Higher Degree Students (HDR) during COVID-19

Disrupted routines, uncertain futures, and active strategies of resilience and belonging


  • Catherine Gomes https://orcid.org/0000-0003-3429-9330
  • Natalie Ann Hendry RMIT University
  • Ruth De Souza RMIT University
  • Larissa Hjorth RMIT University
  • Ingrid Richardson RMIT University
  • Dan Harris RMIT University
  • Gretchen Coombs RMIT University




COVID-19, challenges, resilience, belonging, higher degree by research students


The wellbeing of higher degree research (HDR) students, or postgraduate students during the COVID-19 pandemic has been of concern. In Australia, international students have queued for food parcels, while headlines report stark drops in international enrolments and the financial bottom line of universities. We undertook a pilot study using ethnographic interview methods to understand the lived experiences of current international and domestic HDR students at an Australian university in Melbourne, from June to August 2020 (n=26). In this paper, we discuss domestic and international students’ experiences during the pandemic. International HDR students faced similar challenges to domestic students, but experienced further stressors as temporary migrants. We discuss their experiences in relation to resilience, understood as a relational and collective quality. We suggest that institutions develop policies and programmes to address resilience and build students’ sense of belonging and connection, informed by how students cope with challenges such as COVID-19.

Author Biographies

Natalie Ann Hendry, RMIT University

NATALIE ANN HENDRY, PhD, is Vice Chancellor's Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Media and Communication. Her research explores everyday social media and digital technology practices in the context of critical approaches to education, mental health, media, wellbeing, youth studies and policy. This draws on her experience prior to academia, working in community education, secondary schools and hospital settings, and consulting for health organisations and industry. Email: natalie.hendry@rmit.edu.au

Ruth De Souza, RMIT University

RUTH DE SOUZA, PhD, is a highly experienced multidisciplinary educator, researcher and consultant, specialising in cross cultural engagement, cultural safety, and the interface of digital technologies within CALD communities. Her background is in nursing where she has extensive experience as a clinician, researcher and academic in New Zealand and Australia and has published work on community engagement in the arts. Ruth is a 2020 RMIT Vice Chancellor's Fellow, based in the School of Art. Her fellowship project aims to engage health professionals in finding new ways to understand, co-design and implement sustainable cultural safety initiatives in a range of health contexts. Email: ruth.desouza@rmit.edu.au

Larissa Hjorth, RMIT University

LARISSA HJORTH, PhD, is Distinguished Professor, digital ethnographer, socially-engaged artist, and director of the Design & Creative Practice (DCP) research platform at RMIT University. Hjorth has two decades experience leading collaborative digital and mobile media projects that innovative methods to understand intergenerational and cross-cultural relationships around play, loss and intimacy. She has lead 20 national and international research projects in locations such as Japan, South Korea, China and Australia. Hjorth has published over 100 publications on the topic—recent publications includeHaunting Hands (with Cumiskey, Oxford Uni Press), Understanding Social Media (with Hinton, 2nd Edition, Sage), Creative Practice Ethnographies (with Harris, Jungnickel and Coombs, Rowman & Little) and Ambient Play (with Richardson, MIT Press). Email: larissa.hjorth@rmit.edu.au

Ingrid Richardson, RMIT University

INGRID RICHARDSON, PhD, is a Professor of Digital Media in the School of Media & Communication at RMIT University. She has a broad interest in the ‘human-technology relation’ and has published widely on topics such as virtual and augmented reality, games, mobile media and small-screen practices, urban screens, remix culture and web-based content creation and distribution. She is co- author of Gaming in Social, Locative and Mobile Media (Palgrave, 2014), Ambient Play (MIT, 2020) and Understanding Games and Game Cultures (Sage, 2021). Email: ingrid.richardson@rmit.edu.au

Dan Harris, RMIT University

DAN HARRIS, PhD, is a Professor, the Associate Dean, Research & Innovation, School of Education at RMIT University, an Australian Research Council Future Fellow, and Co-Director of Creative Agency research lab. Harris is editor of the book series Creativity, Education and the Arts (Palgrave), has authored over 100 articles/book chapters, 17 books, plays, films and spoken word performances, and is a member of the Digital Ethnographic Research Centre (DERC) Executive. Email: dan.harris@rmit.edu.au

Gretchen Coombs, RMIT University

GRETCHEN COOMBS, PhD, is a Post Doctoral Fellow in the Design and Creative Practice Enabling Capability Platform at RMIT. She researches socially engaged art and design practices in the US, the UK and Australia, with a particular focus on how they are practiced in urban contexts. Gretchen has a PhD in social and cultural anthropology and a MA in visual criticism: her writing uses a combination of ethnographic methods and visual analysis. Her co-edited book for Routledge, Undesign: Critical Practices at the Intersection of Art and Design due out later this year. She is currently completing her monograph, The Lure of the Social: Encounters with Contemporary Artists (Intellect 2018), which is an experimental ethnography of artists working at the intersection of art, aesthetics, and politics. Email: gretchen.coombs@rmit.edu.au


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How to Cite

Gomes, C., Hendry, N. A., De Souza, R., Hjorth, L., Richardson, I., Harris, D., & Coombs, G. (2021). Higher Degree Students (HDR) during COVID-19: Disrupted routines, uncertain futures, and active strategies of resilience and belonging. Journal of International Students, 11(S2), 19–37. https://doi.org/10.32674/jis.v11iS2.3552