‘It Feels Like a Daydream’: International Students At Home Describe Surreal, Challenging Adjustments During COVID-19 Pandemic

International students faced a wide range of responses to the pandemic when they returned home this month — and continue to face unique challenges ahead.
By Luke A. Williams and Matteo N. Wong

International students faced a wide range of challenges because of the coronavirus pandemic when they returned home this month.
International students faced a wide range of challenges because of the coronavirus pandemic when they returned home this month. By Steve S. Li

After receiving the news on March 10 that they and their classmates would be removed from campus due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, hundreds of international students at the College have faced a slew of unpredictable challenges after traveling home.

Representing 155 countries, these students transitioned in a matter of days from packing up their dorm rooms to rapidly booking flights, and finally to arriving home to completely new circumstances.

The Crimson spoke with five such students, each of whom journeyed home to a different country this month, about landing in the middle of their governments’ wide range of responses to the pandemic, from strict limits on leaving their households to mandatory hospital quarantines — and about the unique challenges they say the future holds for them.


Flying through Hong Kong from Boston, a full day’s travel delivered Andrew W. Shen ’23 to a specially-designated terminal in Beijing’s airport — which he described as a “biohazard zone” — filled with workers in protective suits and gear.

Before anyone could disembark, workers selected several passengers for random health inspections, Shen said. Eventually, everyone on his flight completed health survey forms and a travel history questionnaire, and received a temperature check.

In the terminal, the baggage carousels weren’t operating. Luggage was manually disinfected and distributed.

After collecting his luggage, Shen boarded a bus to his district, the vehicle’s every surface encased in plastic and its windows open to increase air circulation, he said. He is currently quarantined at a friend’s vacant apartment to avoid potentially exposing his family to COVID-19.

China has begun to loosen its coronavirus regulations. Shen said his mother and sister were able to go on a field trip a few days ago. He, however, remains under government supervision.

“They installed this little detector thingy that whenever I open my door, it’s going to send a signal back to tell them to open my door,” Shen said. “So I have to record every action. I basically haven’t left my house except for getting tested.”


Other students have faced similarly restrictive experiences, even as Harvard’s classes begin again in earnest, entirely online, after last week’s spring recess.

Ton-Nu Nguyen-Dinh ’22 arrived in Vietnam nine days ago already expecting to be placed in hospital quarantine, she said. The day she arrived home, a government van arrived outside her house to pick her up and drive her to a hospital on the outskirts of Hanoi.

Nguyen-Dinh was confined to a hospital ward bedroom, where she remained quarantined as of Wednesday. She said she receives three meals a day, and her stay and care are free.

“I was prepared for this even before we received the eviction notice. Since the first corona case was discovered in America, Vietnam was already doing quarantine,” Nguyen-Dinh said. “I knew this would happen.”

While Nguyen-Dinh said that her time in quarantine has been “more productive” than it would have been had she been able to spend time with family and friends at home, she also said she has faced serious difficulty focusing on her schoolwork.

“It’s been messing with my ability to concentrate and think critically,” Nguyen-Dinh said. “At school we have all these resources and people, more importantly, that we run into throughout the day. We have interactions and stimulating conversations. None of that is happening anymore.”

“When I try to think critically or to do work, I can’t. It feels like a daydream,” she added. “There’s nothing to ground it. There’s no books, no ritual, no people. We’re not going to school, doing our little hikes, going to classrooms, doing hikes back. There’s no daily rhythm here. It’s weird. It messes with my ability to really ‘be’ in class.”

Though Nguyen-Dinh will be released from quarantine next week, she says she is concerned that something essential about her experience at the College will remain “lost” for the rest of the semester.

“I think that school as we knew it is not existent anymore,” she said.


Remarking upon the drastic measures taken by China and other east Asian countries, Shen said he believes that China’s coronavirus measures have effectively limited the first wave outbreak. Shen observed that while earlier media reports seemed to portray China’s measures as “draconian,” now, countries across the globe are taking similar steps to slow the pandemic.

Germany is one such imitator, tightening social regulations to combat the spread of COVID-19. Similar to “shelter in place” orders in effect in areas across the U.S., restrictions in Germany allow people to leave their homes for essential actions, such as buying groceries or medicine. The country recently imposed police-enforced bans on public gatherings greater than two.

After returning home from Harvard, David A. Paffenholz ’22 said he was tested for COVID-19 in Germany last Tuesday. The results came back negative, he said.

“One thing I think Germany has been particularly good about is testing a lot of people and making that available,” Paffenholz said. “I was actually also tested on Tuesday of last week, I was sick with a bit of a fever. Turned out negative, thankfully, but I was impressed by the organization that they had.”

Paffenholz said he has nonetheless imposed a self-quarantine, being particularly careful to avoid older family members.


Veronica I. Nutting ’21, who landed in Buenos Aires two Saturdays ago, was required to undergo a mandatory quarantine as an international traveler. Because Argentina announced the mandatory quarantine for incoming travelers a few days prior to her departure, Nutting said she felt mentally prepared for the isolation.

According to Nutting, Argentina is “taking a more proactive, preventative approach” to combatting the virus. This includes mandating citizens to remain at home except for exceptional trips to the grocery store or pharmacy.

Argentina has also imposed restrictions on travel beyond a certain radius from each resident’s home. Nutting said that if she wanted to take her dog for a walk, she could only go a limited distance before violating the regulations.

“Something that a lot of my friends in the U.S. are able to do is that here, we are not able to go out for example, to go on a road,” Nutting said. “So it is more strict in that way.”

“I haven’t heard of any super specific cases of escalating too far. But I think people here are being very respectful and following the quarantine,” she added.

Nutting said that quarantine has been “totally okay” for her, adding that she, too, expected “pretty early” in the semester to face restrictions whenever she returned home. But she said she still feels the absence of the stability that Harvard’s setting offers.

“I think I appreciate the way things were much more now,” Nutting said, “And [quarantine] has definitely undermined a sense of stability and certainty that I maybe had two weeks ago, but I think that’s probably for the better.”


While some international students immediately knew what to expect in the wake of the College’s order to leave campus, others reported facing sudden, drastic changes to their travel plans and expectations for the remainder of the semester.

Soon after receiving the notice to vacate, Chihiro Ishikawa ’21 made arrangements to spend the remaining weeks of the spring semester in Connecticut. She left Harvard on Sunday, March 15, and remained at a friend’s house for five days, constantly contacting her family and facing personal doubt as to whether she made the right choice.

“I started worrying that I should return to Japan because I started hearing that travel would be really difficult. I also got to the mental state where I really wanted to see my family again and stay close with them during this time,” Ishikawa said.

After a series of rapid decisions and last-minute bookings, Ishikawa arrived in Japan five days ago. She is currently living with her family and is maintaining self-quarantine in her room. She said she is grateful that her professors have been “flexible” and “caring” throughout the tumult.

“My educators have been really considerate and flexible about class, and in that instance, I’ve been on the extremely lucky side,” Ishikawa said. “We have no shortage of food, I have electricity and wifi, so I’m really grateful for those things and I definitely think that I’m lucky.”

Looking Forward

With travels concluded and class resumed, remote learning has posed a flurry of unique challenges for international students living in vastly different time zones and residential situations, they say — from altering class schedules, to communicating with professors, to maintaining mental health.

“I get really overwhelmed coordinating classes with people all over the world. It takes a lot of emails,” Nguyen-Dinh said. “Something I think would be really helpful would be a way for us to be easily in touch with the course staff. Something quick and tangible in order to clear confusion quickly without going through the hassle of emailing to figure out office hours and dates.”

For Paffenholz, who is working six hours ahead in Germany, classes have shifted towards the evening. He says the change hasn’t posed a problem for his schedule, adding that he switched out of a 7 p.m. section which would have met at 1 a.m. his time.

Shen, who is 12 hours ahead of Eastern Time, said he feels fortunate that most of his classes are at 10:30 p.m. his time, allowing him to go to bed by midnight. He added that he does have a few early morning sections, and that attending office hours has been difficult, but that he hopes to be able to manage.

“I do have a 1:30 a.m. section and a 3 a.m. section coming up in the next few days, so we’ll see how that goes,” Shen said. “I think since it’s once or twice a week, I should be fine. But I’m not saying anything is set in stone yet.”

Beyond logistical worries, Nguyen-Dinh said that she “is optimistic” that the “intention” to maintain a sense of community will conquer any mounting stress posed by the experience of taking class from government quarantine.

“It’s productive, I’m able to go to class, but it feels very unreal. I cannot make sense that I’m going to school while sitting in a quarantine bed all day,” Nguyen-Dinh said.

“On the bright side, despite being halfway around the world, I’m still able to keep in touch with my friends,” she added. “We write letters, and call, and send messages. There’s still community. And there’s still an effort to continue the community we had on campus. That’s something that I find really uplifting.”

—Staff writer Matteo N. Wong can be reached at matteo.wong@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter at @matteo_wong.

—Staff writer Luke A. Williams can be reached at luke.williams@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter at @LukeAWilliams22.

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