Navigating life in a foreign country isn’t always easy – and it’s especially difficult amid a global pandemic. The coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak has created a uniquely challenging environment for millions of people worldwide; as an international student in Australia, you’re likely one of them. You may have lost your job, you may be struggling to maintain your mental health while practicing social distancing, and you may have felt stuck or confused by the Prime Minister’s statement encouraging international students to head home.
Despite this, you may also be one of the many international students who have been unable to return home or who have chosen to remain in Australia. We spoke to three international students who decided to do exactly that to hear their stories and struggles in the era of COVID-19.
A native of Manhattan Beach, California, Cameron Kirkpatrick first fell in love with Australia when she visited during her gap year in 2019 – so much so that she decided to pursue her education here full-time. She enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts with advanced studies in philosophy and psychology at the University of Sydney and began her schooling in February 2020. Shortly thereafter, however, the COVID-19 outbreak veered her studies down an unexpected path.
Cameron shares that the main challenge she’s experienced concerning her studies has been the transition to online learning. “I think the school is doing a really good job,” she says. “But it’s hard because I think I learn better in person with actual interaction and I feel like it’s easier to get feedback in person, not over the Internet. But, at the same time, they’re doing all they can and they’re being really understanding.”
The pandemic’s effects have also extended to Cameron’s personal life: “A lot of my really good friends who were here on international exchanges had to go home [because of the virus]. That was really hard and really sad.”
Cameron, however, decided to stay in Australia rather than return to the U.S., which currently holds the most COVID-19 cases in the world. “I didn’t see the point in going home. It wouldn’t make sense to go home where [the rate of infection] is worse.”
Now based in Byron Bay, New South Wales, Cameron remains positive and hopeful for the future even in such trying times. “I’m just happy to be here,” she says. “We’re safe here. It’ll be over soon.”
In July 2019, Philipp Fortin moved from his hometown of Ottawa, Canada to Brisbane to pursue a Master of Global Management at the University of Queensland. Like many international students, Philipp has felt the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly during the initial stages of the outbreak: “I think the first couple weeks were the toughest, both on me and my family. There wasn’t a lot of reliable information available, as global organisations and news agencies would constantly have new and conflicting information.”
However, it was in those first couple of weeks that Philipp was compelled to make a decision: remain in Australia or return home to Canada. “My dad wanted me to come home and my mom preferred that I stay [in Australia],” he shares. “Ultimately, I made the decision to stay. I always intended on staying in Australia after my graduation date [June 2020] so going back home was never on my horizon.”
Despite his intentions to stay and work in Australia beyond his graduation date, he shares that his professional prospects have also been impacted by the virus: “I was in the process of looking for post-grad jobs in and around Brisbane and Australia. That has pretty much come to a standstill as most firms have put on a hiring freeze or are not interested in hiring at this time.” Fortunately, Philipp shares that he is able to support himself financially and that he has loved ones in the Brisbane area for additional support should he need it.
A self-proclaimed introvert, he also concedes that the social distancing measures “haven’t affected me in the same way as someone who is an extrovert” and shares that his experience over the last month has been “positive” overall.
Gabriel Soares Dalla Mariga
Originally from Sao Paulo, Brazil, Gabriel Soares Dalla Mariga has been living in Sydney for nearly two years. A student in hospitality management at Australian Pacific College, he came to Australia in the hopes of starting anew.
“I wanted to come here to build a new life for myself, which I didn’t think I would be capable of doing back home. I call it home, but I never really felt like I was at home in Brazil,” he says. “[Sydney] is easier to get around than my hometown, there’s a lot of things to do, working rights, wages – it’s all way better [in Australia].”
However, when the Australian government implemented its lockdown of non-essential services, Gabriel lost his hospitality job and is now struggling with financial uncertainty – a burden he says feels even heavier given the lack of financial aid from the Australian government.
“[The lack of financial support from the government] makes me upset,” he says. “Having some support from the government would be good, even if it was just for our groceries, just for us to live.”
Even in the face of these setbacks, Gabriel decided to stay in Australia and persevere in his dream of settling here permanently. “It was a personal choice [to stay] with the idea that I wanted to build my life. Everything that I own, pretty much my whole life is here.”
Gabriel says that he is trying to stay as occupied and as positive as possible during social isolation and encourages others to do the same. His message to fellow international students remaining in Australia during these trying times is one of simple yet poignant solidarity: “Be safe out there. We’re all in this together.”