De-densifying of Harvard’s Campus: the International Student’s Perspective


De-densifying of Harvard’s Campus: the International Student’s Perspective

Following the College’s response to the COVID-19 epidemic, international students faced unprecedented challenges in making it home in what was, for some, their last week at college.




On Tuesday March 10, the Harvard College campus was shaken by President Bacow’s and Dean Khuranas’s announcement that the College would be transitioning to remote learning, with an extensive move-out of students required by the following Sunday at 5 p.m. Inevitably, such short notice spiralled the campus into turmoil, with the limited information and unprecedented action causing a high degree of uncertainty for all at the College. Yet nowhere was this uncertainty more heightened than in the international community on campus. For many international students, Cambridge has become a place to call home in the United States, and with flights back to their countries normally booked months in advance, the instruction to find flights in a matter of days in order to leave by Sunday seemed simply unreasonable. 

The College is home to 809 international students, making up roughly 12% of the undergraduate student body. Over 100 countries are represented, establishing the diverse student body that factors into Harvard’s “transformative experience” for the student. This catchphrase, coined by Dean Khurana, is used by the College to describe the four years an undergraduate spends at Cambridge, and such a phrase has never been so relevant to what Harvard students are currently facing. The position we find ourselves in today is unprecedented, and while we wish that world leaders had paid attention to Bill Gates’ illuminative Ted Talk in 2015 on the risks of pandemics to our modern society, it is most likely true that only such a “transformative experience” as the one we are currently living would have been sufficient to bring about the substantial social change that is desperately needed in our society.

While all students, faculty and supportive staff have had to modify their Harvard experience both rapidly and significantly over the last month, the Independent decided to speak to a variety of international students who have had their day-to-day lives significantly upended by the recent de-densifying of campus, to better understand how those who travel the furthest to gain their Harvard experience are adapting to this new way of learning. Initial support for international students was limited; indeed, the two emails that were sent by the administration before 9 a.m. on March 10 took the Harvard International Office (HIO) by surprise, causing the office to open early (they usually are not open to walk-ins until 11 a.m. on a typical Tuesday morning) to accomodate panicking international students. On-call advisors were even asking international students to spread the word among their friends about the various visa issues that had to be completed before leaving the US in lieu of an HIO email, which didn’t arrive in students’ inboxes until later that evening. Compounding the clear lack of transparency and communication surrounding College support with the impending announcement of a travel ban, little was initially done to calm international students’ worries. In the end, Harvard provided support both financially and logistically to its student body in the form of subsidized storage and flight costs, yet the 48-hour period following the de-densifying announcement was little short of unmanageable chaos for many of the international student body. 

An added complexity was the uncertainty of  COVID-19’s spread for those who would be returning to regions harder hit than the United States. Dean Khurana’s initial email encouraged those who had “concerns about leaving campus” to contact their resident dean, simply putting another hurdle in the way of getting a definitive answer on whether remaining on campus was a possibility for such students. As it transpired, there were multiple reasons for why a student, international or domestic, could petition to remain on campus, ranging from familial to health to technological concerns, yet initial understanding surrounding the matter was limited for students and faculty alike. The lack of transparency and apparent lengthy administrative process dissuaded many international students from petitioning for this exemption from eviction. 

Following the rapid five-day de-densifying process, the experiences of international students throughout the following two weeks have been both varied and assorted; Harvard students are now spread all over the world, yet continue to be brought together by the unbelievably well-performing Zoom, inexhaustible memes from the “Harvard Memes for Elitist 1% Tweens” Facebook page and Dean Khurana’s reassurances via email subject-line that “Our Journey Together Continues.” The Independent decided to reach out to students from a variety of different countries (including England, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Germany) to better understand the students’ own experience of the last few days on campus as well as their countries’ approaches to COVID-19. 

Not all international students, however, managed to make the trip home. Maddie Earle ‘20, from New Zealand, chose to stay in Indiana in the US for the foreseeable future, explaining her rationale with two main reasons. First, having applied for her Optional Practical Training (OPT) visa for future American employment a couple of weeks ago, Earle said that she had to wait for her documentation to come through before leaving the country, otherwise “you won’t get back in [to the country] for your job.” Secondly, Earle explained that she “would’ve been taking all [her] classes from 1 a.m. to 9 a.m. everyday due to time difference” if she had returned home to New Zealand. Time difference is something that is proving to cause problems for both international and domestic students alike as classes convert to online teaching. While those on the West Coast face getting up at 6 a.m. for early morning classes, others on the opposite side of the world face a shift to nocturnality if they are to sit into live Zoom classes. 

For others, permission was granted for staying on campus by the nature of what or where they would be returning to if they were to go home. The Independent spoke to Sammy Murrell ‘21, another New Zealander, who applied for on-campus housing through the petition process set up by the College. Murrell explained how she was “incredibly grateful” that the College allowed her to stay on campus, adding that,
“The couple of days between submitting the exception request and receiving the approval notification were stressful” as she waited to hear whether her request would be granted or not. Murrell applied for an exception as her WiFi connection at home is not the most reliable, and in a similar vein to Earle’s opinion, the time difference would not have been conducive to a normal learning environment. Murrell now finds herself in Adams swing housing, and spoke of how “HUDS and other staff who are working to keep this place going have been absolutely incredible,” showing how Harvard life has continued, albeit with large-scale changes in place, following the de-densifying of campus.

For those who did manage to make it home, it was often a race against time to make it back into their home country before it was too late. Sam Monkley ‘21, also from New Zealand, spoke of how he got one of the last flights into the country before they closed its borders. Monkley explained, “Only a few days later New Zealand announced a full country lockdown as well as the refusal of entry to all international travellers, which in a lot of cases were those who called New Zealand home.” While his initial concerns may have been about how to pack his “single bag limited to 50lbs” for 6 months, larger issues of making it back into New Zealand in time soon prevailed. 

Others also experienced this rush to get back home as measures stepped up around the globe. Julia Smits, a first year student from the Netherlands, explained how US governmental decisions persuaded her to change her flight to an earlier date. “Initially, when we heard the news on Tuesday, I booked a flight for Sunday, so I’d have ample time to pack and say goodbye,” Smits explained. However, following Trump’s announcement late Wednesday night, March 11, about banning flights from Europe into America from the following weekend onward, Smits’ mind was changed about when it would be best to fly. As Smits described: “Even though the flight on Sunday would depart and not enter the US, I was afraid that my flight would get canceled, because of a potential shortage on planes,” meaning that she had to pack her bags and say goodbye to her friends all within a couple of hours on Thursday. Many other international students were left in precarious positions by Trump’s announcement of a travel ban, with Constantin Zoske ‘21, explaining how “there was a huge spike in prices [for flights] after Trump announced the travel ban which made it pretty expensive for a lot of Europeans to fly home.” Zoske made it back to Europe, yet not quite to his home country of Germany, instead staying in Portugal with his parents for the foreseeable future as both Germany and Portugal currently remain in lockdown. 

The global enforcement of lockdown has been felt keenly by international students who managed to make it home, as their lives have been significantly impacted by government interventions similar to those in the US, in an attempt to enforce social distancing and help flatten the curve of infections and deaths from COVID-19. George Cozens ‘21 returned to England to find that the following day lockdown was established, so that now “only essential services are open and you can leave once a day for exercise.” Smits described a newly-instated fine of 400 euros that has been implemented in the Netherlands for anyone who gathers outside in groups, while a 6 feet distance must be maintained between individuals in supermarket stores, with both rules being upheld until June 1. Similar restrictions have been placed in countries all around the world, and consequences are being felt not only at the individual, but also at the broader economic level as non-essential businesses are being forced to close by both government ruling and the need of their workers to self-isolate. 

The economic uncertainty that these conditions are creating have spillover effects for the Harvard College community, with many students’ summer plans looking to be under threat as collateral damage from the impacts of COVID-19. Constantin spoke of how he has a friend “whose internship in New York will be virtual and shortened,” providing a rare example of early, indicative action concerning the fate of summer internships. Others are less fortunate to have heard from employers so early, with many remaining unaware of how their internship will now work out. Adding in the complexities of applying for summer visas in the newly virtual world makes summer work experience in America seem significantly less tantalizing to any international students who have an internship on the cards. For other students who were dependent on the last couple of months at school for securing a work experience placement, the prospect of their summer now hangs in the balance. For Cozens, this uncertainty is clear, as he explains, “My summer was just starting to come together as I was looking for some work in the art industry. That’s all to one side now; as much as I’d like to do something, who knows when everything will be back to normal. I’ll probably just end up gardening.” 

From all the accounts taken from international students, it is clear that their lives reflect the uncertainty, distortion and unpredictability that the world has been thrown into by the COVID-19 epidemic. While we continue to adjust to this new way of living and learning for the foreseeable future, it is clear that Harvard students, both international and domestic, continue to hold to the core values of Harvard, even when found thousands of miles from Cambridge. The understanding of the need to sacrifice daily routines for those who may be more vulnerable, the importance of the continuation of learning and the imperative to support others all speak more loudly today than ever before, and remind us that as a Harvard community we hold a level of influence on how we choose to emerge from this period, for better or for worse. Only if this time is taken constructively, in critical evaluation of where we are heading as a society, can we begin to look ahead to the future in the hope that we may listen to Bill Gates’ next Ted Talk a little more closely.


Mimi Tarrant ‘21 ( would like to thank her disproportionately large share of international friends for responding surprisingly quickly to her requests for their stories from the last couple of weeks. Self-isolation helps for getting quick responses apparently.