Investigating the COVID-19 Risk Communication Experience of International Tertiary Education Students: An Exploratory Study During Alert Levels 4 and 3 (17 August – 1 December 2021) in Auckland, New Zealand

Meslet, Clement
Holloway, Ailsa
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Master of Disaster Risk Management and Development
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Auckland University of Technology

Risk communication represented a core component of New Zealand’s COVID-19 pandemic response. Despite its recognised role in both the disaster risk field and in the management of public health emergencies, risk communication has not received focused attention by the higher education enterprise. Acknowledging the limited research on risk communication in tertiary education, this exploratory study sought to investigate its role in the experience of international students enrolled at a tertiary education institution in Auckland, New Zealand.

With an emphasis on the 17 August – 1 December 2021 “lockdown” period in Auckland, the study investigated the specific challenges faced by the international students, as well as the measures they took to address these, along with their risk communication experiences.

The study adopted an interpretivist paradigm, and applied a qualitative descriptive approach, also using semi-structured interviews as the data-gathering method. Face-to-face interviews took place in September 2022 with six international students who had also been living in Auckland during Alert Levels 4 and 3 from August – December 2021. Thematic analysis and coding with NVivo software identified four main themes related to the students’ experiences: 1) student characteristics, 2) the experience of multiple stressors 3) disrupted and uneven social support, and 4) their risk communication experience. The findings highlighted four important issues. These included the multiple, interlinked stressors that the students had faced that were amplified by wide-ranging uncertainties related to the pandemic. They also underlined the key role of social media in the students’ risk communication, and the students’ limited engagement with the tertiary education institution’s email messaging and COVID-19 student webpage. Results indicated that the international students’ risk communication experiences also varied, depending on whether they were supported through the Manaaki New Zealand Scholarships Programme or were self-funded. This indicated the vital role played by institutional structures such as the Scholarships Office that provided some of the interviewed students access to linking social capital through its role as an institutional navigator.

Given the limited research on international students, despite their vital role to their host institutions’ financial sustainability, this exploratory study suggests the need for further research on how international students navigate periods of prolonged difficulty. It also highlights the need for additional study of risk communication in tertiary education settings, as well as on the enabling factors that enhance international tertiary student resilience in public health and other emergencies.

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