Helping McMaster international students cope with the pandemic

Feb. 2021
Wendy Schneider

Moving to a new country can be an overwhelming experience for international students in the best of circumstances. But when McMaster University closed its campus and dorms last spring, their stress levels rose exponentially.

While domestic students may have been happy to reconnect with family, many international students were denied that option due to closed borders or the need to meet their research and lab requirements. Some graduate students lost on-campus or local jobs, making them particularly vulnerable. 

Thankfully, McMaster University was well positioned to help students through a wide range of on-campus support systems, including the Mac Money Centre (MMC), a service provided by the university’s Student Success Centre, which equips students with financial skills to manage their money and minimize debt.  

Terry Bennett is a certified credit counsellor, who has been the centre’s on-site money coach since 2018. Before COVID-19, she counselled students and ran webinars on topics related to financial literacy. But when Canada went into lockdown last March, she quickly shifted into overdrive, working long hours from home to help her students access desperately needed funding.  

“Students weren’t able to get home. They were worried about their families, trying to finish school and they were running out of money,” said Bennett.  

Finding solutions to these issues was critical and time sensitive. So Bennett and her colleagues at Student Affairs spent the next six months trying to help students access funding for basic living. “I was basically working 24/7 because I was dealing with people in all different time zones. I didn’t have to be, I could have turned off my phone, but I just couldn’t,” said Bennett. “I think I was very similar to lots of other people working at the school. We just felt that we had to be there for the students.” 

In addition to helping students apply for government support programs like the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and the Canada Emergency Student Benefit (CESB), Bennett and her colleagues helped students find part-time employment, renew visas and cope with the challenges of remote learning. Of particular concern, was helping students deal with the anxiety and depression from months of social isolation. 

“The isolation is remarkably difficult,” said Bennett. “They’re not seeing their friends. They’re not able to go out. Some of our students don’t have good internet service. The stresses that these students are under have been extraordinary.”

So too, is the stress that staff are facing. Bennett, for one, has often felt overwhelmed by the technological demands of her COVID-era responsibilities. “We’re all very tired and overwhelmed by our learning, although I think we’re really surprised by our ability to be creative,” she said. “I don’t think that if anyone had said you’re going to learn five different platforms one day before you had to go on the platform, that you’d ever be able to do it. And I think that all of us have risen to the challenge.”

Today, Bennett continues to see students individually (on Zoom) and runs about two financial literacy webinars a week. “Even though they’re out of the country, these students are still paying tuition and they still need to be filing their taxes. So from that point of view, we’re every bit as busy,” she said, adding that she has to remind international students to continue to file taxes, as they will eventually return to Hamilton.  

Nearly 12 months into the pandemic, there’s no question that sitting for hours in front of her computer screen has taken its toll on Bennett’s back. But she has no regrets for how she spent those initial weeks and months. “I just thought I had to keep doing it, because these kids had nobody else. You were their lifeline.”