Four students, four countries, one commonality — studying abroad amid a global pandemic. Ethan Ward, Tianyu Wang, Max Haskell and Zhuldyz Jumadilova are four USC students who are taking their virtual semesters in England, China, Russia and Kazakhstan, respectively. These students, some of whom are international or hold dual-citizenship, were faced with the unique decision to take their academics outside of the U.S. Like many students attending universities throughout the country, unique circumstances gave them flexibility in choosing their location for the fall semester.
On July 1, USC officially announced that the fall semester would be a remote-learning semester due to a mandate declared by California Governor Gavin Newsom in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The announcement that classes would be held online meant different things for different students. For instance, while many international students found themselves bound to their country’s borders due to travel restrictions, some domestic students saw this moment as an opportunity to leave the U.S. and take the semester in another country. Of these students is Ethan Ward, currently taking his classes in London, England.
“I felt that this [pandemic] wasn’t ending because we are now on countries' ban lists, while other countries are opening back up,” said Ward, a Master of Public Diplomacy student originally from Washington D.C. “That’s when I thought: ‘Wait, what if I never get to go anywhere? What if I never get to see anything? What happens if we get banned from everywhere?’”
After extensive research and reviewing country-specific pandemic guidelines, Ward found an opportunity that allows U.S. citizens to still travel to the United Kingdom. As long as the traveler abides by a 14-day quarantine upon arrival, travel from the U.S. to the UK was acceptable. Ward quickly booked his stay and on arrival, isolated for two weeks in a London Airbnb.
“I realized since I don’t have to come back since classes are online, then maybe I can stay a little longer,” he said. “I started factoring: ‘How much is my budget that I would pay for rent in LA?’”
As one month abroad passes, Ward expressed his comfort in not having a set plan, but rather going with the flow, exploring historic sites like Stonehenge and other places he has always dreamed of visiting.
“The amount of self growth I have already felt in just two months of being here, I feel like it helps inform my perspective and make me a better journalist, a better person, and it is doing wonders for my mental health,” he said.
However, Ward admits to some challenges in his experience, specifically from an 8-hour time zone difference, a challenge to which his graduate classmate Tianyu Wang of Inner Mongolia, China relates. In order for Wang to tune in live for virtual instruction, which is often the most direct form of online learning for students, she must be awake at 5:00 a.m. China Standard Time, as there is a 15-hour difference between Beijing and Los Angeles. However, USC extends courtesy to students in various time zones by offering recorded, asynchronous lectures for classes held outside the traditional 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. school day. Wang, among others, believes that this resource and temporary solution is not ideal.
“By only watching the recording, I cannot interact with my classmates or professors, and if I have questions, I can only ask my professors through email,” Wang said. “This is why I think next semester will be in person, because I feel most students don’t like classes online, and USC will further consider our situation. Also, the U.S. economy needs international students for support.”
Although alternatives to attending live online classes are made available by the University, there is a feeling of disconnect and missed opportunity for students watching past lectures of classmates engaging in live discussions with professors. This is a sentiment Max Haskell, a senior majoring in international relations, shares in his outlook of indefinite online instruction.
“An elastic demand is the idea that everyone is going to be paying their tuition regardless of what happens to the product they are being offered at USC… in fact, they raised tuition by 3.5% and altered their product to one that is lesser than usual; it being online versus in classes,” said Haskell. “The tuition costs that I am paying here [in Russia] are a minute fraction of what I pay at USC, which is a fundamental aspect of why I chose to come here, as well as a lower cost of living.”
Currently studying in St. Petersburg, Russia, Haskell, who has Russian citizenship, decided to take an academic leave of absence at USC. Haskell wanted to rekindle his cultural roots, diversify his educational experience, and seek semester study at Saint Petersburg State University, where hybrid instruction is commonplace. This mixed instruction is what Haskell says is the key to an “intimate experience fundamental to every classroom.”
Though life amid the pandemic in Russia is very different from life in the U.S., as the country allegedly obfuscates virus statistics and claims to have developed a vaccine, Haskell said he has still faced challenges in language and cultural adjustments. However, Haskell said these challenges are only temporary, as he plans to return to USC for the spring semester. In reflection, he is glad to experience these multifaceted intercultural transitions as he studies in Russia for the semester.
“With every problem and every obstacle, an opportunity presents itself [and] I think I grasped that opportunity,” Haskell said. “I plan to travel through Russia, and take the Trans Siberian Railway, or maybe go down to the Black Sea. I think there are a lot of opportunities here that afford themselves for exploration purposes.”
Wang shares Haskell’s openness to the idea of traveling in-country and having more freedom than her peers in the U.S., where the country is still in a general state of lockdown and the case count has surpassed 1 million. Furthermore, the two share skeptical optimism that USC students will be reunited in Los Angeles next spring. One student who could not bear the wait of relocating to Los Angeles is Zhuldyz Jumadilova, a Master of Strategic Public Relations student from Astana, Kazakhstan.
“It was challenging to study from Kazakhstan, when lectures start at 3 a.m., or 5 a.m., and during the day you cannot sleep as much as you want,” said Jumadilova, who is also a mother of two in addition to being a student. “I had to sit next to my second-grade daughter in her Zoom class from 9 p.m. to midnight and then wake up for my own class after three hours.”
Jumadilova was disappointed upon hearing that classes switched to online, because one of her goals of studying in the U.S. was to improve her English skills.
“As an international student, I am eager to listen to professors and my local peers as much as possible; to speak to them in a natural academic environment as much as possible,” Jumadilova said. “With online classes, I feel like I am missing something I came here for.”
Jumadilova recently moved back to L.A. to ease scheduling challenges in adapting to online classes, a move that some international students are doing to restore a sense of normalcy this semester. Nevertheless, Jumadilova said that very little feels the same in the current climate students and faculty find themselves in.
University administrators are both planning ahead and taking it day-by-day in mapping what the future of academics and campus life will look like for everyone, especially for international students. In an August 14 press release, USC President Carol Folt stressed that the administration, faculty and students are all adapting to these times at the same pace.
The final decision for the Spring 2021 semester may arrive soon as neighboring institutions like the California State University system recently announced that their spring semester will be held virtually. An onslaught of constantly-changing environmental, state government and public health factors continue muddying the waters for USC’s planned direction.
Though students like Wang and Jumadilova seek to relocate or have already relocated back to Los Angeles, others, like Ward and Haskell, purposefully travelled abroad. For those with the means to take their studies outside of the U.S. and follow country-specific guidelines on safely moving — whether it be through a tourist visa or through foreign citizenship — these students view the 2020 to 2021 academic year as an opportune time to take flight. While respective circumstances and evolving public health updates are guiding students to make these decisions, some students have taken informal study abroad experiences into their own hands.