Being an international student during COVID-19

Pictured Above: Jaya Sunil Bhojwani, an international PhD counseling psychology student, is studying the unique challenges that COVID-19 brought to international students in the U.S. and is developing an intervention to provide mental health support to affected students.

Written by Korina Wilbert

Jaya Sunil Bhojwani, a PhD counseling psychology student, conducts research on the socio-political and systemic challenges faced by international students studying in the U.S. It’s not just her research agenda, it’s also her lived experience. Bhojwani, who identifies as both Indian and Caribbean, has been navigating the international student experience for the past eight years, but said that the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified and multiplied the challenges.

“Being an international student is very distressing in the time of COVID,” Bhojwani said. “When the pandemic began, a lot of my peers were talking about their stressors, and I saw how little attention was being given to international student issues.”

In response, Bhojwani led a study that identified the challenges and impacts of COVID-19 on international students across the country. The students were already dealing with existing pre-COVID-19 challenges, such as difficulties adjusting to an unfamiliar country, immigration issues, inadequate healthcare, and financial and future insecurity, but these issues were exacerbated by pandemic-related factors such as university shutdowns, destabilizing presidential policies, heightened racism, and international travel restrictions, according to the study.

Many of the challenges faced by these students are complex and difficult to address, which compounds feelings of loneliness, isolation, and the sense of being ignored.

“There is this feeling that students have that they’ve worked so hard to get here, they are away from home, they are doing their best academically, they are paying their tuition, they are trying to find a job, but there are barriers at every turn,” Bhojwani said. “That feeling of being forgotten is so prevalent.”

With funding from a Protect Purdue grant, Bhojwani’s team is developing a psycho-social intervention for Purdue international students to give them a voice and help address the gap in mental health support that their study revealed. “We are focusing on coping mechanisms using a cognitive behavioral lens, but also being very mindful in integrating the systemic perspective,” Bhojwani said. The project is awaiting IRB approval.

“This research, I hold it really close to my heart,” Bhojawani said. “International students are often forgotten not only on a nationwide level, but also on a university policy-wide level. The pandemic has created a new opportunity to voice these concerns and to bring awareness to the inadequacies on a systemic level.”