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For international students who were remote in fall, return to campus brings relief, adjustment period

While her family returned from work, ate dinner together and put on a movie to relax, Tanisha Nalavadi was just waking up and preparing for a long night of online classes. 

As a Duke senior living halfway across the world during the fall semester because of the coronavirus pandemic, Nalavadi said she “became nocturnal” to juggle her academic coursework, group projects and club meetings. She spent many nights in Zoom meetings, alone in her room, while other parts of the world, there were remote international students having the same experience. 

Some international students lived on campus this semester but did not move onto Duke’s campus last semester for a variety of reasons. Although being away from campus was challenging, adjusting to life at Duke after returning could be hard as well. 

Sophomore Sara Mehta attended classes from India during the fall semester, citing uncertainty about the pandemic as her reason for staying home.

“Last semester, I would not have been as comfortable coming to Duke because the pandemic was such a new thing and I wanted to see how it would pan out,” Mehta said. “This time, I felt more comfortable because Duke’s frequent testing and strict social distancing protocol worked last semester.” 

Other students did not have the opportunity to travel to the United States. 

“I’ve always wanted to come to campus, but I wasn’t able to get a visa on time last semester,” said Axelle Miel, a first-year student from the Philippines. 

International students faced a similar range of issues when classes started in the fall, including only being able to join a limited number of clubs due to time differences and facing social isolation because their peers would be asleep when they were working on assignments. 

Many students cited the difference in time zones as their biggest obstacle last semester. 

“It’s challenging to navigate. You want to take synchronous classes because that makes them more engaging, but it is hard to be focused at 5 a.m.,” Mehta said. 

Nalavadi stressed the loneliness of the time difference, including not being able to spend time with her family, despite living in the same house. 

“Even if you’re living at home, you are sleeping at 11 a.m. and waking up at 7 p.m., so you don’t see your family. You don’t see anyone. It’s really hard,” she said. “I know loneliness is something everyone is dealing with because of the pandemic, but it is heightened with the time difference.”

First-year Sharan Sokhi, whose sister, a junior, was also taking remote classes at Duke, expressed how having someone with her made the experience easier.

“Having someone stay awake with you in the middle of the night helped provide moral support, but it was still tough because most of my classmates would be asleep when I was trying to do homework. I was on my own for a lot of it,” she said.

These factors caused some international students who were remote in the fall to apply for spring housing. Once moving onto campus in the spring, international students experienced a range of emotions, ranging from relief to worry about how this semester will look. 

“I don’t think people understand how lucky they are to actually be on campus,” Miel said, citing an increase in coronavirus cases on campus. “I hope that people don’t take it for granted too much, because it would be difficult to send everyone back home and taking classes remotely is really hard.”

First-year international students who were remote in the fall experienced their first taste of campus life last month. Some expressed feelings of social isolation and difficulty in navigating a space where many of their peers had already formed solidified friend groups. 

“Meeting my online friends in person has felt quite fun, but it has been a bit harder to make new friends because people already seem to have their friend groups, so finding the right people will take some time,” Sokhi said. 

Miel attributed her ease of social acclimation to her participation in a FOCUS program last semester, where she was able to interact with the same small group of students for an extended period of time. 

“I would consider myself super lucky in terms of social connections. I did FOCUS during my first semester, and am also now living on the same floor as a lot of my FOCUS friends, which has really helped me in terms of having friendly faces when I arrived here,” she said. “However, I know a lot of international students who were placed in random dorms when they came here and have had a harder time making friends.”

Returning upperclassmen noted that campus has both changed and remained the same because of COVID-19. 

“Though some things are different, the feeling of campus was the same when I returned. The people are the same, so it is still home,” Nalavadi said.


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