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When Drexel University announced Mar. 16 that its spring term would be taught remotely and students should return home during the COVID-19 pandemic, that trip home was much further — and much more complicated — for some than others.
In fact, returning home for spring term became downright impossible for international students whose home countries restricted travel and for students with at-risk family at home.
Sixty-five Drexel students appealed the University to remain in campus housing, and while most of their classmates were moving out, they were moving in to Caneris Hall on the University City Campus or Stiles Hall on the Center City Campus to prepare for a term of remote classes and hunkering down.
Subir Sahu, PhD, senior vice president for Student Success, said the University needed to comply with city, state and federal regulations and guidelines as they related to the COVID-19 outbreak, but also had an obligation to aid students facing extenuating circumstances.
“With that in mind, we wanted to help our students who needed on-campus housing and provide them a place to stay,” he said.
DrexelNow spoke with three of these students about the circumstances surrounding their decision to appeal for University Housing, what their “new normal” has been like while isolating on campus, and what they’re hopeful and thankful for through the uncertain weeks and months ahead.
Hung Do, a first-year computer science student, is one of 23 international students living on campus this spring term. Do is originally from Vietnam, and when he saw the Mar. 16 announcement that the spring term would be taught remotely, he immediately booked a flight home. However, because the week that followed was finals week, he booked his flight for the following Tuesday to ensure he could take his exam remotely.
“I am not comfortable with doing finals on an airplane where I’m not 100 percent focused,” he said. “And once I got back home on Vietnam soil, I would have been forced into quarantine for two weeks, and I wasn’t sure whether that place would have solid internet or not.”
But before Do could board his post-finals-week flight home, Taiwan — where he had a connecting flight — closed its borders. Vietnam followed suit soon after. He tried rerouting through Japan or Hong Kong, but it was no use.
“That’s when I figured out that I had no chance of getting back home,” he said. “I talked to my family about it. They were pretty upset that I didn’t book during finals week, but it was already too late and I couldn’t do anything.”
He’s now in Caneris Hall for the term. Though he wishes he could have spent this time at home, living on campus under citywide stay-at-home orders definitely hasn’t been the worst circumstance he could imagine being in.
“If I had flown earlier, and during my flight I found out that countries had closed off the borders, that would mean that I’m stuck in another country that is not my home and I would have to find other flights or accommodation in a country [where] I have no knowledge of the culture,” Do said. “That risk was so big that I didn’t want to take it, and I’m kind of glad that it didn’t happen. So yeah, it was a very complicated and stressful time.”
Mir Ahmed Leghari, a first-year finance student, also felt the weight of his decision on whether to return to Pakistan during finals week or try to travel later.
He said he got together with several friends from India and Pakistan in a collaboration room in the library following the Mar. 16 announcement so that they could all discuss their plans.
“It was like a heated discussion of whether we should stay or whether we should not,” Leghari said. “I was still of the view that, before making any decision, it would be best to stay patient instead. And that’s what I actually was trying to do was stay as long as possible to analyze the situation. I was hoping that things would get better, but they didn’t, they got worse and worse.”
After consulting with his parents in Pakistan, Leghari booked a flight home on Mar. 22. But the next day, his father called him and changed his recommendation due to the effects of the virus there. Soon, neither recommendation mattered, because Pakistan closed its borders.
“And so, I had no other choice than to email the University and I just appealed for the housing and I was like, ‘This is my only shot,’” Leghari said.
Now, Leghari is enjoying living in the spacious rooms in Caneris Hall, where he has the opportunity to cook his own food.
“I’d say Drexel has surpassed our expectations,” he said. “At the end of the day, Drexel has managed things really nicely.”
Ruth Buh, a first-year graduate student in the Infectious Disease Master’s Program, shares the same sentiment as one of the 20 students self-isolating this term in Stiles Hall, where she also lived before the pandemic began. For Buh, both financial and exposure concerns motivated her to appeal for University Housing this term versus returning home to New Jersey.
“Leaving Stiles in March, and not having time to come up with the budget for transportation and all the things that come along with moving, we just weren’t anticipating that,” she said.
Buh also wanted to avoid potentially bringing the virus to her family, because her mother has an autoimmune disease.
“She has a greater risk of being infected and I didn’t want to take that chance,” Buh said.
The New Normal
A photo taken by Ruth Buh, a first-year graduate student in the Infectious Disease Master’s Program living in Stiles Hall this term, of a typical quarantine day studying.
Buh is one of just eight graduate students who appealed for housing this term. She said she has no sense of the other students isolating with her on the Center City Campus — she’s never even seen the other student who lives on her floor.
“I just noticed a name on the door,” she said.
Feeling alone inside a residence hall that would have otherwise been teeming with activity hasn’t fazed Buh, and she is glad she’s been able to comply with the CDC’s social distancing recommendations. Drexel Facilities has also been looking after the building, Buh said, even coming to her aid when her smoke alarm wouldn’t stop beeping.
“I think it has personally been really great,” she said of her experience on campus this term. “I haven’t really had any kind of setback or anything. It’s been fine.”
Buh does not have a Drexel Dining plan, so she has been shopping for groceries at shops in Center City, and was relieved when Drexel provided a mask for her to wear on these rare outings. Do and Leghari in University City were also provided masks from the University, and have been getting groceries from The Market at the Northside Dining Terrace, which remains open for on-campus students.
Do said he’s still adjusting to his “new normal.”
“I’m still doing my usual routine, the times that I eat and exercise and all that. It’s just the methods are different,” he said. “So, that means I work out from home with whatever equipment I have. … Working from my own room [instead of in the library], which has decreased my level of productivity, I would admit. But I still am able to manage.”
Online classes are also taking some getting used to, but Do appreciates “the effort that professors and instructors have put in in order to still give us, as students, the materials and the knowledge that we need to progress,” he said.
Do has been spending free time connecting with family and old friends back in Vietnam.
“It gets a bit quiet here sometimes, but I try to make the effort to reach out to those I care about,” he said.
Leghari has also been catching up with his parents and relatives back home, as well as friends from high school. Outside of his course load, Leghari is devoting his free time to learning new coding and programming languages to benefit his career in the future.
“Nothing is really concrete. It’s very flexible. I do what I want to do at any given hour. And then at night, just watch a movie, dinner, go to sleep, and then just wake up again. That’s how it is,” he said, ending with a laugh.
Though he misses his parents, and does wish he could be locked down at home with his family, Leghari feels that everything has worked out for the best.
“I can focus on myself. I’m working on myself,” he said. “Back home, the time difference is really bad. I would have to wake up all night for classes and then sleep all day. It would have affected my health as well, and I would not have worked on myself as much as I can now.”
And even though he’s not able to be with his family, Leghari cited this time that families now have to spend together as one strange benefit to these equally strange circumstances.
“Everybody had been so busy,” he said. “Parents don’t know about their children, children don’t know about their parents. Like who are they? Now, this virus is giving them the time to actually consider each other and know about each other.”
The Hopes for the Future
Leghari doesn’t necessarily know when he’ll go home again. He still has a part-time internship on the books for this summer in North Carolina, but if that changes, he would choose between going back home and staying on campus, if either or both were options.
Do is in the same boat. He hopes he will be able to fly home for the summer term, but he knows he still has to be realistic about the pandemic.
“It’s still the case where you live day-by-day and try to cope or adapt to whatever else is happening, whether it be classes or the thing that’s going on outside right now,” he said. “For me, I still try to look forward to better days. I’m still positive about it.”
Buh is also trying to take it day-by-day, and is happy that the financial situation for her family seems to be improving, along with her mother’s health.
“I think that stress kind of elevated her medical condition, just worrying about where I was,” Buh said. “Now that I’m doing well right now, she’s calmer. Things are definitely better now, so I’m happy about that.”
“Being here, being safe at Drexel… I highly appreciate it,” she said.
Leghari described the COVID-19 pandemic as a great equalizer, where no one is really safer or better off. But even though that’s the case, he thinks Drexel went above and beyond in an effort to accommodate students like him.
“I think Drexel handled the situation well and I’m really grateful to them for that,” he said.