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International perspective: a British student in the US during lockdown

UK student Raphaelle Soffe shares what it has been like to stay at Harvard University during the lockdown, and how isolation has made the studying feel more intense

    Raphaëlle Soffe's avatar

    Raphaëlle Soffe

    June 5 2020
    covid-19, international student, USA, university, lockdown


    During the normal hustle and bustle of the Harvard semester, I’d find myself invited to the occasional fraternity party or for a coffee date at the adorable Blue Bottle cafe nestled between Plympton and Mount Auburn Street. A lingering sense of guilt and pressure to return to the libraries or turn up to office hours with a professor rather than relaxing by the Charles River eating strawberries was ever present. Every now and then, I’d reluctantly ask myself, “Didn’t I come here to learn?”

    In one cruel and sudden sweep, the Covid-19 pandemic shut down Harvard University – cafes and libraries alike – with only Zoom lectures and studying to pass the time. It is only now that I am experiencing learning stripped to its raw form, with socialising reduced to screens and the dining hall buzz replaced with solitary cooking, and I loathe it.

    Harvard is hard – really hard. The workload is exhausting, the pressures can be crippling, and the grading curves are steep. What keeps the academic wheel turning is the socialising on every street corner and the unified powering through an all-nighter. Take that away and you leave only isolated learning.

    I now find myself on a largely empty campus, wrapping up the semester on Zoom and trying to establish structure to my day by day. In a series of poorly timed events, I am waiting on surgery at the nearby hospital, and unable to safely fly until treated.

    My 13-year-old brother back at home in the UK is already exhausted by my daily check-ups on his mental health and schoolwork, and I am equally exhausted by my parents’ constant phone calls checking that I have not yet lost my sanity.

    The earlier months of the pandemic, when I didn’t have a single face-to-face interaction for longer than two minutes, were a dark time – and it was this barrage of messages, calls and gifts from afar that kept me in moderate spirits.

    The most disturbing part of self-isolation were the sirens that would repeat every 10 minutes or so. Mid-essay, I’d be reminded that there was a pandemic erupting outside my window and my motivation would be lost.

    It didn’t help that I am a massive news buff – every time I tuned into the BBC or CNN, or browsed through The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, Covid-19 was splattered across the headlines.

    And then there were concerns for my family, as my father has not been very well recently, and my little brother’s Catholic high school had failed to offer online lessons. My experience is by far not unique, and if anything, I am in a far more privileged position than many of my peers who had to return to problematic family circumstances, epicentres of the outbreak such as New York City, and even leave the US with no guarantee of when or if they will ever return.

    Harvard has taken good care of me, installing air conditioning into my room and lending me an exercise bike. The faculty rose up to the challenge of Zoom University, offering office hours as late as 11pm, and returning assignments in a timely fashion.

    However, what is glaringly apparent is that a semester on Zoom is substandard compared with an in-person experience. Over the past three months, I’ve had countless conversations about whether deferring a semester or even a year is a smart option.

    For me, it’s not. The last thing I want to happen is to be caught mid-recession without a degree. But it saddens me profoundly to realise that the friends, and in many ways family, I have bonded with over the course of three years of rigorous study – and are now scattered all across the world – may not be reunited for the foreseeable future.

    Read more: interviews with international students in Canada about the Covid-19 situation

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