Dreams now a Nightmare for Many International Students

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Victoria’s coronavirus lockdown has turned many international students’ dreams of studying and working in Melbourne into a nightmare. Cut off from federal government payments like JobSeeker and JobKeeper, losing their existing jobs or unable to find new ones, and switching to digital learning, has left many international students lonely and anxious about their uncertain futures. G’Day India spoke to a few such international students about the struggles they’re facing while confronting a pandemic in isolation away from their families and homes.

For Sai Srushti Kasturi, getting admission to study in Monash University was a dream come true, but having to transition to online study as soon as she came, she never got to study in the campus she admired and underwent a hard time being in lockdown with roommates who bullied and harassed her. ‘I’d met a couple of people online in India who were coming to Melbourne to study too and looking for one more roommate, so I joined them. I was living in a shared house with them, but the environment got toxic. They would yell at me, eat my food, gang up on me and verbally abuse me for no reason. When I had online classes, they would turn music on loudly, I had to be locked in with these people 24/7, and at one point it was so horrifying that I thought of reporting it to the police,’ she said.
Srushti, who never got the chance to meet her classmates in person, had a difficult time making friends in a whole new environment and didn’t have anyone she knew that she could stay with. ‘I was applying for a lot of part-time jobs just to get out of my house and earn some income, I even got interviewed, but after the restrictions, that didn’t work out,’ she said. ‘There was a point where I felt so fed up, I thought this is enough, I’ll just go back to India and do another course there, but for me doing this was a passion, and I didn’t want to give up on something that I’d dreamt of.’ Fighting to keep her morale high, Srushti found a new place to move to and shifted there soon, but went back to India after the bond ran out. ‘I was spending more and I wasn’t getting any income, I wasn’t eligible for any grants, and my parents were worried about me living alone after what I’d gone through. We were supposed to go back to campus during the second semester, but then the second wave hit and it was online again, so I decided to go back home for as long as it’s online,’ said Srushti, who is happy to be reunited with her family and dog in Hyderabad.
‘The highlight of this time was this aunty who knew my mother and came to help me. I was very lonely and I will never forget the day she came to visit me and brought lunch for me. You’re in a very different country, you don’t know anybody, and people don’t even care if you eat and here was someone had brought lunch for me without even knowing me, it melted my heart. One day I hope I can also give away so much love to people,’ Srushti said, excited to come back to campus when she is able to.

Ahnaf Yousuf Piash, who had finished his bachelor’s degree from Deakin University last November, is stuck in Melbourne while studying for his master’s degree in the University of Tasmania. ‘I even had the tickets booked to go there, but a few days before I had to go, the Premier of Tasmania said they were closing borders,’ said Piash. ‘I’m studying laboratory medicine so it’s really hard to do my course online because it’s all supposed to be done in a lab. You have to be present in the lab, mix solutions, put it in machines, look through microscopes, and see the results,’ he said. Piash, who had originally planned to go back home to Bangladesh before coming back to start his course in July, is glad he didn’t—‘If I had gone back I’d have ended up being stuck there,’ he said.
Although he struggled with his mental health and lack of social life and was unable to get any shifts from his job, Piash says that he is lucky his parents supported him and that the situation of temporary residents in Australia is much worse than that of international students. ‘Most of my friends who graduated last year used their TR, which you can only apply for once, to continue to live and work here but because of the pandemic, they lost their jobs or couldn’t find any. Now they’re disadvantaged in a lot of ways because not only do they not get any government support, they don’t qualify for any university support either because they’re not students anymore, so they can’t do anything right now and they still have to pay rent. Most of them are doing Uber Eats or delivery jobs because that’s all they can do, if they go home they’d have a difficult time coming back and that time would use up their TR so that wastes a lot of time and money.’

Sudharsun Venkatesan is one such student, who has resorted to a delivery job after recently completing his master’s degree. Sudharsun, who arrived in Melbourne to finish his last semester just a day before the international travel ban, says that the change was ‘a rude shock’ to him. ‘They had to change the whole system- all the activities, assessments, and content changed and went online. Doing group tasks online was a struggle because many people don’t contribute. We lost access to labs, so the product we were going to design using the labs had to be made with whatever we could find in Bunnings, and then using a 3D printer’, he said.
‘I took a bank loan for the degree, and for my living expenses I was working part-time in a restaurant and interning for this company which helped me make some money for rent, but the pandemic collapsed that completely. I got a grant which helped me sustain myself for the three months of the first wave, but now I’ve just been doing Uber Eats delivery which is the only thing that’s helping me out,’ said Sudharsun, who was planning to pursue a PhD, but missed out on it due to funding cuts, and is currently looking for other opportunities.

‘This was supposed to be my gallery submissions year, we had to go for exhibitions and get our own personal studios and gallery which never happened because of the pandemic. It’s hard to do a studio-based degree like visual arts from home because you don’t get enough resources and I thought of deferring but that wastes time and delays everything, and you have to apply for a visa,’ said Pooja.
‘I was very depressed when this started but later on I made a routine where I’m getting up, working out, cooking every day, and it really helps if you’re doing activities all day and talking to your friends. At the end of the day, I just think of the bigger picture where people don’t have basic amenities like shelter or food, so you need to be grateful if you have a house and job,’ said Pooja, whose freelance graphic design work had picked up as she could do it all from home, and earn some income on the side.
‘A lot of people who have never had to sit with themselves are spiralling now because a lot of issues they didn’t even know existed are coming up now, especially in Asian cultures where mental illnesses are frowned upon but we need to confront and solve them. The reason I can see things positively is because I’ve been by myself for a long time and know there’s always a way out of any problem,’ she said.

For Deepak Mallya too, it was his mental health that took a blow during this time. ‘I was already stressed about my research because it’s highly competitive, but once lockdown started it increased. My sleep cycle and eating patterns got completely disrupted, I wasn’t able to sleep until 2 or 3 in the morning, so I used to overthink and got depressed because I’m all alone here, I can’t call up and talk to my parents or friends every hour. I had this constant fear of what’s happening back home in Chennai where there were lots of COVID cases near my family’s house. I was not motivated to do anything, it was a war from within, but I’m recovering now. I realised this is something I’m putting on myself, this is a choice, and I can make a better one so slowly I started to follow a routine, and drew strength from my spirituality and it’s helped me get better,’ said Deepak.
‘The path of my spirituality and learning how to improve myself wouldn’t have opened if I hadn’t gone through all of this, and it was good to see the whole community trying to help people. The university gave hardship payments and there were charities and gurudwaras that were donating groceries and food,’ he said.

Studies by the Department of Home Affairs showed that over 70% of Australian international students have chosen to stay back here, which means the majority of students have put their hopes into our country and community, not wishing to lose the chance of coming back here. Contributing $37.6 billion to the Australian economy in the last financial year, international students have poured not only their dreams and aspirations, but also their finances into the country, and the least we can do in return is to support and help them during this time, so that their journeys now are not marked by hunger, loneliness, and desperation.

By Shivani Prabhu