Being an International Student in 2021

May 28, 2021

One of our Oxford Scholastica Content interns wrote this blog about her experience as a first year international student studying at Oxford in 2020/21.

I’m Nayah, and I’m a first year international student from Norway studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Merton College, Oxford. When I applied to study abroad, I knew it would be challenging, but my first term was nothing like what I had expected.

Here’s what it was like to be a fresher in 2020.



Leaving home


When I left for Oxford, I had to pack all my life into two suitcases. With all the uncertainty around travelling and my family’s health situation, I didn’t know if I was leaving for a month or a year. (Spoiler alert: I’m still in Oxford). It was very strange to see my room so empty, and to wave goodbye to my parents at the airport. Nothing really prepares you for that.

I had only been to my college for interviews, where I wandered around in a haze of stress and excitement. After a long trip (complete with fogged-up glasses and awkwardly asking for directions while social-distancing), I ended up in my new room. Fortunately, I didn’t have to quarantine – after staying at home in my country’s mini-lockdown, I was more than ready to see people.



Freshers’ week and new faces


Freshers’ week was quite unlike the usual stories of binge-drinking and wild parties. I got to know my household, composed of the people on the same floor as me. Together, we tried to stay awake through information meetings, and enjoyed all the free ice-cream that was meant to make up for the lack of communal activities.

It was a bit overwhelming to meet so many new faces after 6 months of only being with my parents and my next-door neighbour. Sometimes I had to take an evening to watch Friends and recharge. Looking back, I wish I could have met more people – it’s been half a year at the time I’m writing this and, what with the UK January lockdown, I feel I could only recognise half my college’s freshers in a line-up.

Honestly, I didn’t expect to end up mostly being friends with other international students. This might have ended up happening due the household system. We could only socialise with our household and they put all the quarantining students into rooms with en-suite bathrooms, so we were in our own little bubble. It was amazing how similar yet diverse our experiences are. There was plenty to chat about.

Nevertheless, culture shock is always scary. I wish I had known more about it before coming to Oxford. You can find out more about culture shock in this blog post, written by another international student studying at the University of Oxford.

Don’t worry too much about who you end up on a course, in a group or sharing a floor with. I was terrified of not finding my “people”, but slowly I realised that most students are lovely – you can make connections in the strangest of places. Meeting others was the best bit – even in such limited circumstances.


International students



Settling in and the Christmas vacation


We had a strange mix of in-person and online teaching in the first term. The second term was completely online. The workload has been intense, and I felt like I spent too much of my first term in my room. I’ve learnt my lesson now though. If possible, try to go to libraries. They are relatively Covid-19 safe, similar enough to any library in the world to feel like home for international students, and yet more beautiful in Oxford than anywhere else.

One tough bit was being away from home in the vacation. I had expected to go home, but ended up spending New Year’s in College, watching the fireworks with the two other freshers who stayed. That was a bit lonely, and revision for collections (exams that start each Oxford term) was difficult. Without calling my friends, both from Uni and home, I would have felt even more isolated.

At the same time, Oxford is beautiful when it’s quiet. The relative emptiness of lockdown has made me appreciate all the different walking paths. I settled in better because of Covid-19 – staying here so long has made me feel like a local already. I made a more conscious effort to connect with the city than I would have done otherwise, and it’s become a second home. Studying abroad is worth it, just for that.





Then there are exams, reading, an academically rigorous course. Stress is a part of any course. It’s hard not to have people to chat with over lunch and share struggles with – communication and peer learning can suffer during a global pandemic.

Still, I’ve learned. It’s fantastic to take a course where you want to attend every class. Online tutorials are nice because there’s no commute, but it’s not all sunshine. Tutors are human. Sometimes they can forget to give enough breaks. So, I have to admit, sometimes I was almost relieved when there was a technical problem and I could take a little breather.

Being an online student is always tricky, but it’s especially hard when you feel so far from home. Fortunately, some resources are tailored to international students. If you need someone to talk to, your university may also have a nightline chapter or another helpline.


International students


Looking forwards


My first year as an international student at Oxford has been unique to say the least. When I came to Uni, I thought my personality was fully formed, but I’ve grown so much over the past two terms. Be ready for change, because it will come.

I’m excited to experience the rest of uni life, and make more connections, across the university and through societies. The first two terms of my degree abroad have been very special to me, even in the circumstances, and I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next.

Even in the middle of the most unimaginable year, my time as an international student has already become something I will remember forever.


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