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Two women in face masks waiting to cross the street

By April Yu, LCSW, Founder of MAZE Partners, Inc.

In the past three months, life has changed drastically for almost every college student, including over one million international students who chose to stay in the U.S. due to various reasons.

What is it like to be an international student amid the coronavirus pandemic?

Prolonged Stress

Since its onset in late January, international students have been living with the daily reality of COVID-19. They could not stop but seek out news on COVID-19, worrying about their loved ones. “It’s a dread that I can’t be there for my family,” said Zhongxiaohe Hu, originally from Wuhan, China and currently living in New York City.

Then in March, things reversed. As the virus became widespread in the U.S., international students started to place their own health in the spotlight, constantly evaluating themselves for symptoms. Meanwhile, they were also poured with concerns from the other end of the phone line at home.

The pandemic does not seem to end any time soon. After nearly three months of accumulated stress, they are worn out.

Two-Way Discrimination

The pandemic has brought out people’s fears of others. International students, who are perceived as an “outgroup,” experience discrimination here in the U.S. and from their home communities.

On one hand, by portraying COVID-19 as “the Chinese virus” in some media, a spike in instances of xenophobia in the U.S. spread quickly and Asian international students felt the impcact.

“People talked behind my back when I walked into a convenience shop with a mask on,” said Qingyi Lan, a college senior from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “They think I am sick.” Those who wear masks to protect themselves are misunderstood as virus carriers, from which sometimes resulted in actual assaults.

On the other hand, some no longer feel welcome back home. “We are being marginalized both in the community we have lived and loved for years and in the country we were born and raised,” said Lingyue Lu, a doctoral student in George Washington University. “This leads to an identity crisis.”

Uncertainty about Future

In response to the pandemic, college campuses are closed; job appointments are called off; visa processing is suspended; while the international situation continues to intensify.

International students have seen their future plans thrown into uncertainty. “There is no clear answer for anything,” said Xiaotian He, a second-year master student at Depaul University. “My plan was to work in the U.S. upon graduation. Now with things changed, I don’t know yet about what’s next.”

Peer Support as Help

Despite all the hardships, numerous efforts quickly rise from within the community. Social work and counseling students recognized the tremendous stress coming from changes and uncertainty and decided to help.

“At first, I didn’t know how to help,” said Zhongxiaohe. “Then several friends came together and set up a chat group. We share information and feelings. It came to me that this could be a very helpful peer support group.” Hence, Zhongxiaohe brought her thought to colleagues at MAZE Partners.

So, it begins. MAZE peer support groups have welcomed 240 international students. Through one-hour online small group discussion, students find a safe space to process what they have been through. They talk about their disrupted routines, strained relationships, unpredictable future, loneliness, helplessness, and more.

“The experience is powerful,” said Yi Zhou, a Vanderbilt University student who participated in the group. “No judgment is passed. Tips are offered. Hearts are connected.”

Peer support groups are helpful to receive support, but they are also important to give support. They help us remain active and hopeful, build social connections, and develop resilience - to withstand the sense of powerlessness towards the inevitable and unpredictable spread of the coronavirus and the changes it brings about.

Other resources for international students can be found on the MAZE website.

April Yu first studied abroad at the age of 15. Since then, her heart is set out for helping lost young souls on their travels. She obtained her Bachelor of Science in Psychology and Master of Social Work degrees at University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. With more than 3000 hours of experience providing psychotherapy services for Asian immigrants and nationals, she became a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in Illinois in 2017 and obtained another independent license in Massachusetts in 2020. April has focused her career in promoting mental health awareness and care in her very own community of international students and alumni. In 2019, she and other folks on their study abroad journey founded MAZE Partners, Inc., a 503(c)3 non-profit organization, to encourage peer-based actions from within the group, to transform help-seeking behavior, and to enhance culturally appropriate services and resources.