[Journalism Internship] Covid pandemic leaves international students feeling lonely and isolated

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[Journalism Internship] Covid pandemic leaves international students feeling lonely and isolated

 
Four months ago, 18-year-old HamereNoah Demessie left her home country Ethiopia to travel to Korea and pursue a bachelor’s degree in life science and biotechnology at Yonsei University.  
 
Motivated by a scholarship and her desire to study abroad, Demessie hoped to fully immerse herself in Korean culture and explore the beautiful country with the close friends that she expected to make throughout her college experience.  
 
So far, she has barely made any progress.  
 
“I have been able to make a couple of friends, but we are not that connected, and we don’t meet [in person] because of the pandemic restrictions,” she said. “I have therefore been doing many things on my own, which makes me feel lonely and unwelcome in this country.”  
 
Demessie is not alone.  
 
The Covid-19 pandemic has had a serious toll on the number of foreign students arriving in Korea to study.  
 
Before the pandemic in 2019, the figure was at an all-time high of about 60,000 students, according to data from the Ministry of Education. In 2020, however, the number of international students dropped for the first time in over six years by more than 6,000.  
 
Many foreign students were still brave enough to fly to Korea amid a global health crisis, but those like Demessie that made that leap say they are now facing a new challenge here: Trying to sustain a healthy social life.  
 
Khaoula Ben Ayad, 20, a freshman at Yonsei University’s Global Leaders College from Morocco, knows the struggle all too well.  
 
“Coming to Korea before Covid, it wasn’t easy either being in a new country where you don’t speak the language,” said Ben Ayad, who mentioned that her passion for Korean culture and language is what inspired her to travel to Korea in 2019.  
 
“During the pandemic, since the classes were all online, you can’t meet anyone face to face, and even though you make plans with someone, you never end up going through with it because of limitations and regulations,” she continued.  
 
Mark Aaron DelaCruz, a 21-yearold from the Philippines who arrived in Korea in 2019 to study mechanical engineering at SUNY Korea, luckily made most of his friends before the onset of the pandemic. But that doesn’t mean he’s fully satisfied with his social life.
 
“Before, we international students felt kind of alienated because of the language barrier and cultural differences, but now it’s like tenfold,” said DelaCruz.  
 
“If you put me in a room with many Koreans right now, we will interact nicely, but after the event, we will not follow up on each other because we hadn’t talked about anything important.  
 
“I have for sure felt lonelier this past year compared to when I first came.”  
 
As to how he has been dealing with loneliness and lack of a sense of belonging, DelaCruz said he talked to his friends back home or took walks around his neighborhood on his own and tried to look at things from a different perspective.  
 
He has also tried to learn some Korean to increase his chances of making Korean friends.  
 
“I don’t have a reliable way of dealing with this situation, to be honest,” he said. “I just try different things as days go by.”  
 
Amid Korea’s spirited efforts to globalize its education system, the negative social experience of international students who expected more from studying abroad in Korea raises the questions over whether higher education institutions in Korea can do more to accommodate those students willing to travel half way around the world to study here.  
 
Demessie said she thinks her school can do better by designing specific online programs for incoming first-year students, helping them to meet native Korean students and interact openly. That way, when the pandemic ends, they will already have friends to share the Korean experience with.  
 
“If I made genuine connections with other students,” said Demessie,  
 
“I would visit historical places in Korea with them and go out for meals together as much as I can.”  
 
Until then, DelaCruz said he fears never getting a wholesome college experience in Korea.  
 
“Even if we learn the language, that’s only half the battle,” he said. 
 

BY KAI GREGORY, LEAH NABANGI [kai.gregory@stonybrook.edu, leah.nabangi@stonybrook.edu]
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