“Go back home or stick it out” — International Stu...

“Go back home or stick it out” — International Students Stuck in Limbo Amid the Pandemic

For many, choosing where to go for college is a huge step — requiring back-and-forth decision-making, scanning through multi-layered brochures and even withstanding the bleak of winter in exchange for a campus tour. All to ensure that a student found the right fit. 

Saran Karunan found his right fit more than 8,550 miles away from Bangkok, Thailand. Now a junior at DePaul, he is pursuing a major in philosophy and minors in applied psychology and German.

Joining Karunan for the 2020-2021 academic year were 44,000 more international students in Illinois. Despite this considerable number, he thinks there is a lack of discourse about the challenges they face when studying abroad. 

To try to fill in this gap, at least at DePaul, he has been integrating a mental-health component in the classes he facilitates as a Chicago Quarter Mentor, where he works with a staff professional in leading a 10-week “Common Hour” section. 

As described on the Liberal Studies Program website, Common Hour is “a kind of College Life 101 designed to address issues of transition for first-year students and introduce them to the keys to college success.” Topics range from understanding and believing in yourself and connecting to DePaul.

“There’s also an alcohol education, sexual assault prevention, and diversity and inclusion trainings that all freshmen have to take,” Karunan said. “Nowhere in there is anything about mental health explicitly stated [although] there is a wellness lesson that briefly glances about it.”


To make room for an entire mental-health lesson, Karunan and his staff professional have been combining two different lessons in one week. This lesson includes him sharing his personal experiences during his freshman year and resources that can help with the challenges that students might encounter.

“When you ask people, ‘How many of you related with that?’ every hand in the room goes up,” he said.

He follows up with another question, “So why aren’t we talking about it?”

During Common Hour and even online, when he took over the @iamdepaul Instagram account, mental-health struggles is a topic he doesn’t shy away from. 

“They can use me as a resource because I’ve been through what many people go through, but don’t talk about,” he said. “The homesickness … with cultural confusion being a third-culture kid, and traveling, adds more to what international students feel.”

Challenges for international students

Looking back at his fall quarter of freshman year, Karunan knew homesickness was going to hit him at some point, but didn’t expect the magnitude of how much it could affect him. 

“At the beginning of the quarter, [I was] feeling really excited to make all these new friends, get into all these classes and explore the city,” he recalled. “And then around the end of October, when the sun started going down early … It’s been around two months since I’ve seen my family. That’s when everything just turned.”

Homesickness, compounded with adjusting to social isolation, visa problems and discrimination, generated more stress as COVID-19 started to ravage the U.S in March 2020. Dr. Jie Zhu, clinical counselor and international student outreach co-chair at the counseling center of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), noticed these concerns become more pertinent with the international students she works with.

“Social justice issues [also] stood out after the pandemic started, especially for Asian/East Asian students,” Zhu said, noting the rise of anti-Asian attacks. “Students, more or less experienced some kind of discrimination … [in their personal] lives or the news.”

For the academic year 2020-2021, UIUC’s international student population mostly came from Asia with 6, 695 students. According to a 2021 Open Doors Report by the Institute of International Education, this pattern also reflected the nationwide enrollment rate as Asia was the leading continent having 645,622 international students.

Resources for international students

In addition, Open Doors noted that UIUC ranked second among public universities in the country with the most international students during the academic year 2020-2021.

“So why aren’t we talking about it?”

The international students’ mark on campus prompted UIUC’s counseling center to expand their international student outreach team and continue offering two therapy groups: an international students support group and a Mandarin process group. Topics discussed per week are determined by the members, but mostly revolve around adjustment and loneliness, cultural differences, language barriers and academic difficulties.

“We have a large number of international students from countries who speak Mandarin, so we’re able to offer that to the students who may feel more comfortable or at ease to express their personal concerns in their first language in a more confidential space,” said Dr. Tzu-An Hu, who co-leads the space with Zhu every Friday from 3 to 4:30 p.m.

The counseling center also has counselors fluent in Spanish and Hindi.

If students have specific yet collective concerns like body image or stress management, the counseling center also hosts InterConnect, a dialogue-based and skills-building series to support students in acclimating to the new environment.

At the onset of the pandemic, these programs were still running, albeit remotely, along with the unlimited individual therapy sessions for students based in Illinois. Meanwhile, out-of-state students can only access the third-party application, My Student Support Program (My SSP), because of licensure regulations for counselors.

“We don’t have a set number [but] I know some of the universities do,” Hu said, pertaining to the maximum number of therapy sessions a student can take. “For me, usually, I will talk to a student and we can plan on meeting for about four-ish sessions and then we can see if we had your concerns addressed.”

At DePaul, when Universal Counseling Services (UCS) was still administering individual therapy, there were a maximum of 20 sessions throughout the course of a student’s degree program.

In his most recent statement published in The DePaulia, UCS Director Tow Yee Yau discussed his plans in reshaping the counseling services. These plans included changing the 20-session limit to no limit, offering specialized counseling for LGBTQ+ and BIPOC students and expecting a full staff in the fall of 2022. 

Currently, UCS offers free and remote counseling through My SSP and provides initial consultations, triage and referrals to mental health professionals outside DePaul. 

Last spring, Karunan was able to find a therapist through UCS after an initial consultation.

“They were able to point me to three or four different organizations or offices that would possibly take my insurance,” Karunan said.

“I decided that, maybe, I can deal with it on my own,” he said. “There’s this phrase in my culture that, ‘you gotta stick it out like a man.’”

Impacts of remote learning

When DePaul transitioned to remote learning in spring quarter of 2020, now-senior Kaydan Pascual mulled over the idea of flying back to his home country of Belize.

“I had to take my accounting classes online, which was the main challenge, and it really affected my grades and well-being,” he said. “There were days where I didn’t know if I wanted to just quit and go back home, or stick it out and not give up on school and everything that I’ve accomplished thus far.”

To cope, he strategized and orchestrated his own mechanisms, which included morning walks, as many phone calls with parents as needed, staying focused on his internship and setting boundaries between work and personal life. 

Although aware of the resources available for international students, he was initially hesitant in exploring them because of the stigma surrounding seeking support. 

“I decided that, maybe, I can deal with it on my own,” he said. “There’s this phrase in my culture that, ‘you gotta stick it out like a man.’”

The stigma on asking for help

In Zhu’s work with international students, she noticed that this stigmatization around asking for help, particularly about mental health and therapy, is a common theme. 

“Usually, they choose not to disclose this part of their lives to their family members … and that’s one thing we are constantly trying to destigmatize … [but] it’s a challenge,” she said. 

During welcome orientations, Hu explains and establishes the connection between students’ mental health and academic performance. 

“I personally found that a few things international students are very focused on are their academic performance and if they can find a job,” he said. “If you’re constantly under a lot of stress, in a bad mood, it’s going to affect how you’re able to concentrate.”

Where to find support

About to hit the second-year mark of the pandemic, Pascual advocates for asking for help whether it be in terms of calling loved ones, finding an accountability buddy or accessing the services offered on campus. 

“Try not to do things on your own because eventually, you’re going to have a lot of baggage and it doesn’t feel nice,” he said. 

For Karunan, help from a practical standpoint is wide-ranging and may come in the forms of reaching out to student leaders and professors, getting your body moving, consulting a professional or a similar version like Crisis Text Line, a 24/7 free and confidential form of crisis counseling over text message.

“Challenge negative thoughts and change the beliefs that you have about yourself and other people to reflect the situation right in front of you,” he added.



For more mental health resources, take a look at 14 East’s resource list



Header image by Samarah Nasir