have been highlighted by the first responses recorded in a survey of international students on challenges posed by Covid-19 regulations.
Last week, international students were alerted to the release of a virtual, anonymous student survey in order to determine the status and response of international students amidst Level 5 restrictions.
Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) International Officer Patrick O’Mahony said that the union is “keenly aware of the uncertain situation that many of you have been placed in and we are actively seeking answers as to how you will be accommodated in light of the new government guidelines”.
In the survey, students have been asked to record their home country, year and course, and they were asked a series of questions about their situation, including whether or not they had to procure or renew a student visa and what their plans for the coming weeks were.
Following recommendations made by TCDSU Welfare and Equality Officer Leah Keogh, O’Mahony dedicated one page of the survey to gauging student mental health.
Of the responses received so far, two prevailing issues that O’Mahony has seen repeatedly brought forth by international students are that of securing accommodation over the holiday break if students are unable to return home and the question of exams.
“Some people would like to go home but are having issues getting money back for accommodation, and that is one of the things just holding them back.”
Regarding exams, O’Mahony stated that “with all that’s going on at the moment, it will be particularly hard to plan”.
Michaelmas Term examinations are currently set to take place after the conclusion of the Christmas break, running from January 11 to 21.
Although O’Mahony is unsure if at this point, the union will have any control over changing this plan for concerned international students, “we’re going to look at everything and see what we can do to help”.
One question asked whether or not the move to Ireland had impacted the respondent’s mental health, and students were given the choice to tell whether their mental health had been impacted positively or negatively, or not at all.
In response to the questions monitoring student mental health, O’Mahony noted that “one of the unfortunate things to see is that a lot of students said that their mental health has been impacted negatively since moving back to Ireland”.
“I think that it’s been quite a hard time on everyone, but I think in particular with regards to people having to self-isolate, that can’t have been easy.”
O’Mahony stated that he saw results indicating that students moving to Ireland for study for their first year of college were the most negatively impacted. He attributed this mainly to an inability to socialise in shared living settings.
“This year, there are less students who are in Trinity Hall, and so more first year students are spread out throughout Dublin. So I think it’s making it hard on some students to be able to interact with other first years because they may not be in an apartment with first years as they would have been in other years in Trinity Hall. So it’s making it hard for them to make new friends.”
Students were also polled as to whether or not they planned to return home during reading week or for the December to January holiday break.
O’Mahony stated that he felt it was important to include both “yes”, “no” and “maybe” options for those questions because when speaking to people one-on-one, “they might be saying, ‘oh, no, I’m not going home for Christmas’, whereas in actual fact they would like to go home for Christmas”.
In light of fears about travel restrictions in response to the return to Level 5 lockdown status, O’Mahony believes that students might be unsure about their future plans, so he instated an anonymous system so that students could share concerns in a way that might not be conducive to personal conversation.
“If we as a students’ union want to be able to answer, to be able to fix the issues which international students are facing, the issues are so diverse because people come from different countries with their own different issues,” stated O’Mahony.
He hoped that the survey would prompt students of many situations to share their concerns with the union, and “in turn help TCDSU know what were the issues that needed to be dealt with”.
After Level 5 guidelines were released by the government, O’Mahony edited the survey to include questions about whether students would remain in Ireland or return to their home countries in response to the lockdown.
“In my mind I thought that people were going to stay because of Level 5 restrictions, and in actual fact, there have been more people who want to go home from Level 5 restrictions, which has been interesting,” reported O’Mahony after surveying the results of the first four days of responses to the survey.
He said that to alleviate problems like lack of social contact and uncertainties regarding returning home during winter holidays, the union is working to organise events “so that students can feel supported”.
When asked whether these events would be geared particularly for an international audience during the holiday season, he said that “ideally, it would be events which would be attractive to international students, but if Irish students wish to come along, they’d be more than welcome”.
“As an international student myself last year, I thought one of the best things about Trinity was…I didn’t feel like there was that much of a divide between international and non-international students. And that would be something that I’d want to keep up,” he said, especially as the Christmas season approaches for students.
O’Mahony hopes that the responses generated by his recent survey, especially regarding concerns in light of travelling in the face of Level 5 restrictions, will allow TCDSU to cater to international students’ needs.
“We are aware of the issues which international students are facing, and we are working hard on it, so things will be coming through,” O’Mahony said.
“It just is a difficult period for everyone. And that is not an excuse, but hopefully the SU this year will be able to help international students more.”