Methods: A qualitative research design with a phenomenological approach to explore the experiences and perceptions of mental and emotional health among African international students during the COVID-19 pandemic. Fifteen students were purposively recruited and interviewed by phone or Zoom. Interviews lasted 40-70 minutes and were audio-recorded. Following verbatim transcriptions and the development of a comprehensive codebook, thematic analysis was used to analyze the data. Nvivo12 qualitative analysis software was used to code and analyze data.
Results: Findings from the thematic analysis showed that African international students experienced: social isolation and depression, fear of the virus and anxiety about their health, the extra stress of being an international student (lack of familial support, restrictive visas, loss of work opportunities and status maintenance), job anxiety, and uncertainty about the future. Participants used various coping mechanisms including staying engaged, peer or community support “Ubuntu” (African resilience), positivity, and staying informed as coping strategies to navigate the difficult days of the pandemic.
Conclusions and Implications: Given their strong communal cultural background, living and studying in a foreign country where individualistic culture is dominant is difficult for African international students. COVID-19 pandemic with its associated forces created stressful living conditions for African international students. This qualitative study highlights the need for all parties involved – international students, universities, and government to learn from the recent experience and re-examine educational and immigration policies to create a more international student-friendly learning and living-friendly environment. Universities need to be aware of international students’ needs by putting in place policies and provisions that minimize international students’ mental, emotional, and financial vulnerabilities during pandemics. These include providing culturally appropriate mental health and counseling services, creating supportive spaces uniquely dedicated to international students, and ensuring the availability of free emergency health services. Further implications will be discussed.