COVID-19: Overcoming Challenges for International Students

By:  Han Pham, PharmD Candidate 2023, Brittany Long, PharmD, BCACP, Lindsey Peters, PharmD, BCPS, and Emily Eddy, PharmD, BCACP, BC-ADM


COVID-19 creates challenges that significantly affect the well-being, social support, and self-esteem of college students, often increasing levels of mental distress. This is particularly challenging and impactful for international students. Recent literature identified some of these concerns and inspired a “call-to-action” to address challenges and assist international students.1,2

The challenge: 

A commentary by Stone and Pate notes how COVID-19 impacted everyday life and experiences of pharmacy students.3 Many members of the 2020 graduating class completed virtual experiential education, missed major events, and face uncertainty about licensure and the job market during a pandemic. International pharmacy students have these concerns while also being away from their home country, loved ones, and local community.1 Pham and Shi conducted interviews of 20 Vietnamese students in the United States (U.S.) to examine how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted their mental health. Incorporating their results, a list of factors impacting the wellbeing of international students are below: 

  • Housing. When college students moved out of university housing at the onset of the pandemic, many students unexpectedly needed to urgently find alternate housing. International students are less likely to have had a support network nearby to fall back on, resulting in uncertainty, limited options, and increased housing costs.
  • Remote Learning. For international students particularly, remote learning reduces the opportunity for effective communication with their professors and peers thereby reducing the opportunities to practice their English language skills. 
  • Homesickness. With COVID-19, concern of homesickness was enhanced due to the restrictions on international travel, quarantine requirements, and the uncertainty of the pandemic’s duration. These travel restrictions coupled with the fear of contracting COVID-19, forced international students to stay in their country of study for an undetermined amount of time. 
  • Mental Wellbeing. Recent reports have shown baseline rates of anxiety and depression in college students are high, around 39% and 35% respectively. The prevalence of mental health disorders among graduate and professional students increased during the pandemic; depression is two times higher in 2020 compared to 2019 and generalized anxiety disorder is 1.5 times higher than in 2019.4 Coupled with increased stress, seclusion, and social distancing, the mental well-being of international students may be at a particular risk.
  • Racism and Stereotypes. Many Asian international students agree that racism toward  them occurs.1 Terms such as “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus” have been used by high profile public figures and link Asian ethnicity with the deadly pandemic. The anti-Asian phenomenon in the U.S. during this pandemic is a critical issue. As of February 16, 2021, more than 2,808 recent case reports of anti-Asian hate across 47 states have been documented including verbal harassment and physical assaults.5


It is imperative that institutions intentionally work to ensure their campus environments are supportive and welcoming to all students from diverse backgrounds. Briggs and Ammigan discuss a Collaborative Programming and Outreach Model based on four pillars that can be implemented to serve and engage international students.2 Examples to assist with each pillar are in Table 1.

Table 1: Example programs to support international students 

Key Pillar2 Programming Ideas:2 
Support international
student success
Academic programming:
– Online campus tutoring services
– Time management techniques
– Managing stress virtually
– Virtual mock job interviews
– Language support programs for online communication
– Tips for a hybrid/online classroom 

Personal programming:
– Coping with culture shock
– Meeting expectations from home
– Dealing with family health & finances

Incorporating international student representatives on governing bodies 
Understand government regulations – Maintaining legal visa status
– Finding an internship or job during a pandemic
– Travel advisories
– Visa and travel restriction support
– Understanding healthcare & insurance
– What to do if you get sick
– Ride sharing & mass transportation shut down during a pandemic
Connect with the local community  – Virtual weekly coffee hour
– Essay or poetry contest in collaboration with a local library 
– International education week
– Socially distanced community events
– Intercultural communication workshops
– Mass vaccination clinics for students to volunteer 
Promote international understanding – Cultural excursions: virtually or in-person
– Virtual visits to schools & community groups
– Holiday events & receptions online 
– Networking with community leaders


This poses additional questions that colleges of pharmacy should answer to ensure international students have the necessary support, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • How has the pandemic impacted international students? 
  • What is the appropriate level of support services needed for international students, both during and after the pandemic?2 
  • What support currently exists for all students during the pandemic, including international students, and what additional support services are needed? 

While some of the ideas may be harder to conceptualize given the pandemic, they are important ideas to attempt to implement. Hopefully this post will allow the unique needs of international pharmacy students’ to resurface and prompt self-reflection of services available at your own institution. 


The authors would like to acknowledge Chris Caldwell, International Services Advisor at Ohio Northern University for his contributions to this commentary.


  1. Pham NC, Shi JR. A qualitative study on mental distress of Vietnamese students in the U.S.A. in the Covid-19 era. Asia Pacific Journal of Health Management. 2020;15(3):45-57. doi: 10.24083/apjhm.v15i3.459
  2. Briggs P, Ammigan R. A collaborative programming and outreach model for international student support offices. Journal of International Students. 2017; 7(4):1080-1095. doi: 10.5281/zenodo.1035969
  3. Stone JK, Pate AN. The impact of COVID-19 through the eyes of a fourth-year pharmacy student. Am J Pharm Educ. 2020;84(6): article 8146. doi: 10.5688/ajpe8146
  4. Chirikov I, Soria KM, Horgos B, Jones-White D. Undergraduate and graduate students’ mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. SERU Consortium, University of California – Berkeley and University of Minnesota. 2020. Accessed April 5, 2021. 
  5. Spectrum News Staff. Spectrum News. Attacks against Asian Americans spike amid COVID-19 Pandemic. Available at: Accessed April 4, 2021.

Author Bio(s)

Han Pham is a fourth-year pharmacy student at Ohio Northern University. Her educational scholarship interests include professional development, leadership training, and reflective practice. Han enjoys spending time with her family, cooking new recipes, and traveling to different countries.

Brittany Long is an assistant professor of pharmacy practice at Ohio Northern University. Her educational scholarship interests include post-graduate teaching and learning curriculums and student engagement. In her free time, Brittany enjoys playing soccer, singing, and spending time with her family and cats.

Lindsey Peters is an associate professor of pharmacy practice at Ohio Northern University. Her educational scholarship interests include post-graduate teaching and learning curriculums,  psychiatric, and neurologic pharmacy. In her free time, Lindsey enjoys trying new activities, playing board games, listening to music, and spending time with friends, family, and puppies.

Emily Eddy is an assistant professor of pharmacy practice at Ohio Northern University. Her educational scholarship interests include education preparation programs and students success; especially in pharmaceutical calculations. In her free time, Emily enjoys playing board games with her family and exploring parks.


Pulses is a scholarly blog supported by Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning

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