Universities and students adapt to difficult circumstances as safety measures, social distancing and travel restrictions affect traditional university enrollment systems.
From left: Sonal Sussane, Kusuma Nagaraja and Shivna Saxena. Photographs courtesy Sonal Sussane, Erin Low/UC Davis School of Law and Shivna Saxena
International students pursuing higher education abroad faced a myriad of challenges at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020. Many universities shifted from in-person learning and interaction with teachers and students to virtual learning environments. As the pandemic evolved, so did changes to university enrollment systems and international travel requirements. However, universities and students worked in tandem to make the best of the circumstances and ensure consistent admission cycles, uphold curriculum requirements and support students’ search for postgraduate employment. To illuminate the experience of studying during the pandemic, four Indian students studying in the United States shared their personal stories of adaptability and resilience with SPAN.
Adjusting to virtual learning
Kusuma Nagaraja spent several years working in India as a family law attorney, and had initially postponed her higher education plans due to the pandemic. She joined the University of California, Davis, for her Master of Laws in 2021, and had the opportunity to spend part of her time home in Bengaluru, while attending her classes virtually. “I began at home as there were travel and visa restrictions transitioning to the United States from India. Even though I missed some classes initially, they all were recorded so I could catch up,” she says.
Pratham Jadav studied at Ryan International School and St. Andrew’s College in Mumbai before beginning his undergraduate degree in business analytics at Iowa State University in 2020. His classes were both in-person and virtual, depending on the need. “Labs and some other classes were in-person and maintained a strict policy of social distancing and wearing masks,” he explains. While the university enforced a 50 percent capacity rule in classrooms to ensure a safe environment, for Jadav, like many others, it was challenging to adapt to a new virtual study environment. “It took me a while to make friends with students studying the same course,” he says. However, “interaction with the professor or teaching assistants was not as much of a challenge as I was able to approach them after class or during their meeting hours,” he explains. Jadav found study groups exceptionally helpful in adapting to studying online during the pandemic. “We would collaborate online or meet in the library study rooms,” he shares.
Throughout the pandemic, schools and universities recognized the importance of flexibility during these exceptional circumstances. Like Jadav, Shivna Saxena initially found it challenging to adapt to virtual classes. She began her graduate program in public health at Central Washington University in 2021. “The virtual classroom experience was new, but with all the technological advancements and amazing platforms like Zoom, it was easy to learn,” she says. “My professors delivered lectures using breakout rooms for discussions and PowerPoint presentations, which proved very useful to me. Whenever I had doubts about my coursework, I contacted my professors on email and received a timely response. It was also helpful when they divided us into groups for writing assignments, which strengthened my involvement with my batchmates and learning from each other.”
Resilience under evolving circumstances
Sonal Sussane was halfway through her bachelor’s degree in cell and molecular biology from the University of South Florida, in 2020, when pandemic lockdowns were imposed in the United States. “Fortunately, professors and teaching assistants were more lenient with coursework and deadlines in response to the challenges we faced,” she says.
Besides the disruption to enrollment of students, the universities also had to think on their feet to ensure classes continued on schedule and were engaging enough for students adapting to a new virtual learning environment. “They came up with innovative ways to make our learning experience interactive,” says Sussane. “For example, in the genetics lab we did online simulations and in our organic chemistry class we played a game on an app where we were able to create and break bonds to make different molecules.”
Students had to manage the duality of personal safety and adapting to an unpredictable time in a foreign country, and did all they could to keep themselves engaged. Nagaraja was proactive in reacting to the new pandemic restrictions. “To focus and be productive at home, I involved myself in physical activity like yoga, cooking and baking. I was able to connect with my fellow students because our program offered virtual events for students where we played games, sang karaoke and attended meet and greets. Later when I was able to come to the United States, we scheduled our own socially distant in-person peer events.”
Understanding how the social, mental, physical, environmental aspects of health influence the quality of life, Saxena made an extra effort to engage in clubs and academic events at her university. “Thanks to the amazing team of international program advisers and the masters of public health faculty, my overall educational experience has been very positive,” she says. Sussane was also proactive in joining on-campus activities, officiating at intramural games, tutoring students in the athletics department and serving as president of the Students of India Association at the University of South Florida.
Beyond campus life, students like Sussane established a food bank in response to the dire situation faced by many international students and their families. “Many had lost their jobs and were unable to pay rent or buy groceries. We coordinated with the Indian families of Tampa Bay to collect food, groceries and toiletries,” she says. “We also distributed $5,000 in gift cards and connected students with the representatives of nonprofit organizations who helped them with rent payments. Through our efforts, we were able to serve more than 200 students.” While many students experienced challenges during the pandemic, university resources, understanding faculty and supportive peers continued to make studying in the United States an invaluable opportunity.
Hillary Hoppock is a freelance writer, former newspaper publisher and reporter based in Orinda, California.