Adapting to change as an international student

Natalia talks about how living at home and then in the UK brought different challenges this year. She discusses some of her strategies, including keeping a journal, and reaching out to student support services and her student union.

Natalia shares her experience of adapting to student life as an international student during the pandemic.

Natalia is an ambassador for UKCISA

Video transcript

Being an international student during the pandemic is a unique and somewhat unexpected experience of higher education. I think by this point, I'm not alone in having felt anxious that this will be my university experience for the next few years, or having had to set my alarm at 3am to wake up for a lecture in a different timezone or felt my eyes being extremely fatigued and craving more screen free interaction. It's important to understand that we are all together in this, there are 485,000 international students in the UK, including EU.

I remember when the pandemic was about to start, I decided to head back home. It was also strange to see how the campus was quickly getting less busy in March. So my parents sent me an airplane ticket, and in 10 hours I had packed and left the university. It was very pleasant and relaxing to reunite with my family in Estonia. However, the uncertainty about how the rest of my academic year would look like, as well as heightened sense of isolation caused by my university life now being completely virtual, made me realize that I used to take a lot for granted.

I came back to England in late September (2020). This is strange to think now. Being an international student without the pandemic, things like food, climate and culture already require you to make changes and adjust. In the pandemic that was made even more challenging by the fact that I was constantly in front of my screen, seeing people in 2D. In addition to missing my family and friends from home, I could only make new friends online, which is still better than complete absence of socializing. But it's not the same as live interaction.

During my first semester in England, one of the things that helped me to stay well, and focused on my studies, was to keep a diary nearby to jot down whatever thoughts came to my mind whenever I started to feel nervous. It also helped me to keep track of my thoughts and how often I got distracted. Later on, I would reflect to see what kind of things affected my mood. Also, whenever I feel that my brain is wandering off, I say my name out loud, and my focus returns to present.

However, when things did get more challenging, I decided to reach out to mental health services at my university. I feel that, as humans, we tend to feel more strained without frequent human interaction. And I needed to express my emotions, and share my academic concerns with someone. I first reached out to my personal tutor, and after our comforting dialogue, he directed me to the Student Union, where I happened to receive plenty of moral support and valuable advice. Please remember that your university has resources and people there to support you. So don't hesitate to ask for help.

I have now spent seven months in front of my screen, as if I was just doing an online course. And sometimes it is hard to believe that I'm getting the most out of my course like this. However, on a positive side, it has enabled me to stay in my home country at times, where I feel more grounded, and the number of daily cases is lower. Having said that, I know it is near impossible to make plans in the middle of a pandemic, or any predictions about the future of international education.

However, in my case, I found it extremely important to build resilience. I have seen how well many international students have adapted to the new academic conditions. And I know it has required a lot of flexibility and open mindedness. One thing that I try to remember is that it will not stay like this forever. I believe that one day we will go back to campus, meet real new people and walk together to the library. And by that point, we will all have learned to appreciate it much more than we used to.