Connect and Care for Each Other: International Student Experiences in Spring 2020
By Dr. Linh Phung, Director of the English Language and Pathways Programs
Like any other academic programs at the University, the English Language Program, Chatham Semester, Pittsburgh Pathways, and other non-degree international programs in the Office of International Affairs (OIA) follow the predictable rhythm of orientation of new students, course registration, midterm exams, spring break, and final exams. We also have students leaving and arriving in late February, making the spring semester more eventful than other semesters because of greater student mobility and more welcome and graduation events. Spring 2020 had a similar rhythm, but, and it’s a big but, everything was also different after the University had to transition its instruction, services, and operations to the virtual space after March 13, 2020 due to the Coronavirus pandemic in the U.S.
We carried on with the ELP’s intensive English instruction (20 hours a week) in Zoom, offered conversation hours and games in Zoom, gathered for the End-of-Term Celebration in Zoom, and offered other usual services to international students virtually. There were undoubtedly Zoom fatigue, disappointments, and challenges, way beyond what this article can describe and the author of this article can understand, but there were also highlights of what was inspiring and heart-warming. The snapshot below was based on what some international students shared in conversations and their published essays in the OIA Blog.
To non-degree seeking international students who chose to study abroad at Chatham, studying in their dorm room or apartment separated from others in physical space, might, at times, have felt nothing like studying abroad. All the expressed desires to meet more people, make more friends, and see more places were put on hold. Some exchange and sponsored students were recalled to their country while others were faced with the difficult decision of remaining in their program or deferring to the following year. Some were worried about the cost of health care in the U.S. and whether they would get proper treatment in case they needed it. Even going grocery shopping in the midst of increased infection became a difficult decision. Focusing on classwork was harder and harder each day. Family worries added to the stress.
But then “Every cloud has a silver lining,” wrote Ohla Viun, a UGRAD student from Ukraine at Chatham in her essay receiving an honorable mention in the English Language Program Writing Contest in April, one of the best highlights of the spring 2020 term in the English Language Program. In this contest, students were encouraged to submit a writing in any format to bring joy and happiness to the readers. Ohla wrote about the “twists and turns” of receiving a UGRAD scholarship from the U.S. Department of State to study abroad in the U.S., “an opportunity of a lifetime” for her; the overshadowing impact of Covid-19; and her sudden return to home where, ironically, Covid-19 was also a hard reality. However, with the passion for learning, she was determined to find happiness and exert control over the situation by focusing on her studies and enrolling herself in even more online courses. To her, “the stronger the wind blows, the tougher the tree has to be.”
Other essays showcase the students’ humor, gratitude, strength, and resilience. Abdulaziz Alkashi (Honorable Mention) writes a letter to the Coronavirus with a warning that it can’t “win against us,” but will make us “connect and care for each other” more. Lila Usquiano (Honorable Mention) is committed to living in the moment despite the distractions of this unprecedented time. Saffanah Moualla (Third Prize) expresses her appreciation for a tree that, during her one year living near it, provided her with pleasantness and fragrance of nature, a tree that also symbolizes “strength, pleasantness, and stability of all seasons.” Miku Nishii (Second Prize) describes her fabulous partner, who was given to her by her friend, which turns out to be a stuffed animal. Size Li (Second Prize) writes a stand-up comedy about his experience as an international student this past semester and humorously jokes about how wonderful his family was when they sent him an article about “How to arrange a funeral in the U.S.” Bothainah Sharrofnah (First Prize) writes about the everyday compromises, melancholy, daydreaming, and imagination of the day when things are back to normal with the knowledge that “this too shall pass.” All of what we are going through shall pass, and even the normal days we will eventually get back shall pass.
All these wonderful essays are posted on the OIA Blog, and they truly brought joy to us, teachers and the students’ classmates, who read them. We are proud of ELP students and other international students’ contributions to the Chatham community. To celebrate, like any other semesters, we gathered for the End-of-Term Celebration and talked about the semester, said farewell to students who completed their studies at Chatham, and presented students with certificates and awards. We all agreed that the motto for us moving forward is “This Too Shall Pass” with the commitment to continuing to do good work in English language learning and teaching and international education.
In fact, without the limitation of geographies, we took advantage of the virtual delivery format to deliver international conversation hours and presentations that engaged not only Chatham students, but also local residents and students currently located in other countries. These include a conversation hour that involved students in playing a competitive Kahoot game about American culture. Interestingly, a young Vietnamese student who has not been to the U.S. won the game, which made him sort of “gloat” in front of other students.
Another conversation hour had Dr. Natasha Garrett from La Roche University talk about her essay Common Ground with the participants. We talked about finding a common ground with our family through food, gardening, and the mundane conversations that we sometimes take for granted.
After the semester ended, Dr. Linh Phung and Ms. Shipp gave a presentation with suggestions on how students can improve their English speaking skills. The presentation was hosted by the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi, livestreamed on Facebook , and attracted over 26,000 views. We were pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm to learn English among the participants and viewers in Vietnam and glad to share our knowledge and experience.
Moving into the summer semester, which starts on May 22 with students taking classes virtually from the U.S., Japan, Bangladesh, and Vietnam, the ELP and OIA plan to continue to offer meaningful programming to its students and engage with the wider world through:
- Sharing regular advice about English language learning through our new blog (blogs.chatham.edu/learnenglish) and Youtube Channel (Chatham ELP)
- Pairing/grouping international students with domestic students or local volunteers through the Conversation Partner Program
- Running weekly Let’s Talk Friday: Conversations and Guest Speeches, which is open worldwide
- Cooking lessons on Friday to any students who would like to learn to cook simple dishes
- And more
Follow us on Facebook (www.facebook.com/chathamoia) or OIA Blog (www.blogs.chatham.edu/oia) for more information about these programs. Email firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to be added to an email list about upcoming events or if you have questions. We are looking forward to staying engaged and connected in the summer and fall 2020 terms.