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5 Ways to Help International Students Navigate COVID Anxiety

By Christian Gomez
English for International Students (EIS)


Tips to help international students navigate COVID anxiety

In early March, the International House presented findings from various surveys of Duke international students as well as faculty and staff. COVID has significantly affected students’ sense of safety, job prospects, learning experiences, and general daily life, and the surveys gauged their feelings about the strategies that Duke faculty and staff have used to help them get through these anxious and uncertain times (See I-House’s presentation). Here are some quick takeaways I gathered from the data

1. Provide structure for Zoom events, even the informal ones

Informal virtual events are a good way to build community, and according to the survey data, these events should be structured to make them feel worthwhile. I-House, for example, hosts events such as the English Conversation Club. These gatherings start with a presentation about the evening’s theme (such as U.S. regions), followed by a game (usually Kahoot!). Then, participants go into breakout rooms, where they candidly discuss personal feelings about the theme or answer guiding questions. This varied structure makes these experiences fun and engaging; thus, the Conversation Club has regular and strong attendance.

2. Be explicit about what students will get out of your virtual events

Survey participants indicated that orientations and language-support programs helped alleviate anxiety. Yet, despite students wanting more events like these, there are times when attendance is low. One of the most common reasons students cited was being too busy with “other priorities.” According to the survey, stating what you want your students to get out of a session may provide them with more motivation to attend. Therefore, make sure to be explicit about the goals of your virtual activities.

The informal Summer Language Classes held by The Graduate School’s English for International Students program, for example, bring members of Duke’s international community together to share ideas and feelings about cultural topics while practicing specific grammar and vocabulary skills. In addition, EIS instructors regularly share events with our students, such as the “Working While International” Duke International Alumni Panel.

3. Add a virtual personal touch to make students feel heard

Mass emails and videos for students to watch on their own are convenient, but they lack a personal touch. As an alternative, consider occasionally sending personalized emails; students feel more heard when emails are addressed directly to them. According to survey participants, a personal touch helped reduce anxiety.  If staff or faculty need to communicate with students, giving meeting options whenever possible can help fight Zoom fatigue, such as offering to meet in-person safely and socially distantly or via a phone call.

At EIS, we regularly maintain contact with international students through personalized emails, whether for placement exams or for class communications. In addition, our instructors have conference meetings with students throughout the semester. These one-on-one meetings allow students to voice any questions or concerns they may have about the course or their assignments. We want our students to feel heard and these personal sessions are a great opportunity to let them speak about their feelings. We are continuing this practice virtually.

4. Promote the concept of wellness

According to the I-House presentation, not all countries have an established wellness infrastructure like the one we have at Duke, which means that wellness as we know it may not be an idea all students share. Therefore, it’s up to us to promote wellness and raise awareness of the resources available to our students. At EIS, when we have our first student conferences, we let them know about Duke Student Wellness – what they do and where to reach them. In addition, we post a link to Student Wellness at Duke on the homepage of our Sakai pages as well as the specific dates for Wellness Break and Wellness Day. During the week of Wellness Break in March, we emphasized the importance of personal attention and shared how we participated in wellness ourselves.

5. Demonstrate cultural sensitivity

According to staff and faculty responses, cultural awareness and cultural sensitivity helped students feel less anxious. Simply asking about holidays or special festivals can make a student smile. This semester, EIS faculty and staff wished students a happy Lunar New Year and students were happy to share some details about how they typically celebrate this holiday. In addition, we can be sensitive to lesser-represented populations by actively seeking out cultural organizations or groups and by asking our students if they’ve heard of them.


We’ve all been affected by COVID in many ways, and for our international students the effect is even greater. Fortunately, we have some tangible ways of providing support, and many of these small things can go a long way. EIS will continue to be pro-active about supporting students and look into other ways of providing additional support.


Ling Jin, student development coordinator at the I-House, contributed to this story.