Anxiety and belonging: Understanding international student experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic

Presenter/ Author and Affiliations:
Dr Angela Lehmann, Australian National University and The Lygon Group

Australia’s international students have been deeply impacted by the current global crisis. This paper describes findings from an ongoing qualitative research project into the lived-experiences of international students and graduates during the COVID-19 crisis. The study uses multiple methods including self-reflective compositions written by students, in-depth semi-structured interviews and short questionnaires. As the crisis evolved, we noted the issues that were raised by students shifted. This provides a temporal angle on the data analysis, allowing us to see how concerns shifted over time. In other words, our interviews served to document how the crisis shifted priorities of students as political, economic, social and institutional policies responded.

As a result, the data describes a range of issues from mask wearing, to decisions to return home, to online learning, negotiating financial difficulties, racism and xenophobia through to changed decision-making priorities. This paper outlines these key issues as identified by students against the time frame of the crisis.

I discuss two overarching themes that emerged through all interviews – anxiety and belonging. Anxiety is defined as a perceived gap between expectations and opportunities to achieve these expectations. This was presented in terms of the job market, study, cultural norms surrounding health behaviour and mobility decisions.

For our students this social anxiety was set against a backdrop of a changing understanding about how they felt they belonged, or did not belong, in Australian communities and institutions. This ‘challenged sense of belonging’ raises pertinent questions about the role of international students in our broader Australian communities and economies.

I conclude the paper by discussing the lessons that can be gained from this research for those working in the international higher education sector and those involved with providing services and policies that will shape the sector’s post-pandemic recovery.

About Author

Dr Angela Lehmann

Affiliation/s: Australian National University and The Lygon Group

Angela is a sociologist (PhD, ANU) with expertise in migration and higher education within the Asia Pacific. She has spent ten years as an academic in China where she researched international migration into China. Angela worked at the University of Xiamen, PRC where she taught undergraduate and postgraduate sociology. She has published widely including two books and multiple media articles. Since returning to Australia in 2017, Angela has worked in the international higher education sector, providing policy and strategic advice to peak bodies, universities and government agencies. She holds honorary positions at both The College of Arts and Social Sciences, The Australian National University and The Department of Sociology and Social Work, The University of Xiamen, China. Angela is the Education Analyst at The Lygon Group, an international higher education consultancy based in Melbourne.

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