International students in Toronto face limited options during COVID

Oct 22, 2020 | Features

As Winter 2021 classes are moved online, international students at Humber College in Toronto face tough choices about whether to leave or stay. (Reuters)
Eli Ridder

For many international students, a once-in-a-century pandemic has torn apart the plans to study in Canada, leaving them with only three options available: leave, stay, or leave and return.

Kelsey Warton is one of those students, studying at Humber College in Toronto from half a world away.

As the lockdown began in March in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Warton was among many international students who chose to return to his home country out of fear of the virus and financial concerns.

On March 13, Ontario started to go on lockdown in response to the rapidly-spreading virus. Humber College made the call to bring the winter semester to a halt while it took time to restart in an online setting and during this time, hundreds of international students decided to depart the country.

For Warton, a creative advertising student at Lakeshore Campus, it was the seriousness of the pandemic but mostly the economic aspect that led him to flee Canada for his home country of Guyana.

“It is extremely expensive to live in Toronto even when staying by a family friend,” he said, adding that “to make things worse, Humber College raised its fees again.”

Warton has no regrets, and because of the pandemic his parents are able to save on living expenses, though he noted “studying at home is very demotivating.”

“My internet is terrible back home and we have constant power outages but I manage, and my Profs were very considerate.”

Andrea Pineda is one of the many students who remained in Canada when the lockdowns began and the number of cases forced many lives to a standstill.

“I was sitting in class when they dismissed us early with an official announcement that we were going into lockdown,” she said in an interview, but explained she was not surprised as she had been watching government responses in areas hit hard before Canada.

Though Pineda was temporarily laid off as the coronavirus infection numbers peaked across the country, because she had just submitted her papers to to extend her study permit, she was not in a position to depart like some of her cohorts.

“My family wanted me home immediately but because this was a legal process, we didn’t want to risk me not being here,” the creative advertising program student added.

Stuck, and missing her family, Pineda said she for the first time suffered discrimination.

“During the pandemic it was the first time ever listening to people saying to immigrant students ‘go back home’ or ‘you shouldn’t receive any help from us’,” Pineda said.

“Hearing that from people that are close to me as well hurt more, because unless you’ve lived it, being a plane ride away from home during these times just makes it ten times harder because you are completely and absolutely alone with zero familiar faces you can go to. And [you] feel even more like an outsider.”

In the end, Pineda argued that, despite being able to snag a job during a period of high unemployment, the support from Canadian governments and Humber College was not enough.

“There needs to be actual support and not just empty words.”

Seven days after Humber College declared a campus-wide shutdown, Archie Chhetri boarded a plane for India at the request of her family as coronavirus cases skyrocketed.

The Fashion Arts and Business program student was in her first year and it was the longest time she had spent away from family so far away.

“I don’t regret leaving because in a pandemic like this, it’s better to stay with family than stay alone,” Chhetri said.

“When you are with family you get [a] lot of support and help.”

The North Campus student knew she wanted to come back, for her friends and for the sake of her studies, even when online.

“It was difficult to take online classes in India [because] of the time difference but I’m happy I’m back because it makes everything so much easier.”

As for getting back inside Canada, Chhetri said it was made “easy and fast” because she was returning for a third time, not just a first or second time.

During the long months of quarantine in India, Chhetri appreciated the quality time with her family but missed the freedom Toronto offered her, as well as Tim Hortons coffee.

As this week comes to a close, over 2,500 new cases of COVID-19 have been reported in Ontario as the provincial government puts in place new restrictions and recommendations in response to a reported “second wave” of the coronavirus pandemic.

Humber College on Sept. 25 announced that the Winter 2021 semester will be largely the same as the fall semester, with the aim of keeping the daily campus population low and avoid an outbreak.

For Kelsey Warton, Andrea Pineda and Archie Chhetri, the future remains uncertain but all three are dedicated to filling out the remainder of their studies