Student View: Reflections from a year spent on campus
In this Student View column, art history and quantitative economics major Hongye Lyu ’21 shares her perspective of living on campus for the last year and facing the uncertainties of travel restrictions, visa status, and grad school as an international student. The experiences of our international students varied widely during the pandemic, and we want to acknowledge that for many this last year has been painful and challenging.
BY HONGYE LYU ’21
2020 had a rough start. Two weeks after I said goodbye to my family in China and returned to campus, I was shocked by all the news from back home, which made me feel so anxious like I never had before.
Thousands of posts were shared on social media about the seriousness of the new contagious coronavirus and the lack of essential supplies in the healthcare sector. I cannot remember exactly what happened in my life at that time, I can only recall the feeling of apprehension and helplessness.
In January 2020, people were trying to celebrate the Chinese New Year, but the pandemic changed everything. My friends back home even started asking me if I could mail back masks for them. My family only told me they were doing okay when I asked.
I felt so isolated from home — being willing to help, yet unable. I wanted to do something for them but did not know how or what I should do. My anxiety and worries had never been stronger than when I was physically apart from my family. My mom kept me updated that my family was safe by showing me her homemade dishes every day.
Everyone was asked to stay at home to stop the spread of the virus. Weeks after COVID-19 was discovered, with several lockdown orders imposed, everything seemed under control. While the societal quarantine was still intense, I did not feel as anxious as I did in the beginning, and I was hoping everything could go back to normal by summer so I could still be able to travel back home.
As the spring semester started, I was busy rehearsing for the Lunar New Year Celebration on campus and working on my heavy coursework. The beginning of that spring semester was as normal as it was for any other, in that I built up a new schedule to balance study and activities, but it was weighed down by more worries about my home situation.
The Chinese Cultural Club started posting donation information on campus for public hospitals in China to get enough essential supplies. There were performances in the Lunar New Year Celebration to commemorate heroes who devoted themselves during the breakout of COVID-19.
While I thought that the severe situation back home was gradually getting under control, I was aghast by the updates of the spread of the coronavirus. The number of confirmed cases in each country had grown every day, first in Europe and Asia, and then gradually increased in the United States.
I never expected that I would experience similar anxiety and uncertainty again within three months.
I never expected that I would experience similar anxiety and uncertainty again within three months. My friends on campus started talking about what was posted on social media and kept checking the number of confirmed cases frequently. We saw many large universities close due to the dramatic spread of COVID-19 while flight tickets became more and more expensive. It seemed that that going back would not be an option anymore.
In the first half of March, there were rumors and anxieties around me and my friend circle. We did not know what we should do but just waited for the college’s announcement. After they announced an extended spring break, with the possibility of returning to finish out the spring semester, some of my international friends started planning to fly back home.
The last week before spring break was chaotic. Many in-person events were canceled without much notice and many classes were moved online or canceled. International students were hesitating about whether to travel or stay because of the rigorous visa regulations and having ambiguous plans after the break. Most of us, the international students, chose to stay because we could not afford the high flight price and were afraid that we might lose our eligibility to hold a student visa at that time. I gave up checking flight tickets and decided to stay at least until the end of the final week of the semester as I hoped to launch my independent research project and wait for the results of an internship I applied for as a curatorial intern at the Library of Congress.
During spring break, I experienced quietness on campus unlike anything else in my three years at St. Olaf. Almost 80 percent of the students left, so I got the chance to walk around campus with only one or two friends. I even found my camera in the closet, which had been missing for the first few years of college, so I was able to record the empty campus with all the young plants growing and re-emerging in the warmer weather. I felt so peaceful while I was taking photos and hanging out with small groups of friends, but it was also intense because the quarantine order was imposed and everyone felt a sense of nervousness. Being Chinese, it was so upsetting to see some in society discriminate against Asian people because of the coronavirus. I started worrying about my own safety and tried to support others on social media.
After spring break, the online learning period began. I am so glad that one of my professors provided us a virtual space online to share our thoughts and struggles. I felt supported by my classmates and teachers. I adapted to the new style of learning quickly and started to plan what I should do after graduation. I started writing my large research paper and also worked with other classmates virtually for course projects. I stopped checking social media frequently so that I was able to focus on my academic work unbothered. I found that working hard really stopped me from being anxious and thinking too much. That’s one way I’ve been able to calm down during the pandemic.
During the spring semester, we students who stayed on campus were not required to wear a mask but were asked not to leave. While we were not actually faced with a shortage of life essentials, we were affected both physically and mentally. The campus created a safe space to live during those first few intense months but what happened outside this bubble did change our lives a lot.
Going back home became more and more difficult so I chose to stay on campus for summer break. I was initially offered the curatorial internship at the Library of Congress and planned to work there for the summer, but like many things, it was canceled due to the pandemic. Instead, I undertook a virtual internship and launched my independent research in art history to stay busy and build my resume.
There was no huge difference between spring and summer. I still had a regular schedule to work and things to study. I also continued taking photos around campus and hanging out with similar friends. Watching plants on campus grow and change was of great interest to me and for the first time I was able to record it with pictures and experience warm weather in Minnesota.
For me, the summer of 2020 is boring but also full of funny stories. In the middle of July, the temperature got crazy high but my dorm was not equipped with air conditioning, so the Office of Student Life opened the Pause for us to stay overnight during the hottest weeks, which made me feel like I was back in high school summer camp. I stayed in the Jungle Room and slept on the couch for that week with my other friends. When I think about this experience right now, it is awkwardly funny; back then it made us feel like junior high students.
As time flew by, the beginning of the fall semester was also tough for me. After almost half a year of staying on campus with a small group of students, the reopening plan made me adjust my life again by imposing strict rules to follow. I was afraid that we would not be able to go back to in-person classes and I started worrying about the near future after graduation.
The hybrid course schedule made my daily routine as regular as semesters before the outbreak of COVID-19. However, the strict rules on campus kept reminding everyone that we are still under a global pandemic. While most of my friends were on campus, we followed all the social-distance requirements to ensure the continuity of the in-person semester plan.
I never expected that the pandemic would affect every aspect of my life like that. I planned to apply for doctoral programs this year so I have launched my independent research in the summer to prepare myself for doctoral studies. However, because of the financial hardship caused by the pandemic, many graduate schools have closed their humanities programs for admission. I was forced to rethink what I want to do in the future, if not attending an art history doctoral program. Even though the pandemic made me change my post-graduate plans rapidly, it still provides me another opportunity to deeply consider what I am really interested in or what kind of career is most suitable for me. As I am always told, every coin has two sides. While I was anxious about future plans, the slowdown life on the Hill left me space to reexamine my plan and future with careful consideration.
When I recall my memories from the past year, they are full of anxiety but also happiness. While I am still far away from home, I have received care from my friends, supervisors, and professors. This year is uncertain and scary but the limited social activities allowed me to focus more on my own life and future plan. As for now, I am admitted to several master’s programs including art history and MHA (healthcare administration programs). My double majors in art history and quantitative economics, plus internship experience, make me eligible to explore career plans in two extremely different fields.
While I have not made my final decision, my arrival at this career decision will definitely be a considered result of what I have undergone in the past year. Moreover, I am always hoping that I could travel back home once I am vaccinated and the U.S. travel ban gets lifted. I would never want to experience this again but I will consider what happened this year to be a great treasure in my life.