Learning 12 Time Zones Away From Campus

Photo of Vee Zhu
Mike Lovett
Vee Zhu ’22

Vee Zhu ’22 first heard about the novel coronavirus in January from her parents, medical workers on the front lines in Wuhan, China.

Zhu’s hometown was forced into lockdown before any cases of the disease had been reported in the U.S. She still hasn’t been able to return home. “This is by far the longest I’ve been away from my family,” she says. And it’s unlikely she’ll be able to go back to Wuhan for another year; flights are very expensive and often canceled. For now, she’s living off-campus with friends, many of them also separated from loved ones thousands of miles away.

Caught in the midst of a global catastrophe, Brandeis students powered through, starting in mid-March when more than 2,400 vacated their dorms and finished the spring semester remotely. Only a few hundred students remained on campus — mostly international students unable to return to their home country, along with other students who, for a variety of reasons, could not continue their studies remotely.

Alex Losada ’22 says, for him, the downside of transitioning to remote learning showed itself quickly. “I didn’t have a space where I could focus on my classwork,” he says. “In the end, what I expected happened: I wasn’t as motivated and couldn’t retain a lot of the material.”

Back home in Singapore, Leah Fernandez ’22 took two Brandeis courses over the summer. Though the classes were recorded, she tried to attend live so she could participate in group work. Twelve time zones away from classmates, she was “basically nocturnal,” she says, getting by on plenty of caffeine.

Fernandez appreciated how well computer science professor Tim Hickey adapted his coursework to remote learning. “He did a great job of making the class interactive online, and using different programs and tools to make it feel really special,” she says.

Many students faced sudden financial difficulties. Aaron Portman ’22 was supposed to participate in a Justice Brandeis Semester, a summerlong experiential learning program. After it was canceled because of COVID-19, he signed up for two online courses. The JBS program would have been free, but the summer courses were not, so Portman delivered groceries 20 hours a week to cover the difference. “It was difficult at times,” he says. “But I grew to enjoy the work and definitely enjoyed the extra cash in my pocket.”

Despite the disruptions and difficulties, students also found ways to give back. Like other international students, German native Julia Bräuning ’23 worried about whether she would be allowed to return to the U.S. in the fall if she went home. Brandeis helped Bräuning and other international students with similar concerns with financial support or housing. Bräuning ended up spending the summer in North Carolina, advocating for international students suffering during the crisis, before returning to campus for the fall semester.

Leon Kraiem ’21, who says he believes the Trump administration was “weaponizing concern over public health to go after the most vulnerable people caught up in America’s immigration system,” volunteered at the Right to Immigration Institute, founded by Brandeis legal-studies lecturer Doug Smith and three Brandeis students, which trains students to provide legal assistance to immigrants.

Noah Zeitlin ’22, recognizing how hard the cancellation of traditional summer activities was for young children and their families, decided to create an outdoor, socially distanced, fun alternative — a photography camp.

Some students faced a job market thrown into chaos by a crippled economy and no clear path to recovery. “I worked really hard on more than 20 job applications and got a bunch of interviews, but nothing stuck,” says Martin Giuseppe DeLuca ’20. After graduating in late May, he moved back to his home in Wisconsin and, while working as a call representative, is deciding whether to pursue more education.

Other students were more fortunate, spending the summer doing jobs they loved. Roland Blanding ’21 interned at a law firm in Atlanta, where he focused on questions related to land use and zoning. Josh Feld ’22, who worked at Home Depot full time, was also able, thanks to a stipend from a Brandeis World of Work fellowship, to intern at Answer the Call, a nonprofit that provides support to the families of firefighters and police officers killed in the line of duty.

Reika Oshima ’21 spent her summer working at a Boston hospital — after contracting COVID-19 herself in March. “It felt strange going back to work,” she says. “But in the end, I was super grateful, because I was able to figure out that my real passion is hospital administration.” She wants to find ways to make the American health-care system work better, particularly for those who have traditionally been unable to afford care.

And Vee Zhu? She’s working as a research assistant for associate professor of economics Linda Bui, studying environmental economics. “The coronavirus has presented many challenges,” Zhu says. “But it hasn’t changed me or my mission at Brandeis — to learn and develop the tools to make the world a better and safer place for everyone.”

New York City native Isaac Rose-Berman is an editor at the Brandeis Journal of Politics and the captain of the table tennis club.