migrantvoice
Speaking for Ourselves

My journey through Covid-19 as an international student

My journey through Covid-19 as an international student

Abagail Catania

 Migrant Voice -
 Migrant Voice - My journey through Covid-19 as an international student

I loved my time as an undergrad at the University of Westminster and knew I wanted to come back and live here. I was on my way to doing this in 2019 when I returned to start a master’s with the goal of obtaining a job after I finished. This all changed in the wake of Covid-19. 

Many of my friends, who were semester study abroad students, were recalled to their home countries. Mid-March the West End closed and effectively cancelled all shows, six of which I had tickets for. By 17 March I lost my job and by 20 March the rest of my club volleyball season was cancelled. On 23 March – one day before my birthday – the UK Government ordered a nation-wide lockdown. Attending one of the most international universities in London meant that when the university transitioned to online learning many of my friends went home – homes not just elsewhere in the UK but all over the world. 

By the time 1 April rolled around, my life had stopped. I had to grapple with the decision of whether to stay in London while not being able to experience anything London has to offer or return to Chicago while still having to pay rent for my flat in London. I decided to stay, not knowing when I would be able to return if I went back to Chicago. The life I had begun to live in London ended and I was forced to isolate with no end-date and no friends; alone in my bedroom in a flat shared with four strangers. 

My degree ends in September and now I am forced to grapple again with the same decision: back to Chicago to live with my mother, or stay in a place where I have longed to be for almost 10 years? The economy has taken a hard hit from Covid, and many have lost jobs. It is already hard to find a job with sponsorship: add the pandemic, resulting economic decline and hiring freeze and it is nearly impossible.

If I have not found a job by January (or perhaps before, because of lack of funds), I will be legally forced to move back to the United States. I have paid over £500 in government fees and well over £30,000 on tuition and housing, not to mention everyday purchases, all of which has fed into the UK economy, in order to experience all that London has to offer for less than six months. I and thousands of other international student graduates have been cheated out of fundamental experiences and time in London due to Covid-19. Yet the government is doing nothing to help despite continuously saying the UK wants to attract ‘the best and brightest’ and ‘maintain global brainpower’. 

Modules we paid to take in person have transitioned to online, and personal graduations have been cancelled or moved online. Time in London has been stripped from those in the class of 2020. Unless the government acts now, we will be the class that slipped through the cracks of a pandemic for whom the government did nothing. 

In September 2019 the Government announced it would be reintroducing a visa route for international students that it dismantled in 2013 under Prime Minister Theresa May. The Graduate Route of the Tier-2 Work Visa will allow international students on a Tier-4 visa to work, or look for work, post-graduation, for two years. The visa itself is unlike the Tier-2 general visa as it does not require the student to have a CoS (Certificate of Sponsorship). 

For many international students this will be a dream come true: the key words are ‘will be’. However, for the class of 2020 it will not be. The issue we face is that the Graduate Route visa is currently only eligible for summer 2021 graduates and after. So what is happening for the international class of 2020 students during a worldwide pandemic, economic decline and hiring freeze? Nothing. 

We are looking to the Government to make the right decisions during these difficult times. Help could start with the implementation of the Graduate Route Visa for 2020 graduates and beyond. When asked why the Graduate Route Visa is set to be available only for 2021 summer graduates and after, the Home Office advises:

It takes time to develop a new immigration route and ensure the framework is in place for it to successfully operate. Introducing the route in the summer of 2021 will mean that all students who graduate in the summer of 2021 or after will benefit, regardless of when they started their course. The route was announced in September 2019 to ensure that universities and stakeholders could promote the route when attracting prospective students. 

Now that an international pandemic has occurred it is time for the government to show support for its Class of 2020 international students. While the government may maintain that it takes time to develop a new immigration route, the fact is this is not new. The only way in which to show solidarity and support to us is to change the regulations around the Graduate Route Visa and allow anyone holding a Tier-4 visa to be eligible on graduation. 

Allowing the class of 2020 to obtain this visa will not only make up for the time in enforced isolation or forced back to home countries, but also continue to benefit the UK economy. Since the post-study visa was taken away in 2013 the education and business sectors have lobbied for it to be brought back and immigration regulations around international students to be eased. The Covid-19 pandemic has driven workers and students away from the UK and until a vaccine is found we will continue to see a decline in international students coming to the UK. 

This is the time for the government to protect and uplift the class of 2020, as well as think about the future ramifications for the national economy if it fails to make this visa accessible now. 

 

This article was written and published as part of Migrant Voice's International Students Week (13-17 July 2020). We're celebrating international students in the UK and raising their voices on the issues that affect them. Read more here.

 

TOP IMAGE: Abagail Catania, provided by herself