Reporting from U.S. Campuses: Life Under the Covid-19 Pandemic

The Covid-19 virus pandemic has drastically changed all aspects of our lives worldwide over the past year. In the United States, thanks to the highly effective vaccines, we are beginning to see a gradual return to “normal”.  

Several current and former FUTI scholarship recipients have shared with us their experience of the pandemic in U.S. universities. 

One scholar’s remark, quoted here is especially encouraging as he says that, ”For me personally, the whole experience was likely net positive, possibly better than it might have been without the pandemic.” We are pleased to note that they all managed to live a constructive life working towards a promising future, despite the constraints imposed by the pandemic.

—FUTI Newsletter Editorial Staff

Kazuaki Iwabuchi
Columbia University, Teachers College, Ph.D. Program, Department of International and Transcultural Studies

My name is Kazuaki Iwabuchi, and I am a third-year Ph.D. student at Columbia University Teachers College. I hope that everyone is well despite the prolonged Coronavirus pandemic. Last year, it seemed that Japan was handling the Covid-19 crisis relatively well, but this year some concerning news have been appearing with the slow rollout of vaccines and the extension of a state of emergency. I returned to Japan in March when New York was quickly becoming the epicenter of the pandemic, and have since stayed and continued my research in Japan. I was originally planning on conducting research in Japan for the summer of 2020 anyway, so in a sense my schedule was moved slightly ahead.

Direct impact of the pandemic

The direct impact of the coronavirus pandemic on my studies is that the Ethics Board of the University did not grant me permission to undertake fieldwork and thus the direction of my research became limited. Since my original objective was to research Japan’s education policy and policy process, and studying policy documents and reference was central to my research, I was not greatly affected by the Ethics Board’s decision. However, those whose research involved surveying children with disabilities or refugees and working with organizations in developing countries where the coronavirus was raging, were forced to change the direction of their research. Since the effect on my studies was minimal, I feel fortunate in these trying times.

Positive effects of the pandemic

A benefit that arose from the coronavirus pandemic was the use of online communication tools such as Zoom becoming mainstream. As a result I was able to be involved in two international project opportunities. One was with Prof. Reimers at Harvard University who was comparing education in different countries amidst the coronavirus pandemic, and the other was with Prof. Byram of Durham University (in United Kingdom) who was comparing the process of attaining a doctoral degree in different countries. With Prof. Reimers, I wrote chapters for a book using information obtained from feedback online with teams in North and South America, and Asia. With Prof. Byram, we started with examining methods of analysis, held numerous meetings online, and planned an agreement with each of the countries. These international projects surely existed before the Covid-19 pandemic, but I feel that with the wider use of online meetings, the hurdle has been lowered.

Conferences now take place online more than ever, and without the need to physically convene in the US, many more people are able to participate. For the first time, at the conference of Comparative and International Education Society of America, they were able to hold a session for the southeast Asia section where researchers from countries in southeast Asia were able to give presentations. Executive members of the southeast Asia section were also able to attend from Japan (myself), Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand. Even though it was online, there was a sense of unity, and I felt that there was a potential to grow a community even remotely. I aspire to continue this virtual unity by broadcasting interviews with researchers in the field and holding online events that are open to everyone without international borders.

Natsuki Furukawa
Johns Hopkins University, Ph.D. Program, Biomedical Engineering

1.     How/where did you continue your work/study during the pandemic? Did you encounter any problems or unexpected positive developments in your situation? 

I was a 1st year Ph.D. student at Johns Hopkins when the pandemic broke out. As an experimental biologist, my research project halted during lockdown. During that period, I wrote a review article discussing the potential of peptide therapeutics for cancer treatment. It was a good opportunity to learn more about the field and think about research plans for the future.

The biggest problem I faced was maintaining motivation to work. Since I couldn’t do experiments, I was just reading and writing all day long at home, and lost concentration easily. I learned the importance of switching gears between rest-mode and work-mode by commuting to the lab.

One positive aspect of the pandemic was that I attended more seminars than I used to. Since all the seminars were online, I was able to attend many seminars, including those that were not my expertise. I am curious about how the academic society would deal with the technology after the pandemic.

2.    Now that it looks like the pandemic is going to be under control at least in the US, what is your expectation/hope for the academic year 2022? Do you anticipate any change in the university education program?

The classes in the fall semester would mostly be in person at Johns Hopkins. I think this is good because many activities can be done only in person and students would concentrate more. On the other hand, we experienced the convenience of online lectures during the pandemic. Some in-person activities might be substituted by online activities. For example, in a class in which I was a TA, we set up a reservation system for office hours and answered questions from students by Zoom meetings. I thought this was more efficient than the conventional office hours in which the TAs/lecturers just wait in rooms for students to come in. Students don’t have to come to the classroom for quick questions, and the TAs/lecturers can know who is coming beforehand. Definitely, the final exam should be done in person as the hardest part of online lectures was to prevent and detect cheating. Another point I realized was that online lectures might be beneficial for elderly professors who have issues with their health. I expect that as we acknowledge the advantages and disadvantages of online lectures, the lectures will become a hybrid of in-person and online sessions.

In my opinion, getting to know the lecturers and classmates is an essential part of attending lectures in universities. This is a culture we missed during the pandemic, and I hope that these social activities will come back. I myself haven’t made many friends during the pandemic and I hope I can get to know new students/scientists in the next semester.

Ayano Sato
Columbia University, Teachers College, Masters Program, Arts Administration

Since the university facilities were reopened in Fall 2020, I continued my research in the libraries and PC rooms at my university. Thanks to the university’s strict protocols and guidelines for returning to the campus, including taking safety training and providing the COVID-19 PCR diagnostic test results, I was able to proceed with my research without any problems.

In terms of the interviews for my thesis, I was able to conduct interviews with arts administrators and educators in multiple countries within a short period because of Zoom. I also participated in several online international workshops even during the semester.

The university announced its decision to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for all students to start in-person classes in Fall 2021.

Taro Kunimitsu
University of Chicago, Harris School of Public Policy

The COVID-19 pandemic made my experience at the University of Chicago totally different from what I expected. With most courses transitioning to remote learning after spring 2020, I have attended courses from my apartment in Chicago since, as with many other peers around the world, I have gained mastery in remote learning technologies such as Zoom and Teams.

One positive development I felt happened as a result of this learning format shift was the spread of flipped classrooms. Flipped classrooms, where students watch pre-recorded lectures before class and class time is spent on discussion, was of course a well-recognized active learning method from before the pandemic. But the pandemic made this format of teaching much easier, and more importantly, much more natural. Synchronous class times were spent much more efficiently, especially in technical topics that were difficult to grasp in one lecture. I hope this shift would have lasting effects on post-pandemic learning formats.

Dining out with friends (contributor: right back)

In addition to the above general benefits, I was personally and unexpectedly helped by the remote learning format. My wife, an evolutionary biologist, obtained a tenure-track faculty position at a university in Norway last year. When she started working in November, I was able to accompany her to Norway for two months without any interruption to my studies, thanks to remote learning. Other than time difference issues, I was able to take courses and do research almost as I would have done in Chicago. This experience made me recognize that higher education has huge under-explored possibilities. If done more flexibly, universities would be able to connect many more students around the world.

Of course, there were also a lot of missed opportunities due to the pandemic. The lack of in-person interactions made it difficult to build bonds between my peers and advisors. Motivating myself was sometimes difficult, due to the lack of separation between studies and daily life.

Still, for me personally, the whole experience was net positive, possibly better than it might have been without the pandemic. And finally, thanks to vaccination efforts in the US, I have been able to meet with my classmates in-person in the final days of my program. This has probably been the best reward for me after the long year of remote learning.

Fumiya Uchikoshi
Princeton University, Sociology, Ph.D. Program

There are many things in society that have changed with the Coronavirus pandemic. However, I have personally experienced at least two positive developments. One is that our department managed to increase its collaboration with undergraduate students. This year, in my research project with my academic advisor about the pandemic, we hired undergraduate students who had lost an RA position, and also worked with students who were taking a class on Japanese society. It was a uniquely enriching experience to work with Princeton undergraduates who oftentimes pursue a variety of promising careers after graduation.

The other is that we were able to organize research groups across universities and countries due to the extensive availability of online formats. My academic advisor at Princeton started a webinar series, “Inequality and Population in East Asia” for researchers from East Asia and North America. I was in charge of organizing the student-portion of the webinar for a year. It gave me a valuable opportunity to network with early career scholars in the field. In addition, I have organized a study group on gender disparities in post-high school careers of researchers in Japan. The group is about to start its activities, and I feel that it would be an important step in expanding my professional network.

We hear that Princeton is aiming to move to in-person classrooms next semester starting in the fall of 2021.This is welcome news. There are many reports that the socio-economically vulnerable group of people have been more severely affected by the pandemic. We are happy that students will be coming back to the campus. But we should make sure that everyone, including those belonging to vulnerable groups, has access to post-Covid19 opportunities.