Living & Learning Online
Theint Thinzar Lwin
It is okay to feel difficult being an international student in the pandemic.
We all know being a grad school student is difficult. Being an international grad school student? More difficult. What if you mix it with a global pandemic? Yeah … I know.
I decided to go back to school after working for a few years. I wanted to meet new people and learn from different cultures. Studying abroad is one of my childhood dreams and I decided in 2019 that this is the time I pursued my dream.
I started to apply for school and visa in January 2020 and I thought finally, I will be in maple land, making international friends, wearing cool clothes (just like typical “international student jokes” on the internet) to classes, eating Canadian food, and taking pictures in the snow. But you know what happened next.
First Semester (In My Home Country)
When my very first semester started in September 2020, I was in my room which is 11,732 kilometres (7290 miles) away from Langara College with a 14.5 hour time zone difference. My classes were from 1:00 AM to 3:00 AM and 5:00 AM to 7:00 AM. Because of sleep deprivation, I was moody all the time and it was really difficult to concentrate in the classes. If my younger self knew that I would have to attend and take finance exams at 4:00 AM, she would just fight me to death.
Also, I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know how to register for the courses, I didn’t how to navigate through Brightspace yet, I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing before the classes, etc., etc. I was also anxious about how the professors will be teaching us or how my classmates would treat me. Everything turned out well in the end, but for the registration process, I wish Langara would make a “how-to” video from the start to the finish and post it on Brightspace. For example, what should you do when you get the approval letter from Langara, how to access your student email, and how to register for the courses?
With the time zone difference, almost everything was difficult. Making friends, joining clubs, and participating in clubs. At that time, around 60% of my classmates were already in Canada. So, I freaked out thinking I am late at making friends, building relationships, and career. As I said, when you are sleepy, you really think the world is ending. One of the life lessons I learned during my first semester was sometimes, your life is not bad, it is just you don’t have enough sleep.
In Eastern culture, we are not familiar with asking for help, especially from our teachers. I would like to suggest to you that it is okay to ask for help here. You just have to be honest and inform them in advance. My marketing professor, Stephanie Koonar, and PDP professor, Lucinda Atwood were so understanding about my situation and because of them, I felt welcomed at Langara and did well in the first semester.
But of course, not everything is bad. Since I was living in my hometown, I could enjoy my favorite traditional food in the comfort of living in my parents’ house and meeting with my childhood friends when I was stressed, and the best part was not having to worry about transportation and no cost of housing.
Second Semester (in Vancouver)
I finally arrived in Canada on January 19, 2021. Coming from the tropical place where 20C is the coldest, the wind of Vancouver just hit me in the face like a baseball bat since I set foot outside of YVR airport.
Settling in a new place, trying to adjust the sleep schedule, being away from family and friends and missing them, not being able to cook like your mother, and losing appetite. You know the drill; you might have already read about all these. The advantages and disadvantages of studying online during the first semester turned 180 degrees.
To make things worse, a military coup happened in my country, Myanmar on February 1st, 2021. With losing contact with my family because of internet shut down across the country by the military and worrying for my family’s safety during the midst of ongoing violence by the terrorists, my mental health and academic performance are affected severely.
However, it is important to remember the good things during the rainy days even if those things are tiny. I can attend classes without losing my sleep, meet some of my classmates in person, join clubs, and participate in volunteering programs too. Studying abroad makes me understand myself better and improve my personal development and self-confidence dramatically.
My grades may not be good this semester, but I am not giving up. I informed all my professors about the current situation and try to get their help on my studies. For my mental health, I reached out to Langara’s counseling services and am currently meeting with the counsellor every week to improve my mental well-being. To relay to you what my professor taught in class, think about whether the problem you are worrying about will still matter in 10 minutes, 10 months, or 10 years from now?
Despite feeling depressed, I am positive that eventually I will feel better and study well again. Despite the fact that this is the third military coup that happened in the last 60 years in my country, I am positive that my people will win against the dictators this time because I always believe there is a light at the end of the tunnel. You will find your light at the end of your tunnel too.
Challenges of online studying & how you can solve them
Distractions and difficulty in concentration in classes
Open your zoom video. Yes, get off your bed, wear clothes you would wear to school and open your zoom video. Trust me. When you know that your instructor and other classmates can see what you are doing, you will be less likely to use your phone or doing other things. Besides, your classmates and especially your lecturer would feel appreciate seeing your face because no one like talking to black boxes on the screen.
And yes, the Pomodoro method works! You should definitely give it a try. On my worst days, when I could not even concentrate for 25 minutes, I reduced it to 15 or 10 minutes. Half a loaf is better than none.
Mental health problems
At one point, you could feel stuck, or you cannot do it anymore. Because being an international grad student during the pandemic is not easy and you might burn out eventually. When I was in my country, I used Here2talk app to get mental health support. It is a free, confidential counselling app for all students currently registered with a BC post-secondary institution, provided by BC government.
If you are in Canada or if your time zone is okay with PST, you should use Langara’s counseling service too. I promise it would improve your mental well-being.
Another thing you can do for your mental health is help other people. You can help to explain studies to your classmates, or you can volunteer or just do some random acts of kindness. I was so stressed out about coming to Canada in January. But when I took part in the “LSSC student information session” as a student ambassador and saw the “Thank you, Lwin” message at the end of the zoom session, I was so genuinely happy. You can always join VOLT programs or clubs for volunteering.
From one student to another
Ask for help.
Ask for help from your instructors, your classmates, your student coordinator, your school. Ask for it because you deserve it.
It is okay.
It is okay to feel angry or anxious about all the things you lose because of the pandemic. Sometimes, we may feel like other people are doing well during all this chaos and it is only us who are having troubles. That’s not true. Almost everyone has been affected negatively by this pandemic, it’s just they are not telling us about their struggles just like we don’t tell ours to them. So, don’t compare yourself with others.
Remember you will be okay. There will be light at the end of the tunnel. We can do this.