International students open up about the highs and lows of online study
Student silhouette

Lockdowns have heightened feelings of isolation for many international students, highlighting the importance of support networks and services. Photo: Shutterstock

In some cultures, academic achievement feels like a subconscious necessity – and that is amplified by the international student status.

By Varshini Viswanath (student ambassador)

If you’re an international student who has been caught in the COVID-19 study slump, you’re not alone. A recent survey by the Council of International Students Australia found that nearly 87 per cent of international students at Australian universities reported the pandemic had severely affected their studies, while nearly two-thirds reported ‘low’ to ‘very low wellbeing’.

For some international students, common challenges presented by the health crisis are compounded by feelings of isolation, culture shock and high expectations. However, hope and inspiration can be found in the experiences of three students, past and present, at The Australian National University (ANU) College of Law.

Riding the ‘roller coaster’ of remote study

Sarah Lim is a final-year Bachelor of Laws (Hons) student from Singapore. She was drawn to ANU by its research strengths in public law and ethos in advancing social justice, a field in which she hopes to work after graduation.

“I appreciate the academics at the ANU College of Law because they make an active effort to discuss the broader implications of the law they are teaching. This has helped me appreciate law as a broad discipline that affects all aspects of society,” she said.

A major part of the international student experience for Sarah is the “culture and attitude” of Australian society and its implications for law.

Sarah Lim, a Bachelor of Laws (Hons) student at ANU based in her native Singapore, says remote study presents unique challenges for international students.

“Singapore has a different legal landscape. It may not be very striking to domestic students but holds great significance to me. Compared to other jurisdictions, Australia has more avenues to effect legal change,” said Sarah, who hopes to pursue a role in future that advances law reform.

When Sarah was in Canberra during the first three years of her degree, she lived in UniLodge student accommodation. For many students, its appeal lies in the emphasis on social life and bonding over meals, study and recreational activities.

“I really valued the communal time we had together,” Sarah recalled.

This was complemented by Sarah’s involvement in extracurricular activities at ANU. She was a senior editor at the Federal Law Review, a member of the ANU Law Students’ Society (ANU LSS) in its Law in Action Cambodia Outreach Project in 2018, and involved in the ANUSA International Students Department.

However, the onset of COVID-19 reshaped Sarah’s experience as a law student. In March 2020, she returned to Singapore. In semester 1 2021, she decided to take academic leave.

“Remote learning comes with its own set of seemingly unresolvable struggles for international students that domestic students may not fully understand,” said Sarah,

“Practically, I couldn’t access a library, so I had to compete for textbook use on the online ANU Library. My mental health was affected more broadly, as I was away from close friends, family, my significant other, and I experienced a roller coaster of good and bad news, hopes and disappointments about the future,” she added.

“I’m sure many can relate to this, but in some cultures, academic achievement feels like a subconscious necessity – and that is amplified by the international student status. Family expectations, finances and other factors took a toll on me. I decided to take leave and I think that really turned out for the better.”

When asked about her future plans, Sarah said she has been unable to actively explore the social justice sector of Australia yet still hopes to eventually work in the field.

“It’s been frustrating not being able to plan or predict what I can do after graduation, especially when I have such a clear image of what I want to do in the future,” she said.

Her advice to those in a similar situation is simple: self-care is important as is regularly acknowledging the fact we are living in an unprecedented time.

“If you’ve been feeling like you’re falling behind, your feelings are valid. However, know that ultimately, this will come to pass. Be kind to yourself as you would be to a friend,” she said.

“If possible, tell yourself that academics aren’t everything, and there’s a lot more you can take away from your studies – and life generally – than simply the marks on your transcript.”

Advice from an alumnus

Andrew Chakrabarty (JD ‘18) is a solicitor in the employment law team at BAL Lawyers. He is also involved in the legal community through organisations such as the ACT Young Lawyers Committee, Asian-Australian Lawyers Association and the ACT Law Society.

Although he completed his studies before COVID-19 reshaped the world, Andrew is acutely aware of the pandemic’s toll on international students.

Originally from Calcutta, India, he said his Juris Doctor studies at ANU highlighted to him the importance of tapping what may seem an underrated source of support: your lecturers.

“Ask them (academics) for feedback as you progress so that you are in a constant state of growth. In law, the day you stop learning is the day you stop growing,” he noted.

While online education poses unique challenges for engagement and feedback, Andrew said that these can be managed with effective time management – a skill he honed by balancing study with multiple jobs during his time at ANU.

Andrew Chakrabarty (JD '18) stresses the importance of maintaining regular communication with friends and family to stave off isolation.

Eager to advance his career while still a student, Andrew prioritised networking with legal professionals. Despite lacking exposure to the Australian legal system before arriving at ANU, Andrew built relationships with academics that put him in good stead for his studies and career.

Networking and having mentors are especially important today, Andrew said, adding his first “law job” stemmed from an encounter he had while working at Telstra on the side of his studies.

“Networking helps you conceptualise where you are, where you need to be and how to best get there,” he said.

Reflecting on his student days, Andrew noted how important it was to stay in touch with family. For him, this involved long phone calls with his father who served as a useful sounding board half a world away.

“I'd speak to my dad as I ate cereal for dinner," he recalled. 

"I’d complain for about 20 minutes straight about the weather, homesickness, financial problems, my temporary visa situation, visa-related health examinations, job-hunting – the list kept going.”

His father’s advice was typically blunt with well-intentioned perspective: “He said: ‘I suggest for now you enjoy your cereal,’”  

Positivity and prioritisation 

Kevin Marco Tanaya is in his penultimate year of a Bachelor of Politics, Philosophy and Economics/Laws (Hons). Hailing from Indonesia, he has remained in Canberra throughout the pandemic.

“I knew that the ANU College of Law had a good reputation, but I did not think I would make a good law student at all,” he said.

Kevin decided to take a leap of faith - a decision he doesn't regret. “I do like studying law because it is both intellectually challenging and gives me the necessary skills to help people solve their problems in the future,” he said.

His passion to advocate on behalf of international students led him to become the International Students Director at the ANU LSS and the National Secretary of the Council of International Students Australia (CISA), the peak representative organisation for international students in Australia.

Kevin is also active in the ANU Indonesian Students Association and, until recently, was a student editor for the Federal Law Review and the Australian Yearbook of International Law. He hopes to join one of the clinical programs offered by the ANU College of Law and write a supervised research paper in the final year of his degree.

Kevin Marco Tanaya is the International Students Director at the ANU Law Students' Society. 

Since coming to ANU, Kevin said he has enjoyed the “academic and friendly vibe” of the university.  

“The academics are always helpful and happy to answer questions. There are great academic events and conferences happening in person and online despite COVID-19,” he said.

With the support of his lecturers, Kevin secured an internship at a think tank and a community legal centre early on in his degree.

Most recently, Kevin also represented ANU in an intervarsity mooting competition. “Being an ANU Law student has also opened a lot of doors professionally, including those overseas,” he said.

When asked about how he juggles his studies with extracurricular activities amid the pandemic, Kevin noted good time management skills are crucial.

“Prioritisation is key because it will help identify what you really need to do each day. It is also important to remember that you should always prioritise your academics over extracurricular or professional commitment, at least in the early part of your degree.

“At this stage, you are establishing your legal skills and getting the best grades you can,” he said.

Kevin is among a select cohort of onshore international students at ANU. Although he has been able to enjoy campus life and attend many classes and events in-person, life has been considerably harder since the ACT went into lockdown in August 2021.

“Although my situation cannot compare with those of my friends offshore, COVID-19 has made it more difficult academically and personally for me,” he said.

“The need to change to online learning as well as the periodic loss of access to the library has been quite challenging.”

One of the biggest impacts is from the strict international travel restrictions imposed in Australia. Kevin has been unable to return to Indonesia and visit family or friends – something he describes understatedly as “certainly not ideal”.

Yet Kevin's spirit of optimism remains strong, drawing inspiration from one of JRR Tolkien’s famous characters.

“To paraphrase Gandalf: ‘It is not up to us to decide to live in interesting times, we can only decide what to do with the time that is given to us,’” he offered.

Find a list of support and wellbeing services offered by the ANU College of Law here.

ANU Counselling also has resources specifically for international students and offers appointments via Zoom and, when permitted, face-to-face.

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