COVID-19 has drastically changed education for millions of university students around the world. International students are a vulnerable population group with unique challenges. Away from their home countries or at a distance from their universities, they have been significantly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Beyond concerns about themselves and loved ones due to the virus, international students have worried about things like visa and graduation status, optional practical training opportunities being harder to obtain or cancelled or whether to go home (if that is even an option due to border closures). Some have worried about living far from loved ones, having to find a place to live if dormitories close, self-isolating from roommates if necessary and finances.
My preliminary research has examined the lived experiences of international graduate students in Ontario, and government and university policies pertaining to international students. My findings to date suggest that international students can be better supported by their institutions to cope with their personal and emotional challenges that may become compounded during public crises.
I have also explored models that institutions could rely on to support students’ emotional well-being. This has led me to consider how international students might turn to the toolkit of emotional intelligence.
More international connections
Canada’s International Education Strategy (2019-2024) details how government policy has advocated both recruiting international students to study in Canada and sending more Canadian students abroad for exchange programs.
What some scholars call “internationalization” of higher education is the process of integrating an international, intercultural or global dimension into the purpose, functions or delivery of post-secondary education.
This involves recruiting of international students, developing international branch campuses, scholarly exchange programs, developing research and education partnerships between institutions regionally and internationally and changing curriculum to reflect global realities.
According to the Canadian Bureau for International Education, there was an increase of 135 per cent international students in Canada between 2010-20. In 2019, there were about 1,090,000 full-time and 266,000 part-time international students enrolled in Canadian institutions.
Ninety-six per cent of Canadian universities include internationalization as part of their strategic planning, more than 80 per cent identify it as one of their top five planning priorities.
Every year, many international students are flying to Canada from all over the world to pursue their future academic and career goals in a multicultural global setting.
However, disorienting experiences are common among most international students. Students report instances of academic differences, culture shock, language barriers, financial constraints and other challenges.
These experiences often lead to traumatic effects and psychological reactions such as depression, anxiety and acute stress disorder. International students already face challenges to their mental health, and the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified these challenges.
What’s your ‘EQ’?
American psychologist Daniel Goleman is a leading expert on emotional intelligence. Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is a multifaceted ability that helps individuals to sense, understand, value and effectively apply the power of emotions as a source of information, trust, creativity and influence.
He developed five key emotional intelligence skills that are linked to everything from making decisions to academic achievement.
People may draw on these five aspects embedded within emotional intelligence — self-awareness, self-regulation, social skills, empathy and motivation — either as unique components or collectively to cope with everyday life events.
International students can benefit from considering aspects of emotional intelligence both during the pandemic and beyond.
1.Self-awareness is the ability to recognize and understand your own emotions and being aware of the effect of your actions, moods and emotions on other people. Self-awareness develops as we interact, and it enables us to build complex social relationships. It could help international students take note of their own responses and stressors in a complex situation such as the pandemic.
2.Self-regulation is all about expressing your emotions appropriately and being able to regulate and manage your emotions. The capacity to perceive, understand and regulate one’s own emotions works as an ideal framework to reason about emotions and to use emotions in reasoning. International students who find themselves facing a roller coaster of emotions would be well-served in identifying what positive, healthy activities and practices could help find an equilibrium.
3.Social skills refer to building meaningful relationships with other people. Social isolation causing psychological distress among university students is common in this pandemic and social skills are vital for the inclusion of the vulnerable students during school closures. International students might take stock of how their social contexts and networks have changed in the pandemic and take steps to ensure that they are still finding meaningful and mutually supportive social connections.
4.Empathy is about trying to see from others’ points of view and consider how others may be feeling. Being empathetic also allows you to understand the power dynamics that often influence social relationships. International students can benefit from practising empathy with themselves by considering how a caring friend might speak with them. When they are empathetic to others, they are more likely to work on relationships.
5.Motivation is about drawing on emotions in positive ways to achieve goals, persevering when meeting obstacles and seeking to enjoy the learning processes. Whether international students face pandemic unknowns, grief due to the virus, or socio-economic challenges, looking beyond one’s immediate circumstances to a larger picture is critical.
These five components of emotional intelligence play an important role in handling even the most challenging life situations with ease and compassion.
For international students, especially during the pandemic, emotional intelligence is crucial for managing their adaptive processes and regulating their emotions and is essential for better overall health and well-being.