Covid-19’s Impact On Expat Students And International Education

Carlie: Hey there, it’s Carlie with the Expat Focus podcast. If you’re a first-time listener, welcome. We cover all aspects of living abroad on this show, so be sure to roll back to check out previous episodes.

Just a few of my favourite interviews include:

Ashley Bartner, who runs a farm, inn and cooking school with her husband in the Italian countryside.
Annika Bourgogne provides some fantastic advice on raising your children to speak multiple languages. I highly recommend tuning in to that episode.
Brett Debritz – he gave loads of insight into the cost of living in Thailand. He was there doing a trial retirement.

And if you’re a British expat working or retiring in Europe, I think you’ll find my chats with tax expert Oliver Heslop very useful. Make sure you subscribe to this podcast on your listening app of choice. We’ve got a new episode with Oliver coming very soon, and it’s about tackling the issue of pension rights after Brexit.

My guest for today, though – she has actually been on the show before to chat about educating children abroad – is Rebecca Grappo, the founder of RNG International Educational Consultants. Rebecca has been working with expat families for decades, and I wanted to get her perspective on the Covid-19 pandemic, how it has affected international students – in particular, over the past 12 months – and what expat families can do to continue to help and support their children, as distance learning continues.

Global pandemic. We’re now approximately 12 months since the start, since the world really felt the impacts of Covid-19. It’s really turned the education sector on its head in the past 12 months. We’ve got Zoom schooling becoming the new normal. Parents and teachers – they’ve had to adjust and help students adjust to this new style of learning.

Children are also struggling, at the same time, with not being able to see their friends and extended family members. And, Rebecca, I can only imagine that those challenges are only amplified if you’re an expat family navigating these issues.

Rebecca: Absolutely. I’ve seen a lot of different scenarios and how this is playing out. So, I think we could break it down into a lot of different categories. First of all, international schools – I think they are also struggling with this. And within my international school counselling circles and college counselling circles, the clients that I work with and the families that are chatting … I’m kind of watching, from air traffic control, what’s happening around the world, on the ground.

And everybody’s struggling with this. I think, for international schools … For one thing, at the beginning of this, nobody really knew how long it was going to last. And then there was a bit of a diaspora, as people, if they could, went back to their home countries. And then they struggled to get back again. And now that we’re in a different school year, I think they’re really trying to figure out how they can get students to be in school in person. And that’s a challenge.

So, I’ve seen a lot of schools do either a hybrid model – where the kids come to school certain days of the week and not on other days of the week – or all online, or trying all in person. But even the all ‘in person’ doesn’t seem to last for very long before they’re back home and online again. So, it’s difficult. It’s definitely challenging.

Carlie: You mentioned that a lot of expats, especially at the start of this pandemic … If they were in a position to, a lot of them went back to their passport countries, to their, in inverted commas, “home countries”. And that in itself would have been quite a disruption for young people, for students, wouldn’t it?

Rebecca: Absolutely. I had a family I was working with this year that went back to Australia, thinking it would just be for a few weeks. And now, almost a year later, they’re still there, and they can’t get back into the country that they left. And so, the kids are still doing school online with the school that they left behind, but it’s a different time zone.

So, because they have to do it online at the time that the class is being taught, these young children and adolescents are staying up until the middle of the night to be able to do their online classes. So, obviously, that’s a challenge. And then, not having all their friends nearby is another challenge. And finding times that they can even communicate with their friends online for a chat or a fun Zoom call is also challenging, because, again, they’re straddling time zones.

And so, I worry about some of the students who are getting their days and nights flipped, because that’s not a healthy practise for them to sustain. And it’s just really difficult. The other thing that I’ve seen is that it’s getting harder and harder for some of them to maintain their motivation. So, I think they were real troopers starting this.

And some kids are thriving; they’re not having a problem with it. But I’m seeing reports from parents more and more, [who are] reaching out to us saying, ‘I’m really worried, because our child is doing all online learning. They’re not very organised. They’re not able to be as self-directed. They’re really missing being with their peers and their friends. And we’re kind of worried about the direction this is going.’ So, we’ve had lots of distressed calls like that, as well.

Carlie: I recall, at the start of the pandemic, people saying: ‘Kids are resilient; they learn quickly; they’ll be able to adapt to online video learning; and this is just a small bump in their education journey. They’ll bounce back from that. And once they’re allowed back in the school yard, in the classroom, it’ll be fine.’

But do you think that, as this drags on – longer than 12 months now – there’s a greater chance of leaving a bit of a lingering impression on young people? And at what age in particular are they more susceptible to really be feeling this quite heavily at this stage?

Rebecca: That’s a lot of questions.

Carlie: It’s a big question, I’m sorry.

Rebecca: It’s a really big question. And it kind of goes back to the question that I’ve been pondering for most of my career. And that is: why is it that, under adverse circumstances, some children and adolescents thrive? And why is it that some of them really struggle? And so, what are the causes and what are the factors that can lead to greater resilience? Maybe that’s the question.

And then wrapped up in that is Covid-19. So, in this circumstance, why is it that some students are able to cope well? Despite all the challenges, they’re doing okay, and they’ve managed to maintain a positive attitude, and they keep trying and don’t let it get them down. And then, what is it about this crisis that is not working for a lot of our young people, too? And their experiences are equally valid, and it’s not their fault.

It’s not a matter of just saying, ‘Oh, come on. Just have a positive attitude. It’ll all be fine.’ They have some real things that they’re struggling with. And so, maybe our question really needs to be around what are the factors we can think about that might lead to resiliency in kids, and what can schools do to promote that resiliency? What can parents do to promote that resiliency in their kids? Because this is really hard.

And I’ll just add one more thing: the caregivers are also struggling. So, teachers are struggling. School administrators are struggling. Families are struggling. And, in some cases, there’s been extreme difficulty between economic hardship, or perhaps the pain of the loss of a loved one or the prolonged illness of a loved one. So, it’s not just a matter of, ‘Oh, online learning is getting really hard.’ It’s cumulative, I think.

Carlie: So many different stress factors that big can be going on at home, as well, as you pointed out. And what sort of examples have you seen over the past year, in your mind, that represent best practice support in this situation?

Rebecca: Let’s start with the examples of kids that I’m seeing who are managing this situation in a positive way. So, I spend most of my week online with students, and I’m Zooming with kids all over the world, and every day I tell myself I’m so lucky. I just can’t believe I get to do this. And, especially now, because, seriously, I’m literally being invited into their homes, their rooms, to talk to them about how school is going.

And now, let’s talk about your plans. Let’s talk about future plans, and let’s be thinking about what’s going to come next. And, you know, once this is all over, what do you still have to look forward to? So, I think that that is a really important message for students. First of all, is to just keep remembering this is not going to last forever, and that we have to continue to plan for the future and be excited about the future. Not just performatively plan for the future, but seriously be excited about the opportunities that they will get to have once this is all behind them.

So, a large part of our conversations are focused around that. And what surprises me about the students who are really showing resiliency is that they are able to plan for their future. They are thinking ahead, and they are seeing this as a temporary inconvenience and not the end for them. So, I think those are some positive things.

The other thing I’ve seen, the other common thread that I’ve seen in the students who are doing well, is they are able to maintain the social connection with peers and friends. So, they might be still trying to have extracurricular activities after school and managing it online. One of my students was able to organize a model UN conference with delegates from all over the country he’s living in, and they pulled it off. So, that was a huge feeling of success.

Students who have hobbies are doing okay. I’ve had some students tell me that they’re actually living their best life. They’re loving it. They don’t mind the online learning, and it gives them time to pursue some of the things that they really enjoy doing, such as maybe reading or … I’m amazed, I have a number of girls this year who are really into sewing and knitting, which is a throwback to the past.

I have some students who are developing hobbies in cooking, others who are getting out and still maintaining their physical fitness routines. Those kids who are thriving, to me, are the ones who are able to maintain social connections, think about tomorrow and maintain some kind of routine.

Carlie: I mean, I know, personally, I’m the type of person that really gets my energy from other people and being around other people. And that’s been a real struggle for me in the past year. And I can only imagine [what it’s like] for young people, in their formative years, who can’t have those interactions or those … For example, I think a lot about the graduates who finished high school and should be on a gap year or should be starting university in person and can’t do that right now.

What sort of discussions have you had with those students about those really monumental transition years and experiences? The milestones that they didn’t get the way they thought they would get them … And how are they reconciling the new normal for themselves?

Rebecca: Another great question. Like with every one of your questions, I think we could talk for an hour, but to keep it moving, let’s not get into too much detail.

Carlie: Absolutely. We could do a mini-series here.

Rebecca: So, the missed milestones … I have seen, here in the US, for example, drive-by graduations, where people came out in their caps and gowns and held up signs, and they had a car parade in our neighbourhood where people were honking their horns and flashing their lights and celebrating in that way.

It’s not the same thing as an in-person graduation, of course, but it was an effort to recognise the milestone. I was out walking another time, and I heard live music. And I just thought, What? Live music? Where’s that coming from? And I walked over to one of our city parks, and there was somebody who actually lives facing the park, and they had hired a live band, with social distancing, and there was a drive by birthday celebration for someone.

And there were a lot of people gathered outside – socially distanced, but still finding a way to celebrate that birthday. Obviously, not everybody can afford a live band, but that was a nice touch, because everybody else came, too. But I think people are getting inventive in the ways that they’re celebrating these milestones. And I think that’s a good thing.

Can you imagine, if we didn’t have FaceTime and Zoom and all these other abilities to connect with people? I cannot imagine how isolated we would be feeling in that circumstance. So, at least we’ve had something to be able to mark some of those milestones. And yet some of the milestones will never happen again, like they’ve missed it and they know they’ve missed it. And so, again, I think just trying to help them remain future focused.

It reminds me of some of the things that I’ve learned just in dealing with TCKs and transitions without a pandemic. And that is that before we can be their cheerleader, we have to give them comfort and acknowledge what it is that they’ve lost. And being able to empathise, like, ‘That must be really hard’, before we say, ‘Oh, come on, it’ll be fine.’ I think, just hearing and validating that this is hard. And, ‘I hear that that’s really hard for you.’

Then we can have a conversation about more positive ways of thinking about the future, dreaming about the future. But it’s really important just to recognise that, yeah, that is a loss. I really feel for the international students who had to go home during the pandemic when it first hit. So, going back to March of last year, and it was spring break, and a lot of students went home or went on vacation thinking they were coming back to either a boarding school or a university. And all of a sudden, they couldn’t.

They were basically kind of caught out. And some of them flew back to their homes internationally. Some of them stayed with friends, and definitely all their stuff was still in the dorm. There was just so much uncertainty around all that. And for seniors … Can you imagine seniors who were about ready to graduate either from boarding school or college, who’d never even had a chance to say goodbye to their friends?

Or international schools – that happened in international schools, too, where people were at school one day and not the next … Thinking they would go back to school, and then it was over and there was graduation. And some of those people will never be back there again. And it’s, again, a profound sense of loss, without closure. I think about them a lot.

Carlie: It is that sense of loss. Like, I can only imagine finishing my senior year in Australia and how that would feel, if I finished my final year of high school sitting at home in my bedroom, not being able to celebrate with my friends, have that dress-up day, have, you know, the comradery of standing outside the exam room afterwards, feeling, like, yes, I finally did that. And never seeing – not never seeing, but for the most part – never really seeing your school again. Such a milestone moment. There has to be a mourning period for that.

Rebecca: I agree with you. And I think it’s an invisible loss. And it’s a series of losses that these kids have gone through that makes it really difficult for them, too. And I also think that we’re not doing them any favours – as I said, a few minutes ago – by just putting a happy face on everything and saying, ‘Oh, it’s going to be fine. You’ll see.’ You have to acknowledge that this really is difficult. Like, that must be really hard.

Hear them; see them; empathise with them. It’s not saying you’re encouraging them to wallow in self-pity; that’s not it at all. It’s just that you’ve got to be able to say, ‘I hear you. That must be really difficult.’ I had one student where it had an immediate effect on their education, too.

I had one student who was at a school on one continent, who left when the pandemic got really hard, because his mother’s employers said, ‘It’s not safe for you to stay here, because this is a developing country that doesn’t have an adequate infrastructure for medical care in case you get sick. We’re going to send all of our people back to their country of passport.’

So, he got sent back in May to his country of passport, where he waited it out, and his mother’s assignment was going to be ending at the end of the school year anyway. And so, there was a new assignment. Now, had he been able to complete the year according to plan, he would have finished at his school, had a nice summer break, and then gone onto the new assignment and started with everybody in September.

But what happened is that he had to leave Country A and go to Country B indefinitely, not knowing when he would get clearance to go to Country C. And then, in November, [he] showed up in Country C and had to start late, online, and in a very difficult curriculum – doing an international baccalaureate program, which is not easy … I think he had to start school online in September, but it was also a different time zone.

So, he was doing that whole weird hours thing. And this has not been a very successful academic year. And you look and you go, ‘Well, yeah, because look at all the transition, the loss without closure, that uncertainty, the difficulty to have the ability to stay focused on a new school and online learning … You don’t have any friends…’

I mean, I could tell you story after story of kids that I’m hearing like this. It’s just been really, really hard on them. My message for their parents’ employers is: do what you need to do to support these families, because they’re going through a lot.

Carlie: We know how much pressure has been put on teachers and educational institutions at sort of a domestic level. What have you seen them doing to really try to support and accommodate international students?

Rebecca: From what I’ve been seeing through some of my forums, I think that, for example, those who are responsible for the social, emotional wellbeing of other people in their schools are also struggling with this. So, they also have faced the exact same issues. They’re also parents who have children who were doing online learning while they’re trying to maintain their jobs. They’re also getting caught up in some of these weird transitions and feelings of loss and being out of control.

So what I’m seeing and observing is a lot of attention being paid to take care of the caretakers, because if the caretakers are running on empty, they’re not going to be able to take care of anybody else. And that’s probably really good advice. I would also think, then, it would probably be a good idea for employers to be thinking about their employees as parents who are facing this, because the family needs more support than ever before in order for the assignment to be successful.

And I think a lot of people don’t think about that carefully enough, and just expect people to show up to work and continue to perform at a high level.

Carlie: Yeah. You might be seeing the child or the cat interrupt the Zoom call during a work meeting, but are you really empathising with what might be going on at home?

Rebecca: Yeah, exactly. And I’ve also been worried about some of my students who are having problems with connectivity. So, not everybody around the world has access to high-speed internet that’s reliable. And so, I’ve had some students talk about the inability to maintain that connection.

I had a student in a particular country – I won’t name countries – where they had monsoon season, where every time it rained really heavily, they lost power. And when they lost power, they lost internet. And so, doing online school and continuing all these meetings over Zoom was incredibly difficult.

Carlie: At the time of recording this, vaccinations are starting to happen around the world. But there isn’t an end date in sight. I know, in the USA, students have been going back to school, and that’s really good. But we’ve got a lot of expat students that might still be in a situation where they’re not allowed into the countries where they’re meant to be studying right now.

And, for some of them, maybe they’ve just waited too long, and they really need to reassess what their next steps are and whether the path they thought they were going to be on is still the right one for them at this time. What sort of advice have you been giving students who might be at that crossroads and needing to make tough decisions about their future education path that wasn’t in their initial plan?

Rebecca: Well, first of all, I think giving them permission to reassess, instead of expecting that this is the path. ‘Stay on the path; no deviation from the path. If you deviate from the path, you’ll never get back on.’ I’m hearing a lot of students who are struggling with that alternate message. And so, my message would be, it’s fine to reassess. It’s fine to stop and think about this and also be thinking about the financial implications of this. And I have seen students make a variety of choices.

I think, for the most part, be happy with their choices. Some of my students, for example, who graduated from high school and were destined to go off to university, decided that they would do some sort of gap year. And I have had conversations with gap year companies that have pivoted pretty quickly to put on domestic gap programs, where you can bring students in and, in a very safe and controlled way, create a bubble, and have them do some type of gap adventure or project, where they’re going to stay safe.

And so, obviously, that’s a really attractive offer. However, it takes money to do that. And not everybody has the kinds of resources to be able to do that. Other students have decided to go online and see how it goes. For some, that’s gone fine. For others, I’ve been really concerned, because I know that they struggle with attentional issues, and I wonder how the online learning is going to go for them long-term.

I’ve seen others actually go to campus and show up. And so, I’ve been talking to a couple of people in the last couple of days, where the Covid-19 rates on campus, of some of these smaller institutions, has been unbelievably low, like an R rate of 1.5 or something. So, they have been able to open up safely and bring students back, and students have been able to have a safe in-person learning experience, despite all the odds.

And then you see big schools that have tried to bring back 20,000 to 30,000 students, and it’s a disaster. So they’re there for 10 days, and then everybody has to go home again. So I think it’s just that everybody has to decide what they’re going to do, and do it based on what’s best for them. And it’s very sad for me to see how many of them have had to really pivot, when they have poured so much into a particular dream. But it’s just where we are right now.

Carlie: To try to find some points of positivity to end on, Rebecca, what have you seen that has been really positive in the international education space, in terms of educators rising up to meet this challenge? And, maybe, innovating in a way that wasn’t there before that might remain after this pandemic is done?

Rebecca: I think that’s a great point to end on, because I do think that people are rising to the occasion, and there has been some really great innovation that has happened. So, first of all, I think some of these changes were probably coming, but they were accelerated because of the pandemic. I think teachers have gotten a lot more creative about the way they’re going to be presenting their lessons and trying to engage their students online.

I think that there’s a lot more collaboration between schools and institutions than there ever was before, because it’s so easy now. And people don’t think it’s strange to be invited to join a Zoom meeting or some kind of chat spanning borders and time zones. I think that that’s a positive change. I think another positive change is that, for a lot of students, this has really opened their eyes to how interconnected we all are, and how this is not just a national problem, but really a global problem. And how are we going to face the future?

I have an uptick, and it’s been borne out by other counsellors, such as myself, who are working with students. I’ve got a real uptick in students who are interested in science and perhaps medical research or medicine. I definitely think they’ve been inspired by what they’ve seen in the educational sphere in science. So, that’s a positive. I think people are more appreciative of in-person contact, whereas maybe we were just taking it for granted.

I think people are absolutely much more appreciative of the opportunity to share a meal together, to be with your friends, to be with your family, to connect with your neighbours. And that might’ve been a really important wake up call for everybody, as well. So, I don’t see everything is all bad, and some good things have come out of it.

Carlie: I think I asked this one a little bit earlier, but what’s your take-home message for international families, expat families, that might be looking at needing to reroute the education plan for their children in light of this pandemic, and maybe they’re in a place that they didn’t expect to be, and they’re going to be there for a lot longer than planned?

Rebecca: Boarding schools are, for the most part, safe environments, because you can control how students arrive, testing, quarantining, social distancing, creating safe spaces … And so, some students are really thinking about the value of making a different kind of educational choice, where they could have a greater opportunity or a greater possibility of actually meeting in person.

I think finding ways for students to find a different path than what they might’ve been on before is important as well. And I think parents need to be really supportive of their students here, if they’re saying, ‘I’m not ready. I don’t want to go yet.’ I think, also, encouraging their students that ‘whatever you decide to do, we’re going to support you.’

I have one family in Singapore, where their daughter went off to college, knowing that it’s going to be really hard for her to return to Singapore and get back in the country again, because of this pandemic. And yet, the family was incredibly supportive and said, ‘No, you need to follow your heart. Follow your dreams. We’re behind you; we’ll support you.’

Everybody’s going to have to find this out in a way that works for them and for their family. But I think just communicating, empathising, listening, validating, and thinking it through, pros and cons, and then making a good decision. And, once a decision is made, stay behind it and provide your child with whatever kind of support they’re going to need in order to be successful.

Carlie: That’s it for this episode. If you have questions for Rebecca, or want to share your own experience of parenting – or studying – during the global pandemic, we’d love to hear from you. Head to expatfocus.com and follow the links to our Facebook groups. You can also hit us up on Twitter or Instagram; we’re at ‘ExpatFocus’. If you like what we do, please subscribe, leave a review, tell all your friends to listen, and I’ll catch you next time!