McGill’s International Students Hold Fast to Future Hopes

On the hardest days, U2 Science student Zhiyuan Shen’s lectures keep her up until 3 am.  She must compensate for the time difference in Shenzhen, China—13 hours ahead of Montreal—to keep up with the rest of her classes, meaning she works alone at desolate hours of the night, which is the norm for many resilient international students this semester.

 This semester is in stark contrast to Shen’s previous years at McGill.When asked if she would rather be in Montreal right now, however, she pauses for a long moment.

“Well…maybe not,” Shen laughs. “I think there’s actually no difference [between] Montreal [and] my hometown. You need to study [by] yourself […] I would like to be in Montreal […] with my friends, so if I can’t see my friends, there’s no meaning to be Montreal. […] after class you will go take a coffee, or chill, and study, and I think that’s very… precious.”

Shen is one of 12,228 international students at McGill this year, many of them absent from campus due to long waits for study permit approvals and Montreal’s red zone lockdown until January 11. Those living in vastly different time zones have been forced to adapt in the face of live lectures that may be during the workday in Montreal, but stream in the dead of night where they live.

Until the federal government approved McGill’s COVID-19 readiness plan on October 20, very few international students were able to return to Montreal. First year international students faced extra barriers as the first mass of approved study permits were only released that week.

While students are frustrated with the effects of remote learning, some manage to keep an air of amusement at their situation. Eight hours ahead of Montreal in Dubai, Afreen Mithaiwalla, a U1 Arts student, chides the Canadian bureaucracy in Abu Dhabi for its delays in issuing study permits.

“Everywhere else in the UAE (United Arab Emirates), it’s 100%; everyone’s back to work, everything’s open; only the [Canadian] embassy is working on 30%! [….] They work from 10-3 and then they shut. And I’m like, ‘Okay…’” Mithaiwalla said. “I just think that I’m not alone; there’s a lot of international students out there that…are in worse conditions because they either can’t access WiFi, or they live with people they need to take care of, you know? So I don’t have the worst of it.”

Speaking from Miami, Augustin Bilaine, a U1 Arts student, fantasizes about his first experience as a student in the city. “I really wanna check out the city of Montreal. I’ve only been once and I really wanna just—even if it’s dumb stuff, like just checking out the street art on Saint-Laurent, or things like that, I really feel like doing that because I realize there’s been weeks where I generally didn’t leave the house, like at all. Or I realize that I spent 80% of my time in my room. And it can get very easy to just get distracted and realize, ‘Oh wow, it’s been ten days since I left the house’… things like that.”

Comparing McGill’s handling of the pandemic to that of other universities is fruitless for many, but the sheer proximity of some international students to other institutions reminds them of what could have been.

From Jinan City, China, Yoyo Peng, a U1 Science student, laments over the relative bustle of the nearby eponymous university. Despite the necessity of many of McGill’s measures, she describes that “most of my Chinese friends … are just on campus and having classes. This year is totally normal for them. Last year, yeah, it was still online but of course the control was really strict on everything. But they are on campus, they are living in dorms and having classes in person. So yeah, I’m really jealous of them right now.” Despite the fact that some of Peng’s acquaintances face movement restrictions that may never be implemented at McGill, the continuation of student life is all the more upsetting for her as a result.

Mithaiwalla is similarly considerate of the opportunities absent in the pandemic, but prefers to look to the future, dreaming of “…white Christmas. I wanna have a white Christmas tree—not desert Christmas, that’s not a thing […] I bought a winter jacket, it was very exciting.”

This year, many international students will have to go without the famous fall colours on Mount Royal, not to mention the warmer autumns the city has enjoyed the past couple years. Study permits will soon prompt their arrival, but red zone restrictions will demand extra effort to reach out and establish friend groups. Peng reflects on the pre-pandemic reality of access to social activities.

“During normal times, we’re not gonna think of situations like this. So we basically take everything for granted and it’s just the way it’s supposed to be; that’s how we think. But nowadays, because of the whole quarantine situation, it really highlighted the parts that we actually value so much, but in normal days, because we have the moment of time, we don’t value them as much. So I guess that’s the part of quarantine that hit me hard like a truck,” Peng said.

Still awaiting their final documentation, international students have reorganized their daily lives to accommodate new circumstances of learning. Their newfound social networks persist virtually as on-campus activities show some signs of thawing come winter semester. For these students who make the most of online socializing and have not stopped fantasizing about a boundless post-pandemic life, their resilience may yet return rewards.

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