Six Ways the COVID-19 Pandemic is Impacting Students and Another Six Ways They Cope with It: Insights from the 2020 Cohort of UNU-IAS, Japan

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22nd June 2020

Dan Jezreel A. Orendain
Riyanti Djalante

United Nations University – Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability

Dan is a Masters student at the United Nations University – Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability

Riyanti is an Academic Programme Officer at the United Nations University – Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability

Editor Note: This article speaks to the INGSA core value of inclusion. Not only does it highlight the difficult conditions that are likely to be shared by many INSGA members (because the network spans from lecture halls to halls of power), but it also underlines an important constraint in the current state of knowledge generation on which policy-relevant evidence rests.  If we are to think of knowledge generation and use as an interdependent system, then we need to be mindful of Covid’s impact in the university sector.

1.    About UNU-IAS and Its Students

Figure 1: The UNU headquarters in Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan (Photo by DJAO).

Located in the Tokyo, Japan headquarters, the United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability (UNU-IAS) is one of the 13 research and teaching think tanks of the UNU Systems pushing for a sustainable future through policy-oriented endeavors. With three thematic areas (sustainable societies, natural capital and biodiversity, and global change and resilience), the institute offers master’s and doctoral degrees, postdoctoral and research fellowships, as well as short courses and conferences.

Currently, UNU-IAS has both MSc in Sustainability and PhD in Sustainability Science programmes for 2 and 3 years, respectively. A diverse and multicultural set of students, they are representing all regions of the world, with research on different aspects of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): poverty, health, energy, inequality, education, disaster resilience, climate change, water, biodiversity, infrastructure, governance, including aging population.

Ultimately, UNU-IAS aims to “contribute, through collaborative research and education, to efforts to resolve the pressing global problems of human survival, development and welfare that are the concern of the United Nations, its Peoples and Member States." (

2.    An Emerging Secondary Epidemic

More than five thousand kilometers from Tokyo, Anuska flips her laptop open in her home in Kathmandu, Nepal. In a matter of minutes, she needs to be in a meeting with her adviser and fellow advisees via Zoom for thesis consultations. She crosses her fingers hoping her internet connection would be good enough for the online call. In her final few months studying in UNU-IAS, she was wrapping up additional field work when the travel bans took place. Now stranded in her home city, she worries she might not be able to return to Japan for her final defense.

In Tokyo, Zealyn prepares for the same meeting in her 12-person shared house room. With tight common spaces, she worries that one of her housemates may be asymptomatic and can infect her. A self-paying MSc in Sustainability student, she ponders whether she will be able to pay the 40,000 USD loan she took. She has been reading articles on economists warning of a global recession fueling job insecurity.

These are just snippets of the life of a UNU-IAS graduate student grappling with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now at 4.7 million confirmed cases with more than 300,000 deaths worldwide (Worldometer, 2020), the cascading impacts of the virus including the lockdown of roughly a third of the world’s population (Jankowicz, 2020), has magnified a multitude of physical, social, political, and economic issues everywhere. For students, it has brought on issues of mental health and productivity. The World Economic Forum believes that we are headed into “a secondary epidemic of burnout and stress-related absenteeism in the latter half of 2020” (Van Hoof, 2020).

The UNU-IAS headquarters went into a self-imposed lockdown weeks before the Japanese government announced a nationwide state of emergency till May 6, 2020 (Kyodo, 2020) which was then extended to May 31,2020 (Sugiyama, 2020). Only a skeletal workforce was allowed inside the pyramid-like edifice in Shibuya and telecommuting was made compulsory for everyone. This brought numerous logistical challenges to the staff but more importantly, may have impacted work, research, and study productivity of the students. But what is exactly is happening to the students? What are they going through? What are the impacts?

Through Survey Monkey (, an online survey was distributed between 1-20 May 2020 where 21 students responded.  We list down six impacts of the pandemic to their student life and studies as well as six ways they try to cope and get through this crisis. We only listed those who gave consent for their names to be mentioned.

Figure 2: A typical class would be held in the library or in one of the conference rooms in the building (Photo by DJAO).

3.    Six ways COVID-19 Impact Student Life and Studies

In Japan, international students already face a lot of challenges. Personal psychological issues can affect the performance of a student. With various other stresses, general living issues may provide obstacles in his/her learning. Socio-cultural issues like discrimination and racism can impact a student’s emotional wellbeing further magnified by the difficulty in learning the Japanese language (Lee, 2017). These challenges, along with many other issues, are amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic.

3.1 Disruption of Routines and Changing Environments
Figure 3: The Student Space (picture above) provides students access to a working station, up-to-date software, and a place to relax and hang out with colleagues (Photo by DJAO).

As COVID-19 cases were rising alarmingly worldwide last March, UNU-IAS decided to make telecommuting mandatory. UNU implemented an early action of changes in the mode of working and studying from March 16, 2020. On April 8, 2020, entrance to the UNU HQ was severely restricted. This complete lockdown disrupted the students’ routines. Most, if not all, of the students already had difficulty adjusting to living in Tokyo at the beginning of their studies. With the restrictions, a student said they had “little time to develop new habits and routines” adding to the stress of trying to complete their thesis.

The working environment also had to abruptly change. People associate meaning to spaces. The lighting of a room, the layout of furniture, the type of furniture, and even the smell often sets our mood and triggers our “mode”. The design of a room definitely affects you (Anthes, 2020). No one will associate the brown hues of a Starbucks to clubbing and partying. In the same vein, students associate the UNU building with studying. Likewise, they think “rest and relaxation [occurs] at home” or their dorms. Some students also consider that their homes as a non-learning environment. Tokyo is known for compact housing, so it is unsurprising that most students “lack the space that eases study” while their bedrooms offer a lot of distractions. In the confines of their bedroom, they simply feel forced to study.

3.2 Limited Access to Equipment, Technologies, and Other Learning Tools

Access to proper equipment, technology and other tools is a significant advantage when it comes to learning. Way before the COVID-19 pandemic, students who lack access to good internet and computers already lag academically (Blagg & Luetmer, 2020). One student finds it “convenient to go to UNU… because of all the [up-to-date] software and access to… papers” as they believe the institute has the “proper space and tools for carrying out research”. One student claimed that the Student Space (Figure 3), the common working area with computer stations for students, helps in their focus while another considers the library as a friend. For Kamaldeen, who is stuck in Ghana, the poor internet connection affects his thesis proposal writing. He finds it difficult to regularly consult his adviser. In line with 3.1, working from home meant he must deal with other family responsibilities and issues. Although the library is accessible online, it has issues wherein some databases or papers are impossible to obtain outside the UNU network.

3.3 Emerging Issues Due to the Isolation and Restricted Mobility.
Figure 4: Field trips organized by UNU-IAS, like this one in the Ishikawa Prefecture, enriches the learning of the students as they a personal encounter with the local community (Photo by DJAO).

Humans are social creatures and we will always have this desire and need to belong (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). The remote working and isolation have already affected the productivity of the students. One student feels that physical interaction is necessary for learning. The lockdown has reduced crucial interactions with colleagues and teachers thus limiting any potential inputs in the research. Others simply miss the university and their friends. Another student points out that “having a community is one of the best [parts] as a student.”

As mobility is restricted, although not completely halted, the sudden empty streets and public transportation magnified feelings of exclusion in a student. They see crowded trains and streets to “de-isolate [themselves] from cultural barriers” making it seem that they belong in the society. Prior to the pandemic, one student said they had free movement and engagements with others where they can explore Tokyo and meet their friends. One student would frequent a local cafe to take a break or work amidst the chaos. When the state of emergency was declared by Prime Minister Abe, most of these ‘third places’ decided to temporarily shutter business. These ‘third places’ provides social interaction, fosters place attachment, and offers a respite from the humdrum of our daily routines (Low, 2020). On a wider scale, the bans imposed on air travel led to some students being stranded in their home countries. These restrictions led them to reconsider and revise their research and timelines.

3.4 Growing Financial Concerns Due to Lack of Income Sources

In April 10, ahead of Abe’s declaration of state of emergency, Tokyo Governor Koike listed down ten (10) types of businesses that are asked to temporarily cease operations to contain the spread of the virus (Karube & Nagano, 2020). With this, a lot of Japanese citizens and foreign residents lost their jobs including most of the UNU-IAS students. Although most of the student population receives scholarships, a handful students from G20 countries are self-paying. Ranked 8th with Los Angeles (California), Tokyo (Japan) is one of the most expensive cities to live in (O’Hare, 2020). These part-time and even full-time jobs help in the daily expenses of the students and “fill in gaps from [the] scholarships.” For some, it allows for some savings or money they can send back home to help their families. These sources are now practically non-existent and there is uncertainty when jobs will open again. One student is worried that they might eventually burn through their savings. Fortunately, the Japanese government is providing a 100,000-yen handout to all resident including foreigners registered in the country’s Basic Resident Register as of April 27th. In Tokyo, applications for the payout (via mail or online) started this May but it is unclear though when this money will be transferred to bank accounts (NHK World-Japan, 2020). Although admirable and considered generous by some, this is but a band-aid to the growing financial insecurity caused by the pandemic.

3.5 Declining Mental and Emotional health and Other Psycho-social Impacts
Figure 5: The author (man in hoodie), goofs around with his classmates during a Halloween event in UNU-IAS. These interactions strengthen connections between the students.

Research shows that the COVID-19 lockdown has numerous impacts to the mental health; from feelings of loneliness, anxiety, negative emotional spirals, panic, and fear, to name a few (Hiremath et al, 2020).  As the quarantine continues, the isolation intensifies feelings of loneliness, which is linked to 29-32 % increased chances of mortality (Holt-Lunstad et al, 2015). One student believes it has put them in “survival mode”. Worry, panic attacks, stress, feelings of sadness, uncertainty, loneliness, and hopelessness are plaguing the students. Depression sets in due to being taken away from the perceived normalcy. It has affected their “ability to think critically” and a student feels like they have “brain-fog”. Another student thinks they “lost [a] lot of energy” because of the trauma caused by the pandemic. It does not help that the moment they look at their social media feed, they are inundated by deaths, loss, and suffering. The lack of focus led one student to try medication although they feel that it is ineffective.

The students are also fearful for both their own safety and for their families back home. One student is worried that the health systems in the Philippines will be insufficient. Around 25-50% of COVID-19 cases are assumed to be asymptomatic meaning the carriers are not aware they have the virus and unknowingly are spreading it (Plater, 2020). This worry of possibly getting the disease from anyone is leading to trauma for some students while some are feeling paranoid. A student mentions his worry about his daughter back home in Nepal as the lockdown is making her impatient and aggressive. These worries and concerns should never be dismissed as family stress has a significant negative impact on the academic performance of a student (Mushtaq & Khan, 2012).

3.6 Impeded Productivity in School Work and Other Academic Impacts.

All the five points lead to this significant impact – the slow progress and impediment of productivity in schoolwork. Graduate school already has a huge emotional toll – mental health disorders, depression, to suicide – to the students under normal circumstances (Kemsley, 2017; Puri, 2019). Factor in the various stresses and pressures brought by the COVID-19 pandemic and we have a ticking time bomb. One student points out that the pandemic has “taken away the student drive”. It has made studying even harder, almost like a burden, as “motivation has plummeted because of distractions.” Because “regular patterns of study were disrupted”, one student thinks their “ability to study is at its lowest point.” It is no surprise that there is a perceived negative impact on efficiency and productivity because of the pandemic.

            For students finishing their thesis, the pandemic led to time lost for data collection.  Some interviews have been cancelled as in-person meetings are practically impossible. Thus, they had to rework their thesis and with deadlines approaching, it can be overwhelming. One 2nd year student constantly feels demotivated to sit and write their thesis. A single paragraph takes hours to write. Some reached a point where they start questioning the usefulness of their research as “nothing feels more important than solving the pandemic now.”

4.    Six Ways to Cope with Impacts

Each person has their way of coping and reducing the intermingling stresses plaguing their minds. From playing video games (Elphinstone & Conway, 2020), to following tips in staying connected (Lim & Badcock, 2020), or finding “tiny moments of pleasure” to get through these challenging times (Kozlowski, 2020), or staying fit my maintaining a healthy diet (WHO, 2020), or trying out “ten ways to spend your time” while working from home (Bodewits, 2020), everyone tries to alleviate and ease the pressures brought by the COVID-19 pandemic. We look at the six ways UNU-IAS students try to make it through this crisis.

4.1 Forging a Positive Mindset in Building Own Resilience

In times of a crisis, positive emotions can induce novel and creative thoughts which will then lead to exploration and experimentation. Eventually, they develop effective coping strategies and increases their resilience against negative life experiences (Tugade, M.M. & Fredrickson, B.L., 2011). Short term effects of a positive mindset keep depression at bay and long-term benefits can lead to post-crisis growth (Fredrickson et al, 2003).

           To cope with the crisis and the emotional baggage, majority of the students are trying to look at the bright side. Some students think the lack of commuting gives them more “time to explore writing a higher quality thesis”. They are looking at the isolation as an opportunity to read more and write the thesis. Some students also save money staying home as they don’t need to charge their students passes. They started cooking at home thus greatly reducing food costs. These savings, they feel, can be used for an uncertain future. For students spending the quarantine with their families, bonding with them can take the stress away. A student finds that they have more time on their own. Ultimately, the pandemic made some students realize that they are taking a lot of things in their life for granted.

4.2 Taking Small Steps, Setting Flexible Goals, and a Personal Reward System

             For one student, the “first week of transition was the most difficult to design new routines and adapt to them quickly”. In fact, there was a need to re-orient themselves during isolation. Some students had to create a new schedule while setting daily or weekly targets. At first, it was difficult as one found out that “sticking to a very rigid schedule brought more stress” especially when targets are unmet. Thus, they decided to develop a more flexible scheme. Although new routines had to be crafted, it is suggested that some basic rituals and routines should never be forgotten like getting up on time, taking a bath, and even dressing up for your video calls with the supervisor (Brough, 2020).

            One student finds a silver lining in the absence of the long daily commutes. They feel that “they have regained [the] authority to decide [their] daily routine.” To prevent themselves from getting the disease, one student started taking appropriate cautions and developing new habits to prevent being infected. Meanwhile, a student has a unique approach to motivate their work – a personal reward scheme. After reaching a certain target, they would reward themselves with an indulgent snack. Food indeed is a great motivator.

4.3 Setting a Personal Work Environment

As mentioned in 3.1, the students encounter work productivity issues since they associate their bedrooms with rest and relaxation. Since the layout and room design can affect the person’s mood, some students have resorted to re-orienting their small personal spaces. One student set up a nook and designated it as his “specific workspace” while another arranged an area in their room so that it will “look more serious.” Arranging the room depending on use – that corner for relaxation and this one for working – is the strategy of another student.

4.4 Plan Small Activities or Distractions to Break Monotony

The work-from-home lifestyle can eventually bring monotony and for some students. A distraction or a break is beneficial as motivation suffers without it (Grey, 2017). One student complains that the monotony has already affected their writing. With a lot of time in their hands, some students have started finding new hobbies and developing new skills. One student started improving their cooking skills. Others started reading interesting literature, are watching documentaries and movies during breaks, are playing video games to relieve stress, and are even starting their own little urban garden. To help in easing with their anxiety, a couple of students started meditating. Since isolation can lead to a very dormant lifestyle, one student makes sure they exercise regularly. A grocery trip is turned into a relaxing walk in the park – with the face masks and social distancing, of course.

4.5 Constant Communication with Family, Friends, and Colleagues

Regular communication with advisers, colleagues, friends, and family has a positive impact on the academic performance of a student (Mushtaq & Khan, 2012). The students agree. Family is seen as the best support and since video calls are more accessible nowadays, it has strengthened some bonds. In fact, one student wrote that the pandemic brought them closer to their family as they now set more time for video calls and online chat. A student mentioned that although they had difficulty writing their thesis at the beginning of the lockdown, the regular online thesis consultations became an anchor to continue working.

4.6 Exploring Options and Recalibrating Future Plans

The pandemic has hindered various aspects in the life of a graduate student, but it has also opened new opportunities. A student believes it is a good time to reflect – Where will I go? What should I do next? How can I be a positive influence in the future? The limitations brought by the pandemic allowed one student “to step out of [their] comfort zone and try new things.” In fact, a couple of students have been scanning the internet and signing up for online courses to strengthen their academic skills. The online classes allowed one student to have more access to more institutions than ever before. Although the pandemic impacted a student’s thesis proposal, this pushed them to constantly consult their supervisor and craft strategies and method to conduct their field work. The pandemic can be used as an opportunity for learning and growth. The fire is rekindled in one student to finish the degree as it can be their gift to their families back home.

5.    Beyond the COVID-19 Pandemic: Into An Uncertain Future and the New Normal

In the face of this pandemic, the UNU-IAS has been receptive of the students’ concerns. A letter by the second-year master’s students to the Administration Office requesting for a schedule restructuring was met with a positive response. The thesis submission deadlines were moved, and various arrangements are being made to accommodate the needs of the students. The students, along with all UNU personnel, regularly receives e-mail updates about COVID-19. But the students raise these questions: Does the institute really understand what the students are going through in this pandemic? Do they have specific strategies for the students, not just the immediate concerns, but also for their long-term well-being? A student made a note that “we are not lazy... and we are trying really hard to work on our studies.”

Unfortunately, beyond immediate but short-term forms of relief, the future feels bleak and uncertain. For example, early-career scientists in the University of Massachusetts have lost job opportunities, research grants and funding, while worries of expired visas and the threats of deportation looms (Yan, 2020). It is a rough time for students, researchers, and early-career scientists. Some students are worried about being delayed while some worry about their career path after UNU-IAS. A student lost their internship as the UN headquarters in New York cancelled the post due to travel restrictions. There is a growing sense of hopelessness as news of economic strife and threats of joblessness are splashed in web sites.

How do we then move forward as sustainability science researchers?

Perhaps an important aspect this pandemic brought are the observations and learnings gained by the students. A student stated that the “pandemic showed [them] firsthand [the] vulnerable communities at risk.” Another student feels privileged as they are “comfortable in [their] room while others are starving.” On a bigger scale, the pandemic “showed the unpreparedness of some organizations, the gaps and lapses in the systems, especially in urban systems.” There is a need for “early containment and transparency”, one student argues, to prevent the same magnitude of impacts in the future. UNU-IAS and other “learning institutions [should] consider the impact of the virus and remodel their programs to adapt to future disruptions.” As a humanity, the pandemic has tested our “flexibility and ability to adapt” to sudden pressures and changes.

It is not all bad and depressing though. A student observed that it is also showing the wonderful aspects of the society like community food sharing and the forging of new relationships in their neighborhood – something that may be unimaginable before the pandemic.

These new learnings brought by the pressures the students are going through can be likened to how a samurai blade is forged – through intense heat and constant hammering. Together, we have seen the highs and lows of humanity’s response to the pandemic. We are “learning to adapt and be more resilient to sudden changes in life” and we can’t do it on our own. We need collaboration, cooperation, and we need to “help each other to overcome this challenge.” Moving forward, we should not forget these experiences. We should keep these new learning to heart and ingrain them in our memories. So, when given the opportunity in the future, we know better. Together, we can craft a more resilient, adaptive, and sustainable future.

Figure 8: In 2019, the students, staff, and faculty were able to bond in a “hanami”, a cherry blossom viewing party Japan is quite famous for. This year, the event was cancelled (Photo by DJAO).



We would like to acknowledge these following students who agreed to the survey have their names mentioned:

Anuska Joshi, Zealyn Shi Lin Heng, Kamaldeen Yussif, Manosi Chatterjee Abe, Alice Ledoux-Yamabe, Ally Hassan, Hatif Hawari Saputra, Gabriel Calderaro, Jonathan F. Kpalu, Maria Alejandra Aguilar Herrera, Leah Wilson, Evan Fitzgerald, Nguyen Ngoc Thuy, Albert Somanje, Tong Wei Shin, Emelda Amoah.

We would like to thank all students at UNU-IAS for their positive response and support. Our appreciation goes to the UNU Rector, Dr. Malone, UNU-IAS Director, Prof. Yamaguchi and Academic Director, Prof. Fukushi for their leaderships during COVID-19 crisis, as well as the PDT’s Office.



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