How has COVID-19 affected VCU international students from China? And how can they be better supported?

A study by School of Education professor Yaoying Xu is investigating the particular challenges faced by Chinese college students studying in the U.S.

Yaoying Xu, Ph.D. [View Image] Yaoying Xu, Ph.D., a professor of counseling and special education in the School of Education, is leading the study, “Examining the Impact of COVID-19 on International Students from China at VCU." (Photo by Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

At Virginia Commonwealth University, researchers have been launching projects to address and assess the impact of the novel coronavirus. Their work ranges from vaccine development and building biobanks to study the virus to examinations of how the pandemic is affecting food access in vulnerable communities. These are some of their stories.

When news of the coronavirus began to emerge from China in January, Virginia Commonwealth University professor Yaoying Xu, Ph.D., a Chinese American, worried about her family and friends there, while also experiencing anti-Chinese bias and prejudice by Americans, either intentionally or unintentionally.

When COVID-19 hit the United States, Xu’s friends and family in China worried about her, but she also received hurtful messages from people in China upset about misleading coronavirus information posted on social media in both countries.

“I experienced the challenges as a Chinese American, but I imagined international students from China would experience many more difficulties because they are on a nonimmigrant student visa and they are in a much more vulnerable situation in many ways as international students,” said Xu, a professor of counseling and special education in the School of Education.

That worry about international students from China studying at VCU inspired her to apply for the university’s COVID-19 Rapid Research Funding Opportunity, which provides grants to VCU researchers to better understand and fight the pandemic. Xu was one of 31 investigators to receive funding from the program, led by the VCU Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation, with support from the C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research.

Xu’s study, “Examining the Impact of COVID-19 on International Students from China at VCU,” began with two focus groups and two individual interviews with 14 international students from China. The participants include Chinese students in the School of Education, the School of the Arts, the School of Medicine and the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, as well as two visiting scholars from China.

“COVID-19 is affecting everyone, but its impact on international students from China is beyond the pandemic itself, complicated by political conflicts, economic competitions, and social and cultural differences between the two countries,” Xu said. “With the increase of international students from China on VCU campuses, we also observed increased challenges, prejudices and cultural discriminations.”

Xu and her research team are analyzing the data and expect to reach preliminary findings by early July. Xu plans to submit a proposal to present their findings at an upcoming conference of the American Educational Research Association.

COVID-19 is affecting everyone, but its impact on international students from China is beyond the pandemic itself, complicated by political conflicts, economic competitions, and social and cultural differences between the two countries.

In August, Xu plans to establish a peer mentoring program and a faculty counseling program to provide ongoing support to students from China, and eventually to all other international students.

“I hope my research project will lead to the establishment and implementation of a culturally responsive support system across VCU campuses to benefit international students from China academically, culturally and socially,” she said.

Xu hopes her team’s research will inform VCU’s Global Education Office and other offices that support international students to develop or update specific guidelines for serving students from China and eventually all international students, such as visa options, counseling for mental health, social and emotional support, academic transitions and internship opportunities.

“The ultimate goal of this project is to help people from all cultures, not only from China, to respect and accept mutual understanding through an ongoing support system to increase cultural sensitivity and inclusion on VCU campuses and its surrounding communities,” she said.

The United States typically hosts more than 1 million international students, with students from Asian countries being the majority. Around 400,000 Chinese students are studying in the U.S. this year.

Since 2011, VCU’s strategic plans have made it a priority to increase the enrollment of Chinese students. Last fall, 170 undergraduate, graduate and first professional students from China were enrolled at the university. And across the university, schools have developed strategies to increase international student enrollment. The School of Education, for example, has entered partnerships with seven universities in China.

“Since fall 2019, students from these partnership schools have enrolled in our academic programs such as counselor education, teaching and learning, and special education,” Xu said. “The Asian-American Educational Studies Center at [the School of Education] was established in fall 2019 as an integral platform to support [the school’s] international initiatives. Therefore, it is essential to identify these students' needs, concerns and perceptions to ensure their success.”

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