From the shores of Barbados to the mountains of Pennsylvania, Harvard students scattered across the globe to attend classes this semester.
Harvard’s decision to house mostly first-year students for the fall semester motivated many upperclassmen students to search for off-campus housing. Many found rentals in the Cambridge and Boston area and spent their semesters near campus, taking advantage of on-campus testing and a proximity to their old Houses.
For others, however, living near campus was not an option. While some lived at home with parents and siblings, others chose to find housing with their blockmates in various parts of the world. Whether or not students were able to live with others, and despite their different locations, many shared similar fall semester experiences.
For many international students, time zones proved to be a major challenge throughout the semester.
Gaurang Goel ’22, a student living in Hong Kong, said living so far away from campus made it extremely difficult for him to seek academic help.
“The time zone difference is 12 hours and after daylight savings, it became 13 hours,” he said. “It becomes challenging to make office hours, so I often have to request different times for office hours.”
Besides academic challenges, clubs and extracurriculars posed a burden for Goel. He said they are “harder to schedule” because of the time differences. However, he said, Harvard faculty have worked hard to make sure that international students like him are not forgotten.
“The professors and [teaching fellows] have been incredibly accommodating and understanding, so that is really helpful,” Goel said.
Samuel H. Taylor ’24, was less positive about his time studying off campus.
“What’s life like?” he said. “Frustrating and isolating are probably the two words I pick up on most.”
Taylor described the problems with the time difference between his home in New Zealand and Cambridge. He said he eventually realized that staying up until 3 a.m. for classes was not “sustainable.” According to Taylor, there were only two freshman seminars compatible with his time zone, and he had to drop a class due to the time difference.
This summer, the College announced that due to federal visa restrictions, incoming international freshmen would not be allowed on campus. Throughout the fall, international students struggled adjusting to large time zone differences, managing their classes, and juggling extracurricular responsibilities.
Taylor said that Harvard has “definitely not” done enough to support him and other students off campus.
“There's been a real lack of communication about what the future looks like,” Taylor said. “I appreciate that they may not know things very quickly, because it's a very complex legal situation and everything. But the fact that we've had next to no communication, and we've been kind of suffering through this for months and months now is pretty appalling.”
Palis Pisuttisarun ’24 spent the semester in Bangkok, Thailand, with his family. He said he was not pleased with the way Harvard has dealt with its international students. He added that he is disappointed with what he believes is a lack of transparency about future plans.
“The fact that Harvard hasn't done that or hasn't announced that they will do that is pretty upsetting, given that they have pretty much infinite resources to expend as compared to these other institutions,” he said.
In an email, College spokesperson Rachael Dane pointed to past comments made by Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay that a decision would be announced in December. On Tuesday, Harvard met this deadline, announcing a spring residence plan favoring seniors and enrolled juniors.
Dane also wrote that the Dean of Students Office student engagement team worked with the Office of International Education to develop ways to facilitate social connections for students living in challenging time zones.
While time zone issues may not have been an issue for all students, the costs and planning that went into living off-campus was a challenge that many students had to tackle throughout the semester.
Franck T. Germain ’22, a student living in Jersey City, N.J. with his five blockmates, broke down the budgeting and planning they undertook in order to be able to afford to live off campus.
“We had to set budgets on how much we were going to spend on food for each month,” Germain said. “At Harvard whenever you need a meal you can go to the dining hall, but here we have to calculate how we are going to split up the food.”
Germain also explained how working over the summer helped him to cover the expenses of living away from home.
“The biggest difference is that we have to be extremely conscious of what we were spending our money on,” Germain said.
Nestled in the Poconos Mountains, Davis Tyler-Dudley ’21 chose to live with eight other Harvard students — including his blockmates — in Jim Thorpe, Penn. He said he initially had reservations about living off-campus, but — to his surprise — he thoroughly enjoyed living with his friends.
“I was a little worried at first, because I knew that doing remote school was going to be a little strange,” Tyler-Dudley said. “But, I really enjoyed being with my blocking group and being with some of my closest friends from school.”
Tyler-Dudley also said he found it much easier to take his classes in an environment with other students also doing remote learning, compared to studying at home.
“It is a little easier to do classes when you are not in a place where no one else is doing school,” Tyler-Dudley said. “I recognize that living with friends is not possible for everyone, so I am thankful for that opportunity. It has really helped me.”
With students spread far and wide, social life took a different form this semester. In a semester of virtual interaction, students discovered issues finding opportunities to socialize.
For Pisuttisarun, being at home with family has been a comfort, but it still had its limits. He said interacting with family can be “draining,” especially having lived with them his entire life.
“I feel like this is a period of time I have my own growth curve, where I'm supposed to be moving away from them, I'm supposed to be independent,” he said. “That's kind of contrasting against the fact that I see my mom 15 hours a day, and that's a little bit disappointing.”
As a senior, Tyler-Dudley said he believed remote learning was much easier for him compared to freshmen. He explained how his involvement in clubs, such as the Harvard International Relations Council, along with the friendships made during his time at the College, has allowed him to be able to stay connected with his peers.
“I have heard from first-year students especially that it has been a struggle to feel a sense of the Harvard community,” Tyler-Dudley said.
Contemplating their plans for the spring semester, Tyler-Dudley said “the state of the pandemic” will influence his and his blockmates’ decision to go back to campus.
“If it does not seem like on-campus will be a good way to enjoy our senior year experience, I think that we might opt for maybe pursuing off-campus housing in Boston,” Tyler-Dudley said. “Living off-campus with my friends is an immense privilege that has made 2020 significantly better for me.”
For some international students, however, the vast distances have made it easy to feel isolated from friends and peers, making social interactions an exhausting task.
Maia L. Hollins-Kirk ’24 spent the semester in Barbados with two other international students. She said programs geared towards encouraging international student engagement felt mundane and tedious.
“They have done things like international reach out programs, but they're just painful,” she said. “I don't go to them anymore, because they weren't adding any benefit.”
She suggested mandatory social meetings as a way to assist students off campus who are struggling to socialize, but recognized that this may not be much fun.
Taylor said he felt disconnected, both physically and socially, from other students. With the majority of his class living on campus, he said he found it especially hard to connect.
“Of course, it is very hard to connect with people who live on campus because the last thing they want to do is spend all their time talking to people online,” Taylor said. “So there is no connection there.”