On October 28, President Sonya Stephens announced the preliminary information for Spring 2021. Upon hearing the new plan, international students became concerned about the effectiveness of remote learning and the slim chances of international traveling, as well as reflecting on their experience with remote learning in the fall semester 2020.
International flight restriction makes it impossible for international students to travel to the U.S. Furthermore, student on-campus employment is limited, posing another significant obstacle for international students. As an F-1 visa holder, we are not allowed to work off-campus unless under optional training practical (OPT). Most of our daily expenses in the U.S., such as laundry fees or a boba at Möge Tee for a change on weekends in Amherst, depend on our on-campus employment income. Vân Nguyễn, 2022, an international student from Vietnam, says, “There is a very low chance that I will go back to the U.S. next semester, due to international flight restrictions. Also, my former job on campus, stage crew, will not be available because events and public gatherings are forbidden. If I go back to the U.S. without a job, the financial matter will definitely distress me and my parents.”
Commercial flights departing from Hanoi to the U.S. are still available. However, if Vietnamese nationals want to return to Vietnam, they will have to register for the evacuation flight program operated by the national flag carrier Vietnam Airlines, which takes quite a long time to be approved.
Vân has been taking a gap semester in the fall, working as a communication intern at an experimental contemporary art space in Hanoi. Vân discusses her decision to continue taking a gap semester in the spring, “Perhaps I will continue taking a gap semester because I don’t like online studying. I returned to Vietnam in March 2020, when Mount Holyoke decided to go entirely remote after the spring break. I had a terrible experience with online learning in spring 2020. I was quarantined for 2 weeks in a designated area in Hanoi, where the internet connection was very slow, making it immensely difficult for me to hand in my assignments on time. However, if our college has to maintain online learning in fall 2021, I must accept the truth.”
Mount Holyoke has been conducting the module system since the fall semester 2020. This system presents unique challenges to students. Each semester will be divided into two modules that last for 7.5 weeks, instead of 15 weeks. In each module, students only take 2 classes. Due to the shortened time, the workload for each course undoubtedly doubles. As a result, students do not have enough time to process the knowledge they learn in class. Jing Zhou, 2022, double majoring in politics and international relations, has been taking classes online in her hometown Jiangsu, China. Jing shares: “I am double majoring in International Relations and Politics, so I need to take a lot of courses. All of the courses require me to do a bunch of readings and writings. For instance, in our normal semester, a 200-level history course may require me to read 50-100 pages in 2-3days. But now, I need to read 100 pages everyday. This is just for one course.”
The time zone difference is another burden for international students who are residing internationally. Staying up late at night to attend classes is considerably disruptive to our biological clock, which ultimately leads to an unhealthy daily routine, affecting both our physical and mental health. It is also nearly impossible to stay focused on class at night, because during the daytime, we also spend time staying connected to our social environment and life. Jing further comments, “As I am in China, the time zone is GMT+8, so I always need to take classes late at night. I have my 300-level Politics class from 1:45 until 3:30 am. It’s so hard to stay concentrated in the early morning.”
Similar to Vân, Jing is not returning to the campus in the spring. Jing elaborates on her decision not to fly back to the U.S., saying “I am now considering a gap semester. I’m scared about the COVID-19 situation in the U.S. Also, if a Chinese person wants to go to the U.S., we need to fly to another country and quarantine for 14 days there. Then, we are allowed to enter the U.S.. The email said that even if students get back to campus, we may still need to take courses online and quarantine ourselves in our dorm. So it means that I may spend $10,000 to get back to the U.S., yet the only change for me is the time zone, which sounds inconvenient and meaningless.”
I have been pursuing remote learning in Hanoi, Vietnam, and although I will continue taking classes online, I will not return to the U.S. in the spring. This pandemic is also a pandemic of uncertainty, thus I cannot ignore the possibility of contracting the virus in the 24-hour flight from Hanoi to Boston. Apart from flight restrictions, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services has not released clear guidance of our visa status for the upcoming spring semester, according to an email sent by McCulloch Center for Global Initiatives on October 29.
The accessibility to essential materials for the class, especially textbooks, has also been my concern since the fall semester 2020. In the U.S., I can either borrow the textbooks in the Williston Library or buy the used versions at a cheaper price. Yet, in Hanoi, options to buy hard-copies, both new and used, are limited. Some are even not available. Therefore, I am left with the only one choice to buy PDF versions of the book from the publisher, which is financially inconvenient.
Unlike Jing and myself, who are residing internationally, Ngân Trần, 2021, a senior from Vietnam, has been taking classes online on campus. Ngân did not return to Vietnam in March 2020 because she had already had a secured internship in D.C., and Ngân thought that traveling amidst the escalation of COVID-19 would be risky. Ngân discusses her experience attending classes remotely on campus, “Zoom burnout is real, and I miss real classrooms so much. On top of that, I spend most of my time alone, which becomes very emotionally taxing eventually.”
Ngân will remain on campus, taking classes online in the spring. Therefore, she will stay at the college during winter break. Ngân shares, “I’m grateful to Mount Holyoke for accommodating my housing throughout the summer and now for the upcoming winter break. But even with the financial assistance from the college, the cost of housing is still a lot. I hope Mount Holyoke will make on-campus housing more financially accessible in the coming semester.”
From the students’ reflection and survey that Mount Holyoke College has been sent out, I sincerely hope that the College will address the problems, adjusting not only the academic plan but also community events accordingly so that our online learning experience will be more flexible. In this way, the College can commit to its goal of fostering an inclusive and robust learning environment.
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