Pandemic creates extra challenges for international exchange

Monday, April 26, 2021 — Within the academic world, international exchange students and researchers have been particularly affected by the pandemic. In an opinion article in the journal Ethnobiology and Conservation, Farid Dahdouh-Guebas of the Biology Department of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel and Ina Vandebroek of the New York Botanical Garden defend this group and propose some solutions. Dahdouh-Guebas: “Moving to another country, learning a new language and living in another culture involves a lot of effort. The global health crisis makes it even more difficult and creates even more emotional, social, financial and legal challenges than usual.’

Targeted as virus spreaders

The researchers point out that there have been reported cases of verbal attacks around the world in which international students and researchers have been branded as carriers and spreaders of the virus. In extreme cases, people have even been physically threatened and attacked. “This is rather bitter when you consider that it is usually international scientists who adapt most quickly to a new environment and are most open to new cultural traditions and values,’ says Dahdouh-Guebas. There is concern, the authors say, that the increased risk of racial stereotyping, intimidation and harassment caused by the health crisis will have negative effects on participation in international exchange programmes. In the longer term, this can also lead to a decrease in people with international experience in both education and research, as well as in the labour market in general.

How to counteract harmful long-term effects for education, research and the labour market

To better cope with the challenges and obstacles exchange students and researchers are facing, Dahdouh-Guebas and Vandebroek advocate the following solutions:

1. More openness and flexibility in solving the challenges and barriers academics face, in close consultation with their teachers, mentors and supervisors. “For example, it is important to distinguish flexibly between research that was substantially affected by Covid-19 and research that was not, or to mention Covid-19 on a diploma, so that less good results are put in context and very good results are highlighted. The same with cases of force majeure. Teaching staff and research mentors are important allies in such decisions,’ says Dahdouh-Guebas.

2. Better preparation of students and researchers before and after arrival, through cultural immersion and competence training. “Exchange programmes at universities and other institutions too often assume that students and researchers are already prepared to live and study abroad. A special training course in cultural competence, with required modules in cultural and medical anthropology, ethics, social justice and anti-racism, as well as tailored medical education modules on Covid-19 or general epidemiology, can build the necessary skills for mobile scientists who plan to work directly with indigenous and traditional communities around the world,’ Dahdouh-Guebas and Vandebroek add.

“We do not need to reinvent the wheel for this,’ they suggest, because the information is available in cultural competence curricula and philosophical works, religious writings, history books and unwritten socio-cultural rules. “Moreover, such an approach is applicable all over the world, within our own culture and that of others. As Covid-19 will not disappear overnight, international students and researchers, their mentors and supervisors, academic administrators and local communities are thus also at the forefront of finding new and better ways to interact.’

“The situation for exchange students and researchers is indeed anything but ideal in these times. From the VUB side, we are very much aware of the problem,’ says Romain Meeusen, vice-rector for Internationalisation. “Therefore, we support our international students wherever we can and adopt a flexible attitude. Exchange is important. Being able to meet and learn from each other, maintaining openness and curiosity are important foundations for good science and interpersonal understanding. We therefore hope to restart our exchange programmes as soon as possible. We are proud of our scientists, who work so hard for their students and for the importance of exchange for science.’

Dahdouh-Guebas, F. & I. Vandebroek, 2021. Impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on mobility scholars who participate in international study exchange and research programs. Ethnobiology and Conservation 10: 17.­/ec2021-02­-10.17-1-7