Column by Jim Mellon: Students from abroad are faced with unique challenges during pandemic

My experience in working with international students at UH Hilo over the past month has been one of witnessing remarkable adaptability and resilience.

This column is part of a series on the COVID-19 health crisis written by expert faculty and staff at UH Hilo.

Jim Mellon
Jim Mellon. Photo by Bob Douglas.

By Jim Mellon.
Executive Director, Global and Intercultural Education Programs.
Director, International Student Services & Intercultural Education.
University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo.

Amidst the dizzying upheaval and abrupt changes in our community, nation, and around the world over the past several weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic, a challenge recently went viral on the social media platform TikTok. The “pass the brush challenge” showcased short-form videos of people first looking tired and disheveled and then transforming themselves into a made-up, well-dressed version of themselves. The person then “passes” a makeup brush virtually to someone else in another space. That person then follows suit and continues passing the brush “baton” to another person.

Some of our students from the Marshall Islands took on the “pass the brush challenge” and created a brilliant video. Instead of “passing” a makeup brush, they pass Marshallese woven fans. The indigenization of the challenge is creative, authentic, and uplifting. It is full of hope, joy, and beauty. And community and connection with others.

Undoubtedly many of our students are feeling disconnected with many things now– their classmates, the campus community, their families. They are facing novel challenges and may be feeling anxious, fearful, confused, and alone during this time. Many are struggling with dealing with the changes that have occurred at such a quick pace. These challenges are exacerbated by the uncertainty about when—or if—things might return to normal.

International students, who make up about 8 percent of the UH Hilo student body, have been faced with some unique challenges as a result of the pandemic. Travel restrictions and quarantine policies have been changing daily and have made it difficult if not impossible for some students to return to their home country or return to UH Hilo if they traveled outside the State during spring break. Being far away from home and family can be difficult under normal circumstances, but can be especially stressful during a health crisis impacting nearly every corner of globe. Accessing health care is typically easier in one’s own country, especially for international students who have to deal with a different, complicated, and expensive health care system in the United States. Hate-related incidents of harassment and assault aimed at Asians and Asian-Americans in the U.S. have unfortunately increased.

Many international students are studying at universities in the U.S. on a student visa and are required to adhere to immigration regulations. While the U.S. Department of Homeland Security was fortunately relatively quick to relax some of those regulations due to the pandemic, nearly every day new questions arise for which international student advisors do not have guidance or answers for yet. Taking classes online can be especially challenging for students who are situated in a place with poor or no internet connectivity. If online classes are conducted synchronously, students face differences in time zones that may be challenging. And some commonly used tools instructors use to teach online classes such as Zoom are not available in some countries.

If there are any silver linings amidst so much tragedy and suffering happening around the world, one may be the opportunities for student growth and development in “soft” skills such as decision making, resourcefulness, and tolerance of change and uncertaintyMy experience in working with international students at UH Hilo over the past month, though, has been one of witnessing remarkable adaptability and resilience. Some students had major decisions to make in a very short period of time, and make them in the face of constantly changing (or unavailable) information. If there are any silver linings amidst so much tragedy and suffering happening around the world, one may be the opportunities for student growth and development in “soft” skills such as decision making, resourcefulness, and tolerance of change and uncertainty. Perhaps it should not be surprising that many international students have seemed to adjust so well so far, given that they have already demonstrated a willingness and ability to take calculated risks and make major life decisions as they chose to leave their home country and study in the U.S.

For me, the coronavirus pandemic underscores the value of and continued need for nations and people to learn from each other across borders. How and why have public health strategies and responses differed around the world? Why have some nations been more successful than others at slowing the spread of the virus and flattening the curve? What explains the stark differences in countries’ COVID-19 death rates? How might strategies to flatten the curve be more appropriate and easier to achieve in some cultures than others, and how might such strategies be aligned or in conflict with certain cultural norms? How does a collectivist culture in which people may be more comfortable making decisions when physically surrounded by others adapt to work-from-home expectations or requirements? How are health disparities within and across nations deepened by this pandemic, and what needs to be done to eradicate those disparities? What types of leadership are most effective when faced with a pandemic?

Closing physical borders for a period of time makes good sense from a public health perspective But that should not prevent the continued flow and exchange of ideas, perspectives, insight, and information across borders. Our will and desire to not only maintain but to strengthen communication and learning across borders is as important now as it ever has been. It’s what international education is all about.

Large group of students in traditional attire of their homelands. Some hold flags from their nation. In the background in the glass facade of the library.
United Nations Day: International students gather for photo, Oct. 18, 2019, Library Lanai. Photo by Raiatea Arcuri/UH Hilo Stories, click to enlarge.

It’s too early to tell how this pandemic will impact international students in the U.S. over the next four to twelve months. It’s likely that the enrollment of new international students will decline, as prospective students may have difficulty obtaining a visa (many U.S. embassies and consulates around the world are currently closed). Students and their families may prefer to stay closer to home in the future. Current students who went home may have difficulty returning to Hawaiʻi depending on travel restrictions and air travel, and may need to be in quarantine upon their return.

What I do think, though, is that our students will continue to be creative, adaptable, and resilient. And connected to others. The “pass the brush challenge” that went viral on social media evinces a sense of community and connectedness between individuals despite not sharing the same physical space. In passing the brush to the next person in the video, people are demonstrating a desire to reach out and connect to others, even in this time of social distancing. They are in different, confined, solo spaces but there is still a connection with others. Unlike “passing the buck” in which people evade responsibility and blame others, the individuals in the “pass the brush” videos are connecting and uniting with others—literally reaching out to them—in a way that acknowledges shared experiences in situations that interconnect us, and values shared responsibilities to lift each other up.

Jim Mellon has expanded intellectual, cultural, and social learning at UH Hilo through securing funding and heading initiatives that support the Student Support Services Program, the Pacific Islander Student Center, and International Nights, an annual event that celebrates the students’ cultures. He helps first-year international students transition to UH Hilo through the Host Family Program that connects them with families in the local community. Mellon also connects international students to the community through the Global Ambassadors Program, where they discuss their home cultures at island schools and before community, professional, and civic organizations. He received the UH Hilo Distinguished Service Award for Improving Student Life in 2018.

Share this story