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Dreams, Interrupted: Six insights from students in China

Last week I interviewed some international students who were stuck at home in China. Most were stranded because they had travelled back for a short break for Chinese New Year, or had been preparing to travel for overseas study but been prevented by the outbreak of Covid-19.

The interviews lasted 60 minutes each, conducted via Zoom, and had two main objectives: firstly, to check how things were going during this period of remote learning, and secondly to explore their student journey as input and preparation for some client workshops next month.

Overall I found the students in good spirits, despite the drama and disruption of the global pandemic. Some were accepting and even philosophical about their situation:

“There are things we worry about that we can’t control, like the visa, the pandemic and closed borders […] We will just wait, and study by ourselves”

“You can’t change it, so you just take it!”

Others were naturally bored, frustrated and sad as they observed their friends both locally (at Chinese universities) and overseas able to continue with their studies and course plans. As we discussed their experiences both generally and in this specific period, a number of themes emerged. For those on the front lines or behind the scenes, supporting international students at higher education institutions, some of these may already resonate.

1. Studying isn’t just about learning or qualifications

For some students, their choice to study overseas was the beginning of a different lifestyle, a new opportunity or a long-held dream. One student even told me her Chinese name meant ‘go abroad’, which fuelled her desire to experience a different life. Right now, all those dreams have been suddenly interrupted.

“I felt a lot of pressure [at work] and I want to change my lifestyle…I want time to learn things”

“I had my visa, everything was ready, and suddenly coronavirus made everything disappear”

2. Studying at home doesn’t work for everyone

Students are trying their best to keep studying wherever they are, but it’s far from easy. Whilst some have adapted to their new environment (particularly those more intrinsically motivated and happy to work alone), others are really missing the tangible structures, motivation, and social support of a classroom.

“I’m working, but I can’t focus. I feel like my efficiency is low […]. Study environment is very important – I can’t concentrate when I’m by myself”

“[At home] I can’t always focus on the computer, but in the classroom, I have no choice but to focus. I can talk to someone if I need help”

3. Students are worried about wasted time

Many felt concerned about losing ‘momentum’ in their study journey, and getting behind in their plans. Students who had spent time preparing and were ready to travel found the brakes put on before they could start.

“I thought I would come back to China for just 2 weeks, then I couldn’t go back. I feel I can’t study, I can’t graduate at the right time now”

“I was really frustrated – I waited for two months and suddenly feel like all my efforts were for nothing”

4. Students really appreciate teachers who connect

As ever, teachers are a key touchpoint for students. Even those who have not yet met their teachers in person are noticing individuals with human connection, warmth and kindness. Isolation is emphasising how important personal relationships are to students, and remote connection doesn’t feel the same.

“I’ve had three or four teachers – they are kind and funny. They say if you have any problem you can email”

“I really miss my teachers and classmates. If I was in school, they could help me”

5. Personal and social connections are crucial

Students are attempting to maintain contact with old friends and new for learning support and social connection. Formal and informal groups connect students to share experience and tips, and to keep each other motivated.

“The teacher left some homework and I needed help to understand something. We have a WeChat group where you can ask any question; I added a girl to see if we can become friends”

“Every day, we’re always chatting (on WeChat) about when we can go back, and sharing information”

6. Education institutions and staff are a trusted source of information

Frequent communication is useful for practical reasons, but also keeps an emotional connection for students, who like to hear from familiar staff. Education institutions are valued as a trusted source of up-to-date information, which students use in addition to other sources such as social media.

“Our college sent emails, keeping in contact, letting us know they didn’t forget us”

“There is a lots of fake news, I think. I trust my teachers and the school staff to give us the right information”

For quick reference to these points, feel free to download the pdf below:

So what does it all mean?

Insights like these can apply both generally to the sector, and specifically to an institution. There’s never been a better time to challenge assumptions about what students need and want from their experience as things continue to evolve. Get in touch for a chat about using research and insights like these to tackle your own organisational challenges!