Global depictions of international students during COVID-19: A thematic analysis of Twitter data

Authors: Jenna Mittelmeier and Heather Cockayne

Cite as: Mittelmeier, Jenna and Cockayne, Heather, Global Depictions of International Students in a Time of Crisis: A Thematic Analysis of Twitter Data During Covid-19 (October 2, 2020). Available at

Summary | In this paper we explore public perceptions of international students within their host countries during the immediate COVID-19 crisis (January – April 2020). Public perceptions of international students have become increasingly mixed in recent years; competing public narratives between the perceived societal benefits and challenges of hosting international students is present in recent research from many countries. These anxieties have likely been intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly considering the global distrust of international travel, the biased framing of international students in the media, and reports of increased discrimination. As such, there is an ongoing need to understand how international students have been depicted and portrayed during this pivotal global event.

To evaluate this, we conducted systematic collection of Twitter data and thematic analysis of 6,501 posts made about international students globally during the immediate COVID-19 crisis (January – April 2020). Overall, our analysis depicted polarised narratives about international students that shifted over time, with a particular turning point in March 2020 as campus operations worldwide began to close. Figure 1 below shows how these depictions developed over time.

Figure 1: Most frequently used codes over time

Contribution | Our findings provide evidence for competing public narratives about international students that changed over time during the initial pandemic response. Initially (January 2020), posts about international students focused on stereotyping international students being fashionable and wealthy. This then changed as the pandemic situation developed in late January to February 2020, which overwhelming depictions of international students as assumed disease carriers, which appeared to fuel racism and xenophobia. A further, later shift occurred in March 2020 after university closures through an outpouring of empathy and support for international students, including condemnation of their perceived treatment.

In our paper, we call for universities to reflect and act on these troubling narratives of bias and discrimination experienced by international students through recognition that inequalities can be intensified during times of global crisis. While public support for international students existed, much of it was reactive instead of proactive. This highlights a continued need for universities and their staff to proactively engage with world issues that impact upon perceptions of international students and damage their experiences, something of pressing importance in the aftermath of COVID-19.