Three out of four international students have experienced anxiety during the corona crisis

Many international students at the University of Copenhagen have struggled with isolation, loneliness and anxiety during lockdown in Denmark, a new study shows. Researchers believe the figures should lead to a debate about how the university can forge closer ties with its international students.

Photo: The City Campus at UCPH

Many international students at the University of Copenhagen feel lonely, anxious and useless during the shutdown of the university and Danish society.

This is the conclusion of a new study carried out by four researchers at the Department of Anthropology and the Department of Sociology at the University of Copenhagen in collaboration with the external research institute Epinion.

“The study confirms our worst assumptions,” says Bjarke Oxlund, Head of the Anthropology Department, noting that three out of four students feel anxious and two out of three feel lonely.

“International students are particularly affected by the shutdown that struck Denmark when the Danish Prime Minister, Mette Frederiksen, sent us all back home in March. They have lacked a social network in Copenhagen and, in many cases, they have picked up health information from their home countries,” Oxlund says.

At the same time, he also welcomes the fact that 75 percent of the students are wholly or partly satisfied with the initiatives taken by the University of Copenhagen during the corona crisis.

Fragile social networks

It was a PhD student at the Department of Anthropology, Brian Noel McGahey, who got the idea for the study. Because of Covid-19, he was prevented from conducting fieldwork with older people about loneliness for his Ph.D. thesis. Instead, he began interviewing his peers in the international student dorm in Frederiksberg, where he has spent virtually all of his time since March.

“It has been difficult for most,” says Brian who is originally from Ireland.

“As an international student, you typically have a social network that consists only of other international students. When many people went home immediately after the shutdown, this fragile network became even more vulnerable. Even today, people are still leaving. Recently, one of my friends at the dorm chose to face the extreme lockdown conditions in Madrid rather than keep on feeling lonely here. At least there he can have a more structured life with his family.”

Other figures from the study confirm that many students are not thriving during the corona crisis: 41 percent feel less happy after the corona epidemic shut down the country. 28 percent do not describe their mental health as good, and almost every second student does not know where to seek advice or help in relation to mental health issues (see figure).

Figure: Concerns among international students during the corona crisis

Source: Epinion for the Department of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen.

According to Heiko Henkel, Associate Professor and Head of Studies at the Department of Anthropology, there is a good explanation behind the numbers showing a strong sense of uncertainty among the international students:
“If you study at an English or American university, often you will live on the campus site and be affiliated with a student health centre. You will have a much closer relationship with the university and there will be one place to go if you need help. In Denmark, everyone is connected to a Danish-language health system outside the university, and it can be difficult to navigate this system when coming from outside.”

A wake-up call for the university

For Henkel, it is important to stress that many Danish students have also had difficulties coping with the lockdown of society. Still, he calls the study among international students a wake-up call.

“We have foreign students who feel left behind and left to a system outside the university they don’t understand. If we want a good international study environment, we need to take more care of the students,” Henkel says, calling for a discussion on how the university can forge closer ties with the international students in the future.

So does Charlotte Baarts, Associate Professor and Head of Studies at the Department of Sociology, who has also contributed to the study.

“We have a responsibility to help international students become better integrated at the UCPH. It would have helped them with their studies during the current situation with the Covid-19 pandemic, where many have travelled home but still are following lectures online. And in general, better integration with Danish students and stronger social networks will give international students a better study environment – also when staying in Copenhagen.”

The figures should be viewed in light of the health crisis

Anne Bruun, who is Acting Director of International Education at the University of Copenhagen, believes that the study can help the university become even better at receiving and integrating international students.

But she also points out that the figures should be seen in the light of the worldwide health crisis that has generally made many people anxious and that the university has tried to assist and orient foreign students as well as possible.

“The University of Copenhagen has switched to online lectures of good quality, but it was another academic experience than what the students came for, and it obviously affects them. What they came for was – all things being equal – an experience where you are an active part of a study environment, meet teachers and fellow students and use libraries, canteens and campus life,” says Anne Bruun, who also acknowledges that the students’ encounters with life in Copenhagen ended up being very different from what they had anticipated.

“Just like the professional experience, social and cultural life has also become a completely different experience from what they expected and hoped for.”

For Brian Noel McGahey and his fellow students, upcoming exams and the gradual reopening of Copenhagen have given them a bit more to talk about again. But at the same time, he wonders why the door to the university is still firmly locked for him.

“To me, it’s a paradox that hairdressers, shops and bars are reopening while we are not allowed to sit in our offices or in a sectioned off part of the library. People just assume that everything can be done online working from home. But this is not the case for all students – least of all international.”