Q&A with Bahareh Ansari: One International Student’s Experience and Advice During the COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the daily lives of Americans and citizens around the world who are practicing social distancing to help stem the novel coronavirus that causes the disease. For international students living abroad in host countries, the stress and anxiety can be even more unnerving than for those of us who are required to work or school from home. 

Bahareh Ansari, MBA, is a PhD student in the Department of Information Science at the State University of New York at Albany. She holds an MBA and has worked several years as a researcher on various projects before starting her PhD program. Her interdisciplinary doctoral research uses the tools and theories of Information Science to understand public health issues, with a focus on drug abuse and STD.  

We had the opportunity to correspond with Bahareh by email. Here’s how she describes her experience during the COVID-19 pandemic and her advice to other international students during this crisis.

JPHMP Direct: You’re an international student from Iran, pursuing a PhD at the University at Albany in information science with a strong focus on opioids policy and creating use of informatics data tools (eg, visualization and network analysis to study physician-pharmacy relationships). First of all, how has COVID-19 impacted your home country of Iran and your family? Is everyone in your family well? It must be especially disconcerting to be separated from them during this difficult time. Our thoughts are with you.

Bahareh Ansari: Thank you. As you know, my home country Iran has been profoundly impacted by this pandemic. My family, like all the other Iranian families, are doing their best to follow the cleaning protocols and practice social distancing. Thankfully, they have been able to limit their job responsibilities and stay home as much as they can. The additional challenge in my country is that it is around holiday times. The new year in Iran starts on March 20th, and traditionally this is a time for every Iranian to pay visits to friends and families. I have seen many online campaigns encouraging people to virtually celebrate the new year through their phones, but this is especially hard for the elderly and those who are not comfortable with technology.

JPHMP Direct: Did you consider returning home? I understand containment there in Iran is proving to be especially difficult. Did that impact your decision to stay in the US?

Bahareh Ansari:  It is certainly very hard for me to be separated from my family during these times, but I did not consider returning home. This is not because I was afraid that I am more exposed to the virus back home than here because the pandemic has already impacted all countries including the US. But I believe that traveling itself is risky because when you travel (especially long distances), you spend many hours in public places such as airplanes, buses, and airports. It is very hard to follow the cleaning protocol in these places, and I think the safest strategy for me, and my family is to stay home and contact each other through our phones.

JPHMP Direct: How are other international students at the University at Albany responding to the pandemic?

Bahareh Ansari: It is a difficult time for everyone, especially international students. It is very common for international students to miss their families and feel lonely in the host country. Most of the time, these feelings of loneliness can be resolved with friends hanging out or going out together. But now that the pandemic is forcing us to stay home and practice social distancing, we can expect to see a rise in such feelings among international students.

JPHMP Direct: The University at Albany, like many other universities, has shifted from classroom instruction to online instruction. Has the transition presented any additional challenges?

Bahareh Ansari: The online transition has been a challenge for students as much as professors. We all must put additional efforts for learning to work with the technology for participating in classes, preparing class presentations, etc. Also, most graduate students have assistantship responsibilities that have been impacted by the online transition. Some students teach courses or assist professors in teaching courses, and they now have additional responsibilities for course design, online office hours, or substituting exams with papers. Other students have research responsibilities that have been affected by working remotely and having online team meetings.

JPHMP Direct: What can information science teach us about pandemics?

Bahareh Ansari: Nowadays most people get their information from online sources and social media. Online sources can be extremely powerful for educating the public during critical times such as pandemics. These sources provide an incredible platform for health professionals to contact many people in a very short time using engaging media such as videos or visualizations. However, we should not forget that this powerful platform is also available to those who do not have any expertise and may spread misinformation. Information science can help us detect the sources of misinformation or educate the public to check the sources of their news and always be critical about what they hear on social media.

JPHMP Direct: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Bahareh Ansari: As an international student who has been impacted by this pandemic in many ways, I know that life can be hard during the time of crises. But I found 3 tips that help me going through these hard days, and I would like to share them with other international students.

  1. Always think critically about what you hear on the news. It is very hard to hear bad news about your home country when you are away. Remember that only extreme cases are broadcasted, and most news agencies have political agendas for what they distribute.
  2. Be careful with misinformation on social media and speak about that with your family. Sometimes it is hard to distinguish between information and misinformation. We need to find reliable sources (such as CDC in the United States, and the ministry of health in other countries) and always check their websites before believing what we see on social media.
  3. Stay strong, even if you feel lonely and disconnected. Exercise and meditation can help during these hard times. I am grateful to my friend who shared with me a free fitness app that includes numerous yoga and workout plans. It feels very nice to leave even a couple of minutes a day to focus on your mind and body during these hard times.

JPHMP Direct: That’s excellent advice that we should all take to heart. Thanks so much for your time, Bahareh. Best of luck with your studies during this difficult time.

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