I slouched on our living room couch in dismay, anticipating an email any second with the news that the walk from Shi Ji Da Dao station to our building wouldn’t see light until ‘further notice’.
Stars were aligned to make my last four months at university memorable. Choosing to continue my work with the compassionate Student Life staff one last time as a Study Away Orientation Ambassador (SAOA), finally having to write that only ever-heard-of 30-page thesis, and reliving past semesters with peers, new and old—good nerves were geared up to complete this last leg. The start date of the semester was perhaps the last time I would make a routine air commute to the Pearl Tower from my quaint comfort bubble in Tianjin.
January 24th brought the update of a week-long delay and the cancellation of a midsemester breather to make up for lost time. Having heard of Sino-US institutions such as Duke University’s announcement of a closure, ours was sure to come knocking next. “Even with the news of reopening February 17th, I was still hopeful, and thought, hey, it’s fine, I just won’t have a spring break”, Laura Ismajli recounted, calling me from what she described, the desolate metropolis of Beijing. It was evident that the entirety of my social life over the last month had become heavily dependent on adjusting time zones as senior calls flooded in to panic over the newest school notifications. “The recent update we’ve gotten is that there is no update! I’ve become very pessimistic, it became way more serious than they originally made it out to be, or knew it was going to be”, Ismajli shared last week. Planning ahead of time is advantageous, but no one expects a pandemic to hit.
Undoubtedly, the NYU Shanghai administration had worked tirelessly, tackling a crisis that could otherwise take months to handle, in the span of just a week. Things were logistically streamlined: the successful transition to online class modules for over 1400 students, professors working towards asynchronous and synchronous lesson plans, and in-person events from involvement fairs to panel discussions now all a click away through Zoom. Choices were practically laid out to us from here: to continue learning from home, to delay getting our degrees by a semester, or to send in our applications for another term of study away with hopes that our fate and passports were enough to land us into classrooms. Our circumstances paled in comparison to the suffering of those then locked down in Wuhan and infected in Hubei—losing family members yet resiliently fighting this devil.
Although relatively miniscule in the larger scheme of things, the feeling was overwhelming because it stemmed from a commitment that demanded new compromises every day. This virus was stubborn-it put our class in a different boat altogether, barricading our walk to the finish line.
Indecisive Decisions and Second Chances
A factor that majorly contributed to my semester turning shallow was the uncertainty of where I would be. I had left China for family purposes when the virus was still in its preliminary stages, and my efforts coordinating with the Office of Global Services (OGS) for other sites ran dry as my citizenship wasn’t favored in the majority of countries. NYU’s efforts were unable to ensure that I’d attain documents within the two-week add/drop buffer, and time did not stand waiting.
For several others, it meant beginning afresh, only to be uprooted again. “One time I wasn’t able to go back to Shanghai, and the second time, I enrolled in Florence for only two weeks, and then they [the university] kicked me out again…and now I am back home. I’m not going anywhere…no matter where I am…they actually offered me Prague when I complained that this is something happening to me, when I had to move out of Florence. I would’ve been relocated a third time.”, a fellow senior stated frantically, digesting the events that had unfolded up until the closure of NYU Florence on February 25th. Eventually, it led to a closure of her semester. “I was the only person in a senior’s position in Florence. I decided to take a leave of absence because I wasn’t going to deal with that. I wanted to wait for it to simmer down because no matter what, NYU moving me to a different location would mean it would happen there again. It’s impacted my entire year”. In hindsight, she made a clever choice.
Further expressing her frustration with the inability to gain a student visa (which for her year-long study away in New York, had only taken a few weeks), she spoke concerningly of a lack of priority given to the graduating class, “I don’t know when I’ll see anyone again, it’s really annoying. Now I can’t apply for jobs and stuff, because now they [recruiters] are like ‘when are you graduating?’. It’s deterring the end of my years. It’s especially troublesome for seniors, it doesn’t seem to matter what grade you’re in, they’re taking the same measures”.
While prioritizing this class earlier could have meant expediting visa processes, the challenge came with governmental regulations, the population of students being dealt with, and already uncertain, truncated response times for the administration. The pressure was drilling, and our community was persistent. NYU Shanghai’s Dean of Students, David Pe elaborated: “In order to take courses at a different location, it meant that students needed to physically transition quickly and start classes late. The impact of missing a few days of classes means a lot of catch up for both the student and the professors. The other big issue was to make sure students can legally be in the location which is governed by national immigration laws and not within the control of the university”. For my friend returning home, having to catch up with syllabi may have been the least of her worries until she was settled down. An academic routine came at the prerequisite of having a place to study.
Downsides did, however, give way to alternatives. Before campus closures in NYU’s global network, New York had become a viable option for US citizens as had Abu Dhabi—preferable for Yaman Maarrawi, a resident of Dubai. Maarawi was initially anxious about the timeline ahead of him, “As I saw the numbers doubling everyday, I was very confused about what was going to happen, because I’m graduating…unlike a sophomore [who] could make up for it later. I was relieved to receive the university’s email that I could still continue with my degree progress, despite the fact that I couldn’t be in Shanghai. If I decided to take a leave of absence, I wouldn’t have been able to attend grad school in the Fall, I would be in NYU for another year..the same applies to my capstone”. He explained how things turned around for him when he could benefit from a resourceful, still-functioning academic environment, “Being in a student community does change the way you…kind of..interact with your classes. If I took everything online, it would have been an unpleasant experience for me as a social science major. I was looking for conversations in my last semester”, well on his way attending a mix of online courses from Shanghai and on-campus in Abu Dhabi, but unknowingly, only for the short-lived, first two weeks of his semester.
Little did we know, even if (in an impractical but ideal scenario), emergency exceptions would have pulled through for our cohort, they ran the risk of being nullified with developments of the next hour. It was impossible to foresee the circle of influence of this speedy virus ahead of time. Florence shutting down led to Abu Dhabi and New York campuses closely following, along with an array of study away site closures that left digital learning as inevitably, the only route for our global university to journey towards commencement. NYU Shanghai students were reliving what they had been through a month ago, wherever they escaped to.
Changed Momentums and Online Capstones
The transition to new modes of learning in lieu of on campus courses caused day-to-day routines to become heavily dependent on where students were. Still, some members of the class retained their confidence to stay in Shanghai.
Amy DeCillis knew that committing to the city seemed most fitting for her situation. “I had already come back, so I ended up staying, and if I would go home, I’d end up putting my family at risk…and also, I could not be bothered to pack up my entire apartment and rush to another NYU site”. She explained how the virus sparked racism that could have impacted her harshly if she decided to return to the US. “People would see me, know that I come from China and look Chinese, and I think a lot of them would worry that I brought COVID with me. You know, that was a real concern for me. Also, why wouldn’t I want to spend my last semester at NYU Shanghai, actually in Shanghai? The city has taken really appropriate measures, so has the school. I’m very content with my decision”.
Carrying a foreign passport in desperate times and choosing to stay put within the country proved beneficial in the long-run. As tables turned, the government’s frequent, overnight changes in restrictions on the flow of people moving from, and now, into the country have increased risks of being quarantined. Tian Tian Wedgewood Young, also residing in town, concurred on how she was supported with the liberty to make this decision. “I understand the situation of those who were already gone and hadn’t come back yet, but running around didn’t make any sense to me if all my stuff was here! The thought of leaving my apartment in two weeks was just insane to me”, she emphasized, not the slightest bit hesitant to stay back in a country which much like me, she had called home most of her life.
The cost of residing in China for both international and Chinese students alike, was severely downsizing a university environment, prioritizing space for academics at home, and limiting movement outside of the house. We started early, but similar costs are now borne by millions of students worldwide.
Ismalji, keeping up with her semester in hopes of being able to enter medical school, narrated the struggle, “How do I deal with scheduling when I go to class and when I do work…and…trying to find a balance between what is school life and what is home life? The two have sort of…come into a coalition”. In a run to check off degree requirements, deciphering work time from playtime would require a conscious separation of the classroom from the bedroom. Waking up two minutes before the beginning of a Zoom lecture cuddled up under a duvet would probably not take you to the level of mental attentiveness that otherwise comes from getting dressed and mobilizing yourself to a professional arena. This was an even greater struggle for students who had moved to New York, flipping sleep schedules to wake up for their Shanghai lectures in wee
hours of the morning. Young reiterated that she was thankful to be safe and had settled down in her daily life, but if anything, the same scenery felt constricting, “It makes your life more tied down to one place. Even just commuting to school usually puts you in a school mode”. De Cillis furthered that being in China also meant cutting down on her time off in the city, “You wanna go out, but nothing’s open. If I’m like oh, I wanna have someone over, I can’t, because we can’t have visitors over right now-stuff like that. If I wanna go study, I can’t because the AB [academic building] is closed. I mean there is some flexibility, like, with visiting certain apartment complexes that are open and where friends are, but movie theatres and restaurants are still not open, it’s more like a quarantine”. Home now had to cater, more immediately, to a two-fold purpose: facilitating productivity, and bringing entertainment to the last stretch of our unforgettable Shanghai experience.
On the top of a long list of dire concerns were capstones. NYUSH’s incubation period had already delayed the resumption of projects on campus, increased the pressure to complete our most prominent piece of work of four years in a reduced, break-less time frame, and for some, removed the possibility of doing fieldwork situated in China. For Ismalji, reorienting her research plan was part and parcel of the virus’ repercussions. “-a lot of labs have been shut down, so my options for the independent study were quite slim. I was kind of lucky that my capstone could be done long distance, but under normal circumstances, I would be able to go to my professor’s office or use the services at NYU to help facilitate my progress”, she narrated to me last week. It was unequivocal that regardless of how techy things got, the value of in-person teaching and guidance was irreplaceable. In a larger sense, for social science students as opposed to STEM or IMA candidates, capstone online was perhaps not as large a jump with school-provided resources if the bulk of research was independently taken on or already done in the previous semester. It then mainly came down to the intense process of purposeful writing. For others such as De Cillis, who took the prerogative to change her research topic to one about COVID-19, it was a matter of increasing efficiency and motivation to work, especially by keeping up with advisor calls to ensure on-track progress.
Caps, Gowns, Futures, and Reuniting
Many of the hurdles this class has witnessed are applicable all across: first to the NYUSH community, and now NYU along with the world. The key difference for older students lies in acknowledging that no one can give us back the last few months of our undergraduate lives. NYUSH didn’t get to kick start our last in-person classes before they ended—the last classes we took together.
My decision to break off from the semester was fortunately or unfortunately less of a choice, given I knew life for the next few months would become relatively nomadic. Going back to Tianjin has been postponed frequently, and a date for my family’s return following our lockdown in India is yet to be seen. A decision sealed with confidence one day has to be scratched out the next due to sudden happenings. Returning to campus next fall will undoubtedly hit me with the peculiarities of having only a few ‘super seniors’ present for the final stretch.
88 days before commencement, seniors were addressed with a message from Dean Pe, congratulatory for making it thus far and hopeful to see us back in the building for celebrations. I asked him, then after saying several prayers, how realistic this was, “-we still have close to two and a half months to make definitive plans. We have reason to hope that by that point things will have returned to normal in the city, but there is simply no way to know right now”.With Shanghai slowly recuperating to normalcy, the 2020 cohort may reunite in China to march with our classmates one last time, and to pack up rooms that lie unoccupied, waiting with our things. All of this is highly dependent on policies and airlines permitting us to enter from abroad, and the logistics of doing so.
In the initial stages of decision-making, I had texted a classmate sharing what was most upsetting to reflect on. Shanghai in our last semester isn’t how we lived it in our time here, and we can’t live it like that one last time even if we chose to remain. Maarrawi was anticipating his return this spring after having not seen his class since Sophomore year, courtesy to the perks of a global university including unique study-away timelines. Following her Florence fallout, my classmate summed up, “Even if I walk in May, it doesn’t feel right, because I haven’t graduated, I’m not done until Fall of next year, the whole class is in different places and I don’t know when I’ll see anyone again”. Hearing similar pains from others about our scattering was disheartening, but it rooted in an obscurity as to when this saga of a virus would end. It led us to believe that the effects were permanent. Over the past week, memes based on Zoom graduations for this year’s cohort have become normalized worldwide. As I write, peers who have homes in Europe and the US have booked flights to get out on the brink of lockdowns. What started with universities in China has exploded globally, and for some of us, it has become a vicious cycle of finding a way out only to be brought back to where we left off.
Regardless, the belief that things only move onwards and upwards persists. De Cillis’ semester so far has been proof enough, “Ironically, COVID has opened up so many opportunities for me”, she laughed. Her work with the Wuhan charity resulted in connecting to media outlets such as Vogue US and NPR, interested in her experiences as a student in China at a time like this. “Staying here, and just, I mean—Tian Tian and I are not heroes, I was too lazy to move—but it actually has created so much for us, automatically, it’s kind of like, advantageous”. Young responded with a similar attitude to a job offer under her belt after the summer, “Because of this, I’m definitely going to stay. I don’t want this to be my last impression of the city or my last memory, and in some ways..this has almost been an act of loyalty, it’s reaffirmed to me that I like this city and that it is a second home. I might have left if not for the virus”. Recuperating with a place that gave us abundant memories would most definitely strengthen the love we’ve had for it.
Doubts were shared by some over how the school could have focused on this class more through tailored communication and options. Others reemphasized the remarkable work of the university, and how frustrations and anxieties brought us closer than ever before. The main takeaways of our final year couldn’t be underestimated, because as David Pe reflected, “For the graduates of the Class of 2020 whether at NYU Shanghai or across the world, I trust that the events of the last few months, as well as the entirety of their NYU Shanghai experience, have helped them become even more resilient individuals; well equipped to handle the challenges that life will always throw them”.
The disturbing question still stands: if the 29th will give us our last chance to be together, gleaming in our violet gowns. This experience has drained many of us to the core, testing our diligence to make it towards a graduation that may be nothing close to how we imagined it. In their own right, commencement speeches won’t be close to any other year’s either.
Vice Chancellor Lehman’s recent email following the announcement on NYU’s all-universities commencement delay coins us “legendary ” for our resilience. Honorable mentions in memes also quite often that we began with Trump’s election and are signing off with a pandemic. If nothing else, we’re finishing with the label of the class with a will of steel. A disrupted job market and grad school semesters that may be further delayed await us, but we’ll cross more bridges once we get there.
After all, it’s a story to tell the grandkids.
This article was written by Gurkriti Singh. Please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Illustration by Gauri Kedia, NYUAD ‘22