Life as an international student is full of excitement, opportunity, and adventure. It is a balancing act between two homes, cultures, and even sometimes languages. Pursuing education beyond your border has always entailed the risk of a lack of security,  as it is life dependent on documents that could be revoked at any time.

However, like many of life’s stresses, it has been exacerbated by the pandemic. The current situation has served not only as a destabilising force, but also highlighted how institutions, politicians, and the media have dehumanised international students into sources of income as opposed to members of society.  

As I begin writing this, I am one week from returning to the USA. Along with one million other international students who study in America, recent threats to my visa status have caused me to doubt the feasibility of a future there. On July 6th, federal immigration authorities announced that if the school an international student was attending transitioned to online classes, their visa would become invalid. 

Educational institutions saw this policy for what it was: an attempt to strongarm universities into reopening for in-person classes again for this semester, despite the obvious health risks. Many would face financial ruin without internationals, as they are dependent on the greatly inflated fees they pay. As a result, a collection of 59 institutions, including Harvard and MIT, sought to bring legal action against ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). This resulted in the reversal of the policy a week later, but the ease with which a million people’s lives were plunged into uncertainty has heightened the paranoia of international students around the world. 

Meanwhile, in New Zealand, a need for strict border control has arisen to maintain our prized COVID-free status. For at least the rest of the year, international students who returned to the nations of their birth during the pandemic will be unable to resume their studies. This will severely impact thousands of people, interrupting their education, and potentially throwing their futures off course. As heartbreaking as it is, this policy may be a necessary restriction to prevent overwhelming the border quarantine system. 

With over one hundred thousand international students studying in NZ every year, and the ability to quarantine currently limited to five to six thousand New Zealand citizens at a time, a timely solution to allowing international students to return safely this semester has proven elusive. The lack of clarity surrounding when they may return is harming both the education sector and the students, and this damage is compounded by the tone of the media discussion around the policy. 

In an interview on Checkpoint, education minister Chris Hipkins stated “We shouldn’t see international students as cash cows for our education system. They add a lot to New Zealand.” However, throughout the media, there has been little mention of the humanity of international students.

After the announcement of the extent of the border closures, headlines proclaimed  “$50m education sector lifeline after NZ shuts borders to foreign students”. Throughout all the coverage, no mention was made of the impact that the restrictions would have on student’s lives, giving the impression that schools won’t experience a loss due to their absence so long as they receive funding to make up for their depleted income. 

50 million dollars barely makes a dent in the estimated five billion dollars international students add to New Zealand’s economy per year to begin with, and this perspective also reduces international student’s worth to something following a dollar sign. International students are valuable beyond their economic impact. They bring diverse knowledge, enrich the cultural fabric of our society, and are amazing ambassadors for the country. 

COVID-19 has caused our society to reframe how we place value on people. We are learning how to shop locally, help out our neighbors, and appreciate our workers. We should extend this community-minded attitude to those who have chosen to pursue an education in New Zealand, as opposed to reducing them to a stream of income. As an international student in the midst of a global pandemic, I have experienced some of the feelings international students trying to return to New Zealand are going through right now. I have been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to return to my second home, but this won’t be a reality for international students in NZ for the foreseeable future.

In the meantime, we should be investing in robust online education to help those with partially completed degrees stay on track from their countries of residence, ensuring that internationals who have remained here are receiving support, and encouraging institutions, legislators and the media to treat them like people, not commodities. Just because we closed our borders to international students, doesn’t mean we should turn our backs on them. 

Tessa is a small-town girl from friendly Feilding who ran her way to North Carolina. Currently living her American dream studying Political Science, eating frozen custard, and staying on that student-athlete grind.