Lockdown as an International Student by Arina Aizal
The Covid-19 lockdown happened while I was an international student at the University of Otago, New Zealand. It was my final year as a Bachelor of Arts student in Psychology and minoring in Gender Studies. I was excited to have the best year of my life; the last year as an undergraduate student. I had many goals to achieve. I thought 2020 will be a great year, a new decade. I had dreamed of studying at Otago since I was 10 years old when my family came to Dunedin for my father’s postgraduate Degree. On March 2020, the rest of my family were back in Malaysia while I was in New Zealand. I haven’t been back home for a while, and I really missed it. I was supposed to go back to Malaysia in June 2020, but obviously, that did not happen.
When the government announced a lockdown to New Zealand, I felt confused and uncertain about many things, just as everyone else. “Can I go back to Malaysia this June? Do I have to cancel my flights now? When can I actually go back? Can my parents visit me on my graduation day? Do I have to defer my studies? How about exams? What about my part-time job?”. These were all the questions that were racing in my mind, continuously looping without end. At that moment, nobody had any answers because everyone was all trying to cope with the changes. To keep myself busy, I started cleaning the flat, organised my belongings, donated a few things I didn’t love anymore, and even did the whole KonMari method. The most important space that I managed to organise was my desk - especially because I knew that I will be spending more time there now rather than studying at the university. That was one of the ways I tried to handle the uncertainty.
At first, as an international student, I did feel a little lonely hearing about my other friends who have families around them. They could spend lockdown together in the same bubble while I had no family nearby to return to. When the Holy Month of Ramadan came, as a Muslim, I felt lonelier as I celebrated it over lockdown in my house alone. Usually, there will be so many social gatherings with food at the mosque. The lockdown stripped the sense of community that we used to have. So instead, we had to create our own family with close friends in the intimacy of our small homes. Since eating out wasn’t an option - I learned to perfect my cooking skills and try different dishes each day to make each mealtime feel more exciting. My flat mate and I also bonded closely over the lockdown, which made the whole experience feel safe and warm, even during the cold winter.
Besides studying, I also work part-time at a cafe. It was a relief that we received a wage subsidy for the average hours we usually work weekly. It helped me to cover my personal expenses. Students who experienced financial distress were also able to apply for Otago University’s Pūtea Tautoko hardship fund to get their life back on track. Over the first few weeks of lockdown, I did feel some anxiety as I was in the panic zone. I felt disconnected from my studies, especially with final exams coming up. It was not difficult for me to open up as I was able to talk with a mental health counsellor over Zoom. Mental health services were run via Zoom, and it did help to ensure students felt safe and supported when they needed someone to talk to. International students also had regular wellbeing checkups by the University to ensure we live comfortably or need any help. The uncertainty to online final exams was challenging because it was all new - it was not reflecting how it was usually done before. One of my lecturers went all out to make sure students were engaging and coping well with studies, she made a Facebook Group. She asked us to share memes and photos of pets over the semester. I’m also very thankful that students received a grade bump, as Otago realised that Covid-19 had impacted people in different ways and their motivation and ability to study.
Looking back from 2021, the lockdown was definitely a huge game changer with a lot to process as students studying abroad while having families being afar. The year 2020 taught me that to feel at home doesn’t mean it has to come from people who share the same DNA, but it may come from people who care about each other. I have found home through the community of people who take care of each other to keep each other safe from Covid. Those kindhearted people also reach out to ask us about our wellbeing and mental health. I’m happy to share that although Covid took many experiences away from me, I still got to graduate with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in December 2020. Even though I didn’t have my family with me or even a ceremony, it was still wonderful because my friends were there. We created our very own special day to celebrate.
Covid may have made the future feel more uncertain as it took the power of control from us. Regardless, my advice is to not lose yourself and keep on holding to your dreams. Even if it means you might need to change the method to get there. Whether you have a dream place of study in mind, or even a course and career, you wish to pursue in the future, do not let Covid take over your state of the present, because, over time, things will get better. I am very hopeful for what is to come. Do reach out to IDP Education if you are interested in studying or working in Australia or New Zealand in the future. All the best!