International students face added pressure with fall term looming

Some international students who have remained in residence at Manitoba's post secondary institutions are trying to stay afloat, despite a scarcity of jobs and uncerrtainty about how they will make ends meet come September.

Mental health and financial security challenging due to job scarcity, impacts of COVID-19 on their families

U of M science student Towani Mutale says she was in a bad space this summer but is doing better after getting help. (Submitted by Towani Mutale)

COVID-19 closures have left many international students scrambling as summer jobs to help pay their high tuition fees have been scarce.

Towani Mutale wanted to find work to help cover increasing university and living costs come fall. The international student from Zambia was hoping to land an online job in customer service or data entry — as those in person, she says, are scarce and almost non-existent because of COVID-19. So far nothing has materialized.

"This is not the kind of summer I expected. It has been very stressful. Now that it looks like things are opening up, I hope to find something ... but the summer is flying by," said Mutale, a second-year science student living in residence at the University of Manitoba. 

Mutale's bill for tuition and residence is between $11,000 and $12,000 a semester, anywhere between double and triple what a Canadian student would pay.

Tuition fees have increased

At the U of M, 20 per cent of students registered last year were international. Enrolment numbers for this year aren't available yet. Sixty-five per cent of the residence population at the U of M is comprised of international students. Last year's tuition revenue from that group was about $80 million — around 40 per cent of total tuition revenue of $196 million.

Over at the University of Winnipeg, that number sits at $15 million for 2018-2019 — approximately a third of all monies coming in for tuition. 

Mutale hopes a scholarship will be enough to cover her fall semester, along with financial help from her family.

"But it is still hard because school fees have increased and already it is so expensive for international students. Both my brother and I are here living in residence, relying on my parents to pay for us," she said. 

Mutale says the stress of all the uncertainty has taken its toll on her mental health.

"I was in a very very bad place for a large part of this summer ... I was depressed and didn't want to get out of bed since classes went online and I could no longer go to class, I had to speak to a counselling service on campus," said Mutale.

She is glad she got the help she needed, and Mutale said she is in a better place now. 

"Before I got help, every day just felt heavier and heavier."

Extra pressure

Amika Takahashi, president of the U of M's International Students Organization, says stakes and stress are at an all-time high for international students because many are facing a double whammy.

"Many of them have lost their summer jobs, and many of their parents, who were supporting them, have lost their jobs as well in their home country because of COVID. And in some countries banks are closed because of the pandemic so parents can't transfer money," said Takahashi.

"I am worried about their mental health, how they will cope with all this pressure on them and no family support here."

Amika Takahashi, president of the U of M's International Students Organization, is worried about the mental health of international students who are anxious about how they will pay their fall tuition. (Submitted by Amika Takahashi)

Takahashi, an international student from Japan, says there's a lot of pressure on international students to succeed because of the amount of money their families are pouring into their education. 

Takahashi is planning to take only two course this fall. She hopes to get more hours teaching Japanese on the side to help her family out.

Universities and post secondary institutions in Manitoba are doing what they can to encourage international students to continue their education here, including giving scholarships to students who qualify and offering financial counselling, as well as counselling for those who are having a tough time this summer with stress and depression.

At Brandon University, enrolment numbers are almost on target when compared to last year. As of July 15, 322 international students were registered, compared to 331 at this time last year. A spokesperson for BU says it doesn't have the ability to report on the total tuition collected from international students.

One of the lucky ones

Eighteen-year-old Zlata Odribets is going into her third year of a double major in English and lingusitics at the U of M.

Her family in Kiev is paying her tuition and expenses. Her winter semester fees and cost for living in residence was close to $14,000. She considers herself one of the lucky ones, even though her family was unable to travel to visit her this summer because of COVID. An undergrad research award is keeping her busy and providing her with some income over the summer.

"While it is sad and difficult to not see my family and it is hard to not socialize as much, I don't think I have suffered as some others have. Those who have lost their jobs and rely on that for tuition. Or someone in their family who has COVID," Odribets said.

Odribets is grateful for an undergrad research award this summer that is keeping her busy and focused on her studies, and also sad her family is unable to come to visit her this summer because of travel restrictions. (Submitted by Zlata Odribets)

Come September, Manitoba universities are all reducing capacity in terms of how many students can live in residence in order to to comply with physical distancing health protocols.

The U of M will only be opening up 45 per cent of their beds. Residence capacity at BU has been reduced by about 40 per cent, and includes only single room residences with none of the traditional dorm style communal washrooms. U of W said their occupancy levels will be altered, but did not specify what the reductions would be.

International students say that may create another challenge for them: finding somewhere else to live if they there aren't enough rooms available on campus.

Despite all the obstacles  Mutale, Takahashi and Obribets face, there is one desire that binds them together. While they all want to go back home to visit their families once travel restrictions lift, they all see their future in Canada.


Born and raised in Winnipeg, Marianne has always had a passion for seeking the truth. She began her career anchoring and reporting at CKX Brandon. From there she worked in both TV news and current affairs at CBC Saskatoon. For the past 25 years Marianne has worked in Winnipeg, both in radio and television. She was formerly a teacher in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.