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International HDR students: Challenges and active forms of resilience

Catherine Gomes and Natalie Hendry
Authors and Affiliations:
Catherine Gomes, RMIT University
Natalie Hendry, RMIT University
Larissa Hjorth RMIT University
Ingrid Richardson, RMIT University
Gretchen Coombs, RMIT University
Ruth De Souza, RMIT University
Anne Harris, RMIT University

When the COVID-19 global pandemic hit international education, the concerns of stakeholders (e.g. institutions and governments) in Australia as well as higher education commentators rested squarely on loss of income because of the largely undergraduate international student immobilities due to cross border bans and restrictions. Conversations about higher degree research (HDR) students and their wellbeing however were seemingly lacking. This is possibly due to two interrelated issues: the uneven ratio of international HDR to international undergraduate students where less than a third of international students undertake HDR work, and the more immediate economic concerns decreased numbers of full-fee paying international students pose. In response to the impact of COVID-19 on the international HDR student community, a pilot study was undertaken within RMIT to understand the lived experiences of international HDR students (n=6) as a broader project on HDR students and belonging (n=24). The results of the pilot study reveal that international HDR students have similar challenges as domestic students such as feelings of vulnerability, frustration and claustrophobia due to the impact of the global pandemic. For instance, both domestic and international students face difficulties undertaking research and writing because they are unable to access data or conduct experiments due to restrictions on entering laboratories (e.g. STEM disciplines), are living in shared accommodation making concentration on work difficult, worry about the uncertainties of employment at the end of their degrees, and may be facing health issues directly connected with the impact of decisions around COVID-19. However, the lived experiences and worries of international students start to take different paths from domestic students because of their temporary migrant status. These range from restrictions on accessing support and financial packages in the destination country to fears for the health and safety of their left-behind families. To cope with the challenges and stresses posed by the COVID-19 global pandemic international HDR students rely on their support networks both within and outside which are based on their identities and experiences as international students (in RMIT) and national/cultural affiliations (outside RMIT).

About Authors

Catherine Gomes

Affiliation/s: RMIT University

Catherine is Associate Professor in the School of Media and Communication. She is an ethnographer whose work contributes to the understanding of the evolving migration, mobility and digital media nexus. As a migration and mobility scholar, Catherine specialises on the social, cultural and communication spaces of transient migrants, especially international students, their wellbeing and their digital engagement. Catherine’s work covers the themes of identity, ethnicity, race, memory and gender. She is a specialist on the Asia-Pacific with Australia and Singapore being significant fieldwork sites.

Natalie A. Hendry

Affiliation/s: RMIT University

Natalie Ann Hendry is a Vice Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Media and Communication. Her research explores everyday social media and digital technology practices in the context of critical approaches to education, mental health, media, wellbeing, youth studies and policy. This draws on her experience prior to academia, working in community education, secondary schools and hospital settings, and consulting for health organisations and industry.

Larissa Hjorth

Affiliation/s: RMIT University

Distinguished Professor Larissa Hjorth is a digital ethnographer, socially-engaged artist, and director of the Design & Creative Practice (DCP) research platform at RMIT University. Hjorth has two decades experience leading collaborative digital and mobile media projects that innovative methods to understand intergenerational and cross-cultural relationships around play, loss and intimacy. She has lead 20 national and international research projects in locations such as Japan, South Korea, China and Australia. Hjorth has published over 100 publications on the topic—recent publications include Haunting Hands (with Cumiskey, Oxford Uni Press), Understanding Social Media (with Hinton, 2 nd  Edition, Sage), Creative Practice Ethnographies (with Harris, Jungnickel and Coombs, Rowman & Little) and Ambient Play (with Richardson, MIT Press).

Ingrid Richardson

Affiliation/s: RMIT University

Ingrid Richardson is a Professor of Digital Media in the School of Media & Communication at RMIT University. She has a broad interest in the ‘human-technology relation’ and has published widely on topics such as virtual and augmented reality, games, mobile media and small-screen practices, urban screens, remix culture and web-based content creation and distribution. She is co-author of Gaming in Social, Locative and Mobile Media (Palgrave, 2014), Ambient Play (MIT, 2020) and Understanding Games and Game Cultures (Sage, 2021).

Gretchen Coombs

Affiliation/s: RMIT University

Gretchen Coombs is a Post Doctoral Fellow in the Design and Creative Practice Enabling Capability Platform at RMIT. She researches socially engaged art and design practices in the US, the UK and Australia, with a particular focus on how they are practiced in urban contexts. Gretchen has a PhD in social and cultural anthropology and a MA in visual criticism: her writing uses a combination of ethnographic methods and visual analysis. Her co-edited book for Routledge, Undesign: Critical Practices at the Intersection of Art and Design is due out later this year. She is currently completing her monograph, The Lure of the Social: Encounters with Contemporary Artists (Intellect 2018), which is an experimental ethnography of artists working at the intersection of art, aesthetics, and politics.

Ruth DeSouza

Affiliation/s: RMIT University

Dr Ruth DeSouza is a highly experienced multidisciplinary educator, researcher and consultant, specialising in cross cultural engagement, cultural safety, and the interface of digital technologies within CALD communities. Her background is in nursing where she has extensive experience as a clinician, researcher and academic in New Zealand and Australia and has published work on community engagement in the arts. Ruth is a 2020 RMIT Vice Chancellor’s Fellow, based in the School of Art. Her fellowship project aims to engage health professionals in finding new ways to understand, co-design and implement sustainable cultural safety initiatives in a range of health contexts.

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