Picture being thousands of miles from home when the worst pandemic in more than a century begins to grip the world.
That has been the reality for some of the 1,400 plus international students who study at the University of Prince Edward Island since the first case of COVID-19 surfaced in Canada’s smallest province in mid-March 2020. Jerry Wang, director of the International Student Services Office at the Island’s only university, says some students decided to stay because they were worried about getting back and others because of P.E.I.’s relatively low case count.
Like many post secondary institutions across the country, UPEI is offering a combination of both in-person and online learning and Wang estimates approximately half the international students are studying somewhere else on the globe. Other international students may be studying remotely within the province since they may live off-campus, while others are experiencing more traditional classroom learning. The university did adjust its fees for students who were not required to be on campus.
“Many of the undergraduate programs such as arts and sciences are predominately online,” he says. “Other more hands-on programs such as nursing and veterinary medicine are largely in person. The vet college has a significant number of international students especially from the United States.”
For those who returned home last spring or for the Christmas holiday period, Wang says the university worked with the province to develop a self-isolation plan that allowed students to self-isolated at designated hotels at no cost if they didn’t have their own 14-day isolation plan. Wang says the students were required to follow all the guidelines laid down by the Chief Public Health Office and were subject to frequent monitoring, whether they were at one of the hotels or had their own isolation plan.
He says it was simpler for returning students to come back to campus because they already had visas. The Canadian government restricted international travel early in the pandemic so first year students had no option but to study online or wait until the pandemic ends to come to the province. To help new students adjust, the traditional orientation period was lengthened to allow for a combination of in-person events for those in the province and online sessions.
“We have tried to support our international students any way we can,” Wang says.
In addition to the support from his office and student affairs, the university also hires a team of senior students to act as ambassadors to offer advice to new students on everything from where to buy groceries to accessing medical services. That program has been ongoing for several years but Wang says some changes were necessary this year as COVID has restricted the number of in-person meetings.
“A lot of it is being done now on social media through Facebook groups or zoom.” he says.
The university established a three-tier system to deliver support, services, and access to entertainment and activities for students when they were in self-isolation or unable to travel home during hoiliday periods since there are no classes and many of the administrative offices were closed.
Anne Bartlett, interim director of Student Affairs, says the three tiers involve staff from UPEI Student Affairs, the International Student Office, Counselling Services, the Registrar’s Office, Admissions, Work Integrated Learning, International Relations, and Residence Services, along with faculty and students from the Doctor of Psychology program.
During the Christmas holiday period, a “Mission Control Centre” was established on campus to call and email students quarantining and organize online activities for students self-isolating on PEI. There were also in-person activities for students who stayed on the Island. Staff were also available for students needing additional support and counsellors. Doctor of Psychology students were available for students needing help in dealing with the mental health aspects of self-isolation or adjusting to life in a new country.
Unlike some universities, UPEI actually saw an increase in its overall enrollment for the 2020-2021 academic year, surpassing the 5,000 mark for the first time. Wang says the job of recruiting new students for the 2021-2022 academic year continues, although with international travel restricted, the effort has focused on the virtual world.
“We held a virtual recruitment fair in mid-February that attracted a number of students from around the globe,” he says. “Obviously this is a new way of doing things until COVID passes and there are some challenges, but we’re doing our best to adapt.”
He concedes there may be some challenges in the short term as many students (not to mention their parents) may be wary of having their children go abroad to study. However, he is also hoping the success P.E.I. has had in keeping the pandemic under control could also prove to be a recruiting tool.
“This has been one of the safest jurisdictions in the world to be during COVID-19,” Wang says. “That may help to soothe the fears of anxious parents and students, especially if they’re coming from someplace where the case numbers are high.”
Wang says, “Those of us who are fortunate enough to live here know it isn’t just safe, it’s a beautiful place to live, work and study. Our campus is small enough to allow students to form lasting friendships and we now have a network of UPEI alumni across the globe.”
Over the long term, he sees the growth in international students continuing, not only at UPEI but at most post secondary institutions across the country.