As classes moved online this past year, students in schools across the country have struggled to meet new people and interact with their classmates outside of the virtual world. For international graduate students, it’s been especially difficult to build a professional network and prepare for their careers post graduation. Several students reflect on their experience this past year and what it might mean for their future careers. Phil Rosen has the story.

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The pandemic has left its mark on some of the brightest young minds in the country, forcing many of them to complete their degrees entirely on Zoom. That means a lot more isolation and potentially fewer friends compared to ordinary times.

“With Covid it’s really harder, you need to put much more effort into meeting people”

That was Ruben Abergel, a graduate student at Columbia University. He’s from Paris and studies financial math. This year he’s been living in Manhattan but, like many of his classmates, he spends most of his time on his computer in a small apartment in the middle of ...what used to be ...a bustling city.

“The purpose of doing such a program is to meet people to connect. And unfortunately it’s been hard to connect with people. It’s hard to connect, like with a real human life….From Columbia I didn’t meet a lot of people.”

Abergel felt like he didn’t have a better alternative. What else was he supposed to be doing during a pandemic? At least he could emerge from the pandemic with a shiny new graduate degree from a top university.

“I got a summer internship at Goldman, I’m sure the name of Columbia made a huge difference.”

He felt good about pursuing graduate school because a lot of job hirings stopped during the pandemic.

“I think it was the best decision I made. So I did it. And I don’t regret that.”

Completing a graduate degree during the pandemic is still productive and can make students more competitive when the job market opens up. But even so, far fewer international students enrolled for school during the pandemic. A recent survey revealed a 43% drop in new international student enrollment for U.S. schools in 2020.

Chong Hou Lao, another graduate student in Abergel’s program at Columbia, has been doing his classes from Macau, China this year. He finds it easier to manage the workload.

“People think it’s harder because they can’t see peers. I think it’s easier because all the exams are online or you take them home or whatever. So I prefer this format because I don’t have to cram as much.”

Lao took things in stride this year, and saw this simply as another opportunity to do what had to be done.

“If I was in New York, I would have been online anyway. So it’s not that. Being in Macao was not a problem. It was a pandemic that was a problem. Given that it has happened. It is not the remote thing that’s made it hard. It is the pandemic itself. There’s no way it could be easy.”

From the same time zone nearby in Beijing, China, Draco Guan, a graduate student in USC Annenberg, has been taking his classes online too. This means he takes classes at two or three in the morning, like Lao. He feels like he’s burning the candle at both ends.

“One day I need to be the night owl, and the next day i need to be the early bird”

Late night classes aren’t the hardest part. It’s the next day that really hurts.

“If I’m doing the classes at 2:00 in the morning and ended at four o’clock and then I got very excited during classes and then it’s very hard for me to fall asleep afterwards.”

Both Guan and Lao say the universities have made lecture recordings available but neither think this is the best option.

They can watch lecture recordings, but this means they aren’t there to participate in class discussions and they can’t get live interaction with teachers and classmates. Especially in graduate school, there’s more to class than just memorization. So skipping live classes for recorded lectures doesn’t cut it.

“It makes no sense for me to read the transcriptions and pay a bunch of tuition fees and just to read the recording. I’m paying the same amount of tuition fees, but I’m doing Zoom university.”

For Abergel, Lao, and Guan, they can look forward to meeting their fellow classmates in person after missing out on a year of face-to-face commiserating.

At the end of the day the three of them will be emerging with new graduate degrees, primed to enter the job market as more competitive applicants than they were before the pandemic.

For Annenberg Media, I’m Phil Rosen.