Three international grad students succeed in their studies despite significant pandemic-related barriers.
While all students’ lives were affected by the pandemic, international students faced unique challenges. This is the story of three students from different countries entering ISE as graduate students in 2020, and how they succeeded despite the pandemic.
When Rashid Anzoom left his home in Bangladesh and arrived on the University of Illinois campus in January of 2020, there were rumblings of something happening with a virus.
“But we thought it was going to be a local issue in China, not a global issue,” Anzoom says.
Little did he know—or anyone for that matter—that the world would soon shut down, and he would find himself isolated in a new culture, a new country, and a new school. He was just starting his PhD in ISE, and this was the first time he had ever lived away from his home in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh.
Once everything shut down in March, Anzoom says the campus became like a ghost town, with the American students returning home to take classes remotely. Some international students remained on campus, but the lockdown made it difficult to get to know each other.
Around that time, the challenge for Vincent Hoff was getting back home to Germany. Having previously completed his undergraduate degree in ISE, he was in the States visiting some U of I friends when the airports started shutting down in March of 2020. He was due to start a new job back in Germany on March 15, and he just made it.
“When I left for Germany, it must have been the last day or second-to-last day that they were letting people fly out of O’Hare Airport,” Hoff says. “If I had not been able to fly home, I wouldn’t have been able to start my job in time.”
Hoff successfully made it back to Germany to work for Prysmian Group, a leading producer of cables. But not long after he returned home, he learned he had been accepted for the ISE master’s program at Illinois in the fall. In Germany, new employees are given three to six months to decide whether they want to stay with a job, so Hoff said farewell to cables and planned to return to Illinois to begin his master’s in the fall of 2020.
By that time, however, COVID-19 restrictions prevented him from coming to campus in person, so he joined the thousands who attended classes from home.
Meanwhile, from her home in northern China, Evelyn Ma also began her graduate studies in ISE during the fall of 2020, and she also had to attend online. Working on a PhD, she found that one of the most difficult challenges during her first semester was the time difference.
According to Ma, her professors went out of their way to try to find a time for exams that suited students from all across the globe. But despite their best efforts, she says the exams often wound up being held in the middle of the night or very early morning in China.
Anzoom says the challenges of working on his PhD on campus during the pandemic were “multifaceted. I had to adapt to a new lifestyle and also a closed lifestyle.” Meeting people was further complicated because Anzoom began his PhD in the spring semester, while most doctoral students came during the previous fall and were able to meet each other at ISE events.
Happily, he eventually made friends with other students from Bangladesh, and he says he got tremendous support from his two advisers, Rakesh Nagi and Chrysafis Vogiatzis, as well as the ISE staff. Hoff also says he was given constant support by his adviser, Carolyn Beck. “Dr. Beck made a big difference in my experience of grad school, especially remote-learning. She always made time when I needed it, and she was always checking in with me.”
Assistant Director for Graduate Programs Lauren Redman says, “Our faculty were very supportive of our students during the quick transition to fully online, and remained supportive of them throughout. In the Grad Programs Office, we held online engagement opportunities routinely so that students could connect and socialize. We also held in-person events when safe — we had an ice cream social outside, a graduate student mixer in a very large room so we could spread out, and several in-person, smaller seminars to learn about our faculty and the research they conduct. We have tried as much as possible to make sure our students know we care about them both academically and socially.”
Ma and Anzoom, both PhD students, found that the pandemic complicated the process of finding an adviser for their doctoral research. However, Ma says an ingenious platform called Spatial Chat, provided by ISE, made it much easier than it might have been otherwise.
Using Spacial Chat, ISE held an online event for first-year and second-year PhD students, in which professors introduced their research programs one by one, she explains. Then, students could talk with professors in a virtual room, where every person was represented by an icon. By moving your icon from place to place in this virtual room, students could have conversations that mimicked what it might be like in person.
“If you click your own icon and move it closer to another icon, that user’s voice will get louder and louder,” she says. “It’s exactly like if you’re in person and you walk closer to another person. Their voice will get louder.”
In addition, if you move your icon away from a cluster of other icons, you can no longer hear them talking, as if you have walked away from a group in person. “This was extremely helpful,” Ma says.
Through this online event, she connected with an ISE professor, who then referred her to a professor doing research that fit her interests. That researcher became her adviser.
In addition to getting vital help from her adviser, Ma says Lauren Redman, ISE’s assistant director for graduate programs, helped her navigate classes during the pandemic. When Ma realized she had taken an unusually heavy load for her first semester, she says, “I was quite anxious.” But Redman helped her work through the process of lightening her load.
Hoff finally came to campus in the spring of 2021, but it almost didn’t happen, because he couldn’t renew his visa when the American embassy in Frankfurt shut down due to COVID-19.
When the embassy in Frankfurt finally reopened, Hoff drove five hours there and carried a large batch of documents from station to station—a long, grueling process. But he renewed his visa just in time. The next day, the American embassy shut down again because of COVID-19 and didn’t reopen for several months. If his appointment had been one day later, he wouldn’t have made it to Illinois for the spring of 2021 semester.
As the campus began to open up to in-person learning, all three of the students—Hoff, Anzoom, and Ma—found it a breath of fresh air.
Hoff says attending class in person has made it easier to motivate himself. “When I’m in class in person, I talk to other students, and if I’m stuck on a problem, they can push me in the right direction,” he says.
Anzoom, meanwhile, was able to break out of pandemic isolation by volunteering with ISE departmental activities, such as orientation, tours, and various meet-and-greet events. In the process of helping others make connections, he has been able to make friends and has gotten to know most of the people in the department.
In December of 2021, he also had a chance to travel back to Bangladesh—his first visit in two years.
Now that Ma is attending classes in person, she says, “We can finally meet each other face to face.” She studies with a group of several women, who have their desks adjacent to one another. They also have lunch together, go on walks during study breaks, and take time for bubble tea—a popular Chinese beverage that includes milk, tea, and various flavorings.
As she says, working alongside her friends “is good for both study and life.”