The Transition To Virtual: Supporting International Students in a COVID-19 World

Posted: Wednesday, October 28, 2020
By: Beatrice D’alimonte - New York University
Alyssa Fox - FHI 360
Asia King - North Carolina State University


The COVID-19 pandemic has had a global impact. From travel bans to university reopening plans and a race to develop a vaccine, the world has pivoted to transition operations from face to face interactions to virtual ones. In the Spring of 2020, many universities had to implement reactionary methods to ensure their campus communities' safety. Extending spring break, impromptu training sessions on virtual learning for faculty, and canceling academic and student life activities, including alternative breaks, were just some of the ways campuses across the country were transitioning.

Over the summer, the focus was on fall planning. Some universities considered fully reopening, and others determined to go all online, while the rest chose a blended format. With the introduction of the 2020 SEVP Fall guidance, international students were also faced with the difficult decision to take in-person classes to maintain their immigration status in the U.S. or return to their home countries to complete the semester online. Combine these challenges with a trend of decreasing international student enrollment in the U.S., and it is clear that some changes are needed to both attract and retain international students and learn from the COVID-19 pandemic to serve their unique needs better.

While this article is aimed at U.S. based institutions, we hope global university sites and partner organizations will adapt the recommendations to fit the needs of their international student population.

Challenges Faced By International Students

International students are a vital part of the higher education community. They bring more than economic value but rich perspectives of the world, enhancing campus diversity and increased cultural competence for domestic students. However, when decisions, such as those related to the pandemic, are made, they are often one of the most disadvantaged groups.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, international students were already finding it challenging to navigate the college experience and build community with their peers, especially domestic students. According to a study completed by WES Research, 60% of international students surveyed said they are not actively involved in activities and events at their institutions (Skinner et al. 2019). One possible reasoning behind this is that international students are unfamiliar with the western educational culture, and therefore are unaware of institutional practices and resources available to them while they are on campus. Furthermore, student clubs, intramural sports, internships, alternative breaks, and other extracurricular activities are not frequently part of traditional college life in many countries. As a result, many international students report feeling overwhelmed with the number of activities and events on a college campus (Beckstein 2020). 

The transition to understanding new institutional expectations are added on top of difficulties understanding new cultural and social norms. This could include language difficulties, difficulties adjusting to the U.S. social and academic culture, misunderstanding, and communication complications with faculty and peers. All of these factors contribute to an increased feeling of anxiety and isolation. 

Because of these realities, international students especially have difficulty meeting and making friends with domestic students (Skinner et al. 2019). Different cultural expectations added to linguistic nuances may make it difficult for international students to connect with, build friendships, and community with domestic students. 

Other additional challenges faced by international students occur within the academic setting. Studying, conversing, and asking questions in a different language may limit a smooth adjustment and transition for international students. International students may speak English as a second or third language and may not be proficient and, therefore, comfortable asking questions in English while attending a class. The effect of being a non-native speaker means that sometimes international students tend to participate less frequently within in-person class discussions and take less advantage of professors' meeting hours than domestic students. Without keeping international students in mind throughout every step of the process, we risk alienating that population and failing to be the advocate and support system they need.

COVID-19 Implications

As mentioned, international students already struggle with many of these barriers while on campus, so when COVID-19 forced the campus learning and social experience to go virtual, this exacerbated these challenges. For example, international students are frequently excited about the opportunity to join clubs and explore extracurricular activities that are not offered in their home countries. With COVID-19, most of these activities were abruptly canceled. Even for those who were able to continue virtually, the experience lacked impact, and students were frequently disappointed.

Zoom fatigue is a reality for many students balancing virtual learning and the pandemic's impact on their lives. The added struggle to learn new technology, manage time zone differences, and participate in virtual learning in a non-native language has amplified these already present challenges for international students. With a shift to all online classes, international students no longer benefit from in-person classroom dynamics, including more convenient access to the professor, non-verbal communication cues, and varied instruction modes.

For many international students, the U.S. culture is very different from their home country regarding beliefs, values, and lifestyles. For example, high-impact activities such as internships, volunteering, and alternative breaks may not be common in students' home countries. Thus friends and family may question the value of students participating in these activities, even in a virtual format. After moving back home due to COVID-19, some students may be living in multi-generational families with more distractions and pressures to re-establish and maintain social relationships. Thus international students missed out on many of these critical social and cultural experiences that are in some ways unique to the United States.


Increase the frequency and types of virtual engagement opportunities. Offices, organizations, and international students' support on campus can assist international students by offering more touchpoints for students to stay connected. While planning engagement opportunities, organizers should try their best to account for different time zones, class schedules, and other campus events. By providing an opportunity, like virtual trivia or a conversation club, a few times a week, international students have more opportunities to commit and engage with their peers and other campus community members. Additionally, different formats for participation will cater to international students who may not always participate in synchronous events. Encourage campus offices to not merely replicate on-campus events in an identical virtual format but consider adapting them to address some of the challenges mentioned in this article.

Be creative when it comes to collaboration. Institutions will need to be innovative when it comes to partnerships. Think outside of the box by partnering with other schools in your time zone to expand the reach for a particular event. Institutions can also leverage relationships with on-campus partners in a different way. If your office is short on bandwidth, consider serving as a guide to others on campus who may already be planning events and giving them insight into international students' needs. Also, consider going beyond your campus and involving local non-profits or other community organizations in your virtual events.

Amplify the voices of international students on campus by advocating for their specific needs. Talk with offices that provide a wide range of services for all students, such as Student Activities, Alternative Breaks, Community Engagement, Information Technology, and Academic Support Services. Provide them with international student feedback and encourage these offices to tailor their services and information for international students.

Build flexibility into your virtual engagement opportunities. If we have learned anything from this past year, it is that things never go as planned. Consider creating back-up plans such as a virtual option for meetings and club activities. Use new formats such as broadcasting your Zoom meeting to Youtube for those unable to access the platform. Institutions should also consider tailoring local alternative breaks that help students explore their community and don't rely on travel logistics or solely on in-person interaction. 

Create more informal ways for students to interact with each other and with critical offices on campus. For example, consider hosting drop-in virtual student happy hours or coffee breaks that allow students to connect informally with a small group of their peers. Student services offices can host online office hours and combine it with a fun event such as trivia or a prize giveaway to attract students. These smaller group interactions are frequently helpful for international students who may be struggling to figure out how to stay involved on campus. Offices should also consider diversifying their social media and communication strategies, keeping in mind that students cannot access some platforms such as Twitter or Facebook from different countries, so they may not access posted information.


Despite the many obstacles our institutions may face, it is our responsibility to not only amplify the voices of our international students but also proactively advocate for their needs. While this article is not all-inclusive of the challenges international students may face, we choose to focus on a few specific narratives that are continually echoed by our students. Understanding the diverse and unique needs of international students in a changing COVID-19 era will be vital in supporting them through these challenging times and similar future events. The suggestions in this article of thinking outside the box when creating activities/events, developing new partnerships, and soliciting feedback from partners hopefully serve as a starting point in creating new initiatives to support international students and help them become more engaged in your organization/campus community.


Beckstein, A. (2020, July 24). How are international students coping with the Covid-19 pandemic? Retrieved from

Daiya, K. (2020, June 16). Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from

Skinner, M., Luo, N., and Mackie, C. (2019). Are U.S. HEIs meeting the needs of international students? New York: World Education Services. Retrieved from 

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