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Helping International Students Overcome Global Pandemic Challenges

The last few months for Anne Njathi have been a balancing act between her role as a teaching assistant in NC State’s Communications Department, as a doctoral student in the Communication, Rhetoric and Digital Media program, and a full-time mom, teacher, and playmate for her son who is in kindergarten.

“Keeping an energetic 6-year-old boy indoors hasn’t been a walk in the park,” Njathi said. 

Adding to those challenges is the fact that her family is more than 7,500 miles away in Nairobi, Kenya where Njathi is from. She communicates regularly with them via WhatsApp messages, texts and video calls from time to time. 

“I received so many calls and texts from my immediate family, extended and even friends checking on my safety and that of my son,” she said. “I am worried about their safety too.”

Njathi focused on each challenge as it came. First, it was moving half a semester’s worth of teaching content online while also juggling her schoolwork, homeschooling and providing care for her son all day. Now, she’s trying to prepare for her comprehensive exams for the fall semester, but she’s having a hard time concentrating on her studies.

“I am restless and worried if this exam day will come as there are speculations of the second wave of the pandemic that might escalate seriously during the winter period. I worry a lot for myself, my son, my family back home and other parts of the world, friends and the world at large,” Njathi added. 

Financial concerns also top Njathi’s list. The stipends she receives as part of the Graduate Student Support Plan ended in May and don’t begin again until August. She had originally planned on finding a summer job or paid internship over the summer but many of her prospects dried up when most of the state and the country went into lockdown earlier this spring. 

As an international student, Njathi also has to go through an authorization process if she wants to work off-campus. So even if she found employment, Njathi would have to wait for approval first. The Office of International Services outlines the various employment options for international students based on their visa types. Many international students opt to work on-campus, but their work hours were scaled back or eliminated when campus operations were reduced in March. As a result, many of them have turned to Pack Essentials services like the Student Emergency Fund and the Feed the Pack Food Pantry. The pantry will remain open throughout the summer on Tuesdays and Fridays from 12-5 p.m.

“We understand many of our international students have been dramatically impacted by COVID-19, specifically with the uncertainty about when campus operations will be fully opened,” said Mike Giancola, assistant vice provost and student ombudsperson. “We have seen a large number of international students who rely on on-campus employment to assist with food, housing and basic living expenses.  Additionally, quite a few of our international students have shared they are having difficulty receiving financial support from their families either because of banks being closed or large devaluation of their home currency.”

Giancola added that donors have recently come through to support students’ food and housing needs.

“We are fortunate to have donors who want students to be able to continue their education and not have to worry so much about financial stress,” he said. “To date, we have provided over $939,000 in grants from the Student Emergency Fund.”

Finding Financial Assistance for International Students

NC State administrators have also turned to other sources of funding to help international students who don’t qualify for most federal assistance like the CARES Act Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund. Steven Bergman, the director of sponsored student programs for the Office of Global Engagement, submitted applications to the Institute of International Education’s Emergency Student Fund (ESF), which provides aid to students affected by urgent crises to minimize the impact of challenges to a student’s ability to complete their course of study. So far, four NC State students have received grants of $2,500 each. And in order to qualify, the students had to first receive aid from their home institution.

“We relied on Pack Essentials as the primary entry point to find students, which provided us a list of students with exceptional need,” Bergman said. “In total, about 20 students were contacted or reached out to express interest.”

Concerns about Long-Term Impacts

Njathi was one of the students who received the funding from the ESF and was grateful for the additional assistance. Still, she and other international students have concerns about the long-term impacts of the global pandemic. Another graduate student who received ESF funding but wishes to remain anonymous is grappling with trying to make major decisions about whether to continue her studies or search for a job after graduation in this current economic climate.

“Do I try to find a job here in the U.S. or go back to my home country? Will the situation be friendly for international students to find a job and have a legal status to work here in the US?” she wondered.

Njathi is trying to figure out how upcoming adjustments to the academic calendar affect her timeline to take her comprehensive exams, conduct fieldwork for her research, as well as write, defend and finish her dissertation. She’s also worried about possible budget cuts affecting funding for the GSSP and how to pay for student fees next year since she’s already using her savings to pay for living expenses and will likely not be able to find paid employment this summer. And, she’s wondering if the health insurance provided through the GSSP is enough to cover possible medical expenses if she or her son were to contract the coronavirus and have complications.

“2020 feels like one long night with an unending nightmare of uncertainties,” she added.