The experiences of international students in Germany during COVID-19: A case study
‘[...] I really arrived in a city with a coronavirus crisis and without knowing anyone.’
International students have experienced strong adversary effects because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Research at universities in the United States and Australia, as well as on Indian and Chinese international students, found that international students worried about their health, health insurance, and access to health services; travel restrictions and visas; and disruptions to their education and the future of their career. Many international students experienced the loss of financial support and jobs, struggling to pay tuition fees and rents. In addition, instances of xenophobia, harassment or discrimination based on their nationality negatively impacted their feeling of safety, mental health, and social interactions. While students received support from friends, family, and various organisations, many of them experienced loneliness and criticised a lack of support from the government and other organisations.
International students should be part of the governments’ and universities’ considerations in their efforts to fight the spread of COVID-19, and social science research is crucial to building foundations for future evidence-based policymaking. Against this background, we examine the experiences of international students in Germany with the following research question: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the lives of international students at the University of Oldenburg (UOL)? The study is not meant for any generalisation, but as a case study providing insight into the situation of international students in Germany.
Between July and September 2020, we conducted a survey and four in-depth, unstructured interviews with 59 international UOL students, excluding exchange students. Our research was guided by the Social Determinants of Health (SDOH) concept; such lens transforms health into a social phenomenon, emphasising the importance of social justice and health equity. Using this framework, our study attempts to understand how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the material and psychosocial circumstances of international students.
Figure 1: SDOH in the scope of our research.
Our results show that almost all study participants experienced difficulties during the COVID-19 pandemic. The major concerns of international students in our study were, in this order, student jobs, finances, free-time activities, internships, relationships with friends, student permits, health situation, and safety.
Figure 2: Difficulties experienced by international students due to COVID-19.
Our research highlights how the economic stability of many students was threatened by the loss of student jobs. Losing student jobs also affected housing, but in contrast to other studies’ findings, ours found this did not lead directly to dropouts.
‘It’s pretty tough to find a part-time job as an international student right now’.
‘I am not sure if I will have enough money for next year’.
However, the lack of adequate opportunities for future employment in Germany was a major concern for many international students close to graduation.
‘The job market has sunk due to COVID-19 and this worries students like me who are about to graduate!’
Regarding education, international students were above average satisfied with the support provided by the university, but they also requested more up-to-date, relevant and well-explained information, as well as more or better support services (such as academic support). While online classes provided opportunities for independent and flexible learning, international students surveyed criticised teaching quality, workload, and IT and other technical difficulties. Here, surveyed students expressed that the lack of social interaction was a challenge for academic performances.
‘I miss social interaction. It is not easy to ask questions and be concentrated during the lecture’.
Figure 3: Desired support.
Examining the social and community context, the main support sources for international students were families in home countries, and international and German friends; these were also the main groups international students themselves provided support to. The decrease of social interaction and the disruption of social life activities had for some students a negative impact on their psychosocial wellbeing and academic performance. Some students felt socially excluded or even discriminated against because of their nationality.
‘During the crisis, I have lost contact with many people and reduced contact with many more and this is the toughest part when you feel alone with the world in this situation’.
‘I really feel I am not welcome’.
‘I’ve been called out on the street, “Corona!”, because of my Asian appearance’.
Concerning health and health services, many international students experienced stress, sadness, loneliness, and anxiety. Coping mechanisms used by students were exercising, connecting with others virtually, and meditating, amongst others.
‘I experienced troubles writing my papers since I couldn’t concentrate due to the news and new information about COVID-19. Also, it is difficult to study when you are worried about your family at home and your own health and safety.’
Figure 4: Health-related experiences of international students during COVID-19.
Unfortunately, access to health services was a concern for 50% of surveyed students, who worried about language difficulties and their lack of prior experience with the German healthcare system. Other reasons were fear of discrimination, financial insecurity, and fear of getting infected with COVID-19.
‘I also feel unsafe in terms of how I could communicate in German if I got sick and if I would be treated the same way as a German.’
To conclude, the results of this study underline the heterogenous experiences of international students in Germany during the COVID-19 pandemic and the importance of addressing their specific needs. For instance, there is a clear need for better explained, accessible support services targeted specifically at international students. As a student noted: ‘They didn’t really keep international students in mind because of course, the minority of (the) University of Oldenburg is international students’.
This article is a short version of a full report. The opinions expressed in the report are those of the authors who conducted their research as part of a research project at the University of Oldenburg and do not reflect the views of their affiliated or current organisations.
Julia Söhnholz, Manh Ha Luong, and Sofia Morales are graduates of the Erasmus Mundus Joint Master Programme in Migration and Intercultural Relations (https://www.emmir.org/) at the University of Oldenburg in Germany.
Holding a Bachelor's degree in Liberal Arts & Sciences from the Erasmus University College Rotterdam, during EMMIR, Julia Söhnholz studied and conducted research in Norway, South Africa and Uganda. Her previous research focused on migrants’ mobilisations against the externalisation of borders, as well as on migrants’ participation in public space. In her master’s thesis, Julia analysed the social participation of children with migration backgrounds in Germany in collaboration with World Vision. You can reach Julia at .
With over three years of working in the field of migration for international organisations and diplomatic missions, Manh Ha Luong is interested in labour migration, intercultural relations, and migration and development. Ha also holds a bachelor degree in economics from an accredited programme between Foreign Trade University (Vietnam) and Colorado State University (USA). Ha can be reached at
Sofia Morales is an alumna of the University of Ottawa (Canada), where she obtained a degree in sociology. Later, Sofia graduated from the University of Oldenburg, obtaining the European Master of Migration and Intercultural Relations. Sofia’s research experience is specific to healthcare access for marginalized communities. In her latest research piece, Sofia has conducted a case study on the implication of the integration of traditional and biomedical healthcare practices, for access to healthcare in refugee settlements in Uganda. Sofia Morales’ contact email is: