Studying abroad during a global pandemic: Brazilian students studying in Canada reflects

By Barbara Patrocinio |Scribe

To go or not to go abroad?

This is the question that has not left the heads of many aspiring travelers since March 2020. This is certainly a difficult decision to make. While still a possibility, it will not be exactly as it was dreamed of or planned.

Let’s be honest, during the pandemic a regular trip to the bakery or the market on the street corner seems to be so much more complicated and full of safety measures and precautions. Travelling abroad certainly seems impossible. No wonder many have given up on this dream, or even decided to wait for a more favorable moment to appear, no matter how long that may take.

Looking for better guidance through this tough decision and considering short deadlines for applications, many international students sought the help of Immigration and Educational Consultants who were also mediating with governments on behalf of international students.

Camila Ferreira, an educational consultant at Hi Bonjour, a Brazilian and Canadian agency specializing in exchange programs and higher education since 2013, says that many future students who wanted to travel to Canada made the decision only after some conditions were met, such as offering online classes without any penalty on postgraduate work permits.

“Many students were pondering the decision longer, or even putting off their plans,” Ferreira said. “Even with some measures taken by governments to mitigate the problems for international students, only those who really could no longer wait agreed to go through this experience, which in the end is not exactly what they dreamed of.”

The desire to live the dream and the lower initial investment due to online classes, which allow students to stay at home while attending virtual or online classes, were the main factors weighing the decisions for those choosing to take a risk.

For most, the enthusiasm of living this experience was not totally lost, but transformed, and people adapted to the new reality faced by the whole world. Brazilian International Relations student Vitória Nathally Costa has always dreamed of studying bakery and pastry arts in a Canadian college. 

When the pandemic hit, she was taking a break from her international relations degree, and started to wonder if this might actually be the best time to finally pursue the program of her dreams. 

“The lower expenses we have when taking an online course ended up being attractive, and during the pandemic, most courses were, of course, happening online,” Costa said. “But it’s complicated. Some courses require equipment that are expensive or that we simply don’t have at home,” she said. 

Certainly, this decision was far from being simple. Mostly because it no longer was a matter of choosing between major travel restrictions, the ongoing global vaccination exercise, prolonged visa delays, and vaccination passports. The closed borders of many countries were some of the obstacles faced by those who were brave — or stubborn — enough to insist.

For Renan Abath, an international business student at Seneca College, some safety measures against COVID-19 really got in the way of his experience. “I think the use of masks might make communication in English harder for non-native speakers,” Abath said. “Above all that there is the accent, so it might be hard to understand what’s being said. Besides, with masks on, it’s not possible to read lips, which doesn’t help people who don’t have good listening skills, and for people with lower voice-tones, masks muffle their voices even more,” he said.

Josimery de Lima decided to travel to Canada to enroll in the bakery and pastry arts management program at Centennial College in 2019 and was already in Toronto when the pandemic hit: “I spent two weeks in Brazil in 2020, visiting my family, and Canada closed its borders a week after I returned to Toronto,” Lima said. “I was willing to go through all the safety requirements like quarantine and constant testing,” she said. 

Like Lima, many who agreed to go through this experience understood it would not be exactly like originally imagined. However, while they perhaps had to wait a little before being able to venture out on weekend getaways or move freely inside their chosen city, there are certainly some unique benefits to be taken from this experience. Cultural exchange and language acquisition being some of them.

Yet there will always be an itch that cannot be scratched for those who dreamed with hope and expectation for this experience. 

For most students, the social part seems to be what was most affected. “I would like to travel more within the country and see the sights and visit the francophone part,” Lima said. “I would also have liked to go to parties and have more social interactions.”

Despite everything however, Josimery says she is happy with her decision to study in Canada. “I’m happy to have the opportunity of graduating in Canada,” she said.

Despite all the conflicts experienced, ensuring safety and health, one’s own and others, must certainly be a priority. For some, this was what mattered most. “I decided to stay in Brazil for now, simply because I didn’t feel safe traveling,” said Isabela Rabelo, who dreams of studying economics in Canada.

Most countries have taken steps to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic, and of course the vaccine is one of the safest measures that can be taken. In fact, vaccination has become a contingency for visa qualification and traveling in most places all over the world.

And while it makes travelling safer for everyone, this also imposes even more restrictions for those who want to carry out their long-awaited plan of studying abroad. For many, the current scenario seems to be a lose-lose situation: choosing between pursuing a dream, even if in a different way, risking your health and the health of others, staying at home hoping for  improvements in the overall situation, and putting off your plans for indefinite deadlines or even giving them up.

Although it is possible to mitigate risks through vaccination, use of hand sanitizer and masks, the effort is simply not worth it for some. Ferreira said she heard from several future students over the past year that investing in an exchange experience at that time would not be the best option.

“Apart from the security issues, many felt that they would be paying for an experience that is far from what they dreamed of, and on top of that, one that no one knows for sure how it would be, since it depends on several factors, some of them very personal,” Ferreira said.

Besides, the reports of some international students who decided to move forward with their dream even during the pandemic were discouraging to some. Isabela Rabelo said that as many reports she saw on Instagram and Facebook showing students were satisfied with their decision, it was clear to her that this was not the experience she wanted.

“I’m already a shy and introverted person, so I think wearing masks and having a social distance would make it even harder for me to connect with others,” Rabelo said.

Studying abroad during a pandemic may not seem like the ideal choice — surely it’s not the way anyone expected to live their international adventures. But maybe this unique time in history can become a true once-in-a-lifetime experience, and one that will still contribute a lot for personal growth.

The process to study abroad itself has always involved a series of steps and requirements to ensure that students are prepared for the experience, and the pandemic certainly added some extra steps in the bureaucratic process.

Also, despite all difficulties, a report done by the college application platform Cialfo showed the majority of future students didn’t give up on their plans. The demand for this kind of exchange is still pretty strong in many countries, being an important part of their economy.

Anyway, this decision is certainly a very personal one and involves factors that go beyond the technical data shown by surveys and the bureaucracies required by governments. No matter what road taken, there are  pros and cons that can only be defined by those who will have to live with the consequences of the decisions.

For Camila Ferreira, comfort is the most important factor.

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