Into the Unknown: How college students around the world are coping with COVID-19

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A Filipino nursing student worries he’ll forget how to take vital signs. An Egyptian film student can’t shoot her final project she needs to graduate. A student in Barcelona tries to stay positive as her job applications go unanswered. The 15 snapshots below show how COVID-19 has universally disrupted the lives of graduating college students around the world. Their backgrounds are wildly different. But their experiences coping with the pandemic are strikingly similar. While some are passing the time at home reading and learning a new language, others are anxiously waiting to see when or whether they will receive their degree. Many had travel plans scuttled. A common theme we found throughout – from Uzbekistan to Trinidad and Tobago — was a palpable longing for certainty in a newly uncertain world. The profiles were reported and written by students in Stanford’s spring quarter Foreign Correspondence course.

Click on the points in the map to learn more about each graduating senior.

Aaliyah Folkes, 22, D’Abadie, Trinidad and Tobago

Aaliyah Folkes, 22, is mostly staying home in central Trinidad during the pandemic. She’s wrapping up her degree in management studies from the University of the West Indies in St. Augustine, Trinidad — doing most of her work online. “We not stressing too much,” she said about her family. “We just waiting until things blow over, and we could resume things.”

By: Astrid Casimire

In March, when Aaliyah Folkes celebrated her 22nd birthday at Las Cuevas Beach – a popular spot on Trinidad’s north coast –Trinidad and Tobago had only two cases of Covid-19 and things still felt relatively normal.

Since then, the number of confirmed cases in the Caribbean nation has grown to more than 100, and Folkes spends her days swimming in her family’s above-ground pool, watching television, reading, baking and tutoring her six-year-old nephew, Luke.

When Folkes went out for errands the last week of April, donning a cloth mask that her mother sewed, she recalled, “It felt forbidden. It’s like, what am I doing outside?”

“I don’t think I have the most worrisome problems,” Folkes added. “I just miss my friends. I miss going out.”

Folkes is preparing to take her final exams online as she wraps up a degree in management studies at the University of the West Indies in St. Augustine, Trinidad. She’s okay with the shift to online tests. It means less anxiety and a more relaxed environment.

Her post-graduation plans haven’t really changed. She’ll try to find a job — maybe teaching or working at an organization — and figure out how she can start her own business.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said. “I have a little anxiety there, but things would work out. Something has to work out.”

Mark Reyes, 21, Quezon, Infanta, Philippines

Nursing student Mark Reyes, 21, is completing his last semester of school in his family’s province, hours away from his university.

By: Vanessa Ochavilla

Mark Reyes thought when he left Manila in early March he would return to his apartment a week later. He didn’t think to turn off the lights. He left behind his skin-care products. The maroon-and-gold suit he had tailored for his graduation ball hung in the closet.

Then, just before Reyes was to return to complete his final semester as a nursing student at the University of Santo Tomas, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the capital city into lockdown until April 14. A revised order extended it to May 15.

There was still the last of two big nursing exams and his class retreat, which Reyes helped plan, where his classmates would play trust exercises and burn self-addressed letters. But like graduation, these too had been canceled.

When he talks about graduation, he feels tears welling up, “the sleepless nights, the panic attacks, the mental breakdowns – all those hardships will just be set aside.”

Worse, like his 44 nursing classmates, Reyes worries about losing out on critical hands-on training. Right now, he should be completing an intensive nursing practicum, which requires working eight-hour shifts in the clinic.

“It feels like I can’t take vital signs anymore,” he said.

In Infanta, a beach-lined province five hours from Manila, Reyes logs on to online classes, sitting outside to catch a breeze. He relies on an internet connection one-eighth the speed of the American average, and that cuts out with strong winds.

“I feel like I’m stuck,” he said.

Orjowan Tym, 21, Amman, Jordan

Orjowan Tym, 21, will graduate from the University of Jordan in June. While it’s still uncertain whether she and her classmates will have a commencement ceremony, she has her gown and sash prepared. “I honestly don’t think anything will stay the same after this pandemic,” Tym says. As for the future, she adds, “I hope it’s something good.”

By Emily Wilder

A lifelong lover of stories, Orjowan Tym studies English literature at the University of Jordan. Now, a senior graduating into a world reeling from coronavirus, she said, “I’m living some parts of the stories I used to read as a child.”

Before Jordan shut its borders, imposed a curfew and shuttered schools, Tym’s plan had been to graduate in the spring, save up to visit her sister in Canada, and apply to graduate programs. Now, she said, “everything is on pause.”

She’s still taking classes toward her degree, but now she’s doing her coursework at odd hours in the night from her family’s house in Amman. And while graduation hasn’t officially been canceled, it’s unclear when or if it will take place.

Although she experiences new challenges like unreliable internet and a minor case of cabin fever, she’s thankful that Jordan’s response to the pandemic was swift and comprehensive.

“Everything is under control,” she said.

The military-enforced measures are “very strict, but the numbers are very low.” She’s also observing other quiet, positive changes worldwide, like “the environment healing.” While her own future is still uncertain, the potential for progress to come from crisis, a lesson taken from her beloved books, keeps her hopeful.

“In stories, after something like this happened — the Spanish flu, for example — it’s a turning point in history where the world is never the same,” she said. “I hope it’s something good.”

Milo Reynolds, 22, Greater London Area, United Kingdom

“I’m on a fairly routine schedule: just wake up and work all day, basically,” said Milo Reynolds, 22, in London, United Kingdom.

By Abe Thompson

Milo Reynolds isn’t allowed in his house with the rest of the family since his brother is displaying symptoms of the coronavirus. Instead, he is sequestered in a small guest apartment at the end of the garden.

His family is taking isolation so seriously that he is the only member who is allowed to leave the premises, which he does every three weeks to collect groceries for the entire household.

The non-perishables are left in the car for three days as a precaution. The produce is moved to a mini-fridge in the garage. A tray of food is left for Reynolds at mealtimes.

“My sister or brother will bring the food, put it on a chair and send me a text when they’ve gone back to the house,” he said

Reynolds seems not to mind too much as he is mostly preoccupied with studying for his upcoming exams, the famous Greats of the Literae Humaniores course at Oxford.

“I’m on a fairly routine schedule: just wake up and work all day, basically,” he said.

Francesco Pinardi, 21, Milan, Italy

Francesco Pinardi, 21, is a senior at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, Italy. He battled an overwhelming sense of passivity when his first internship and his spring study abroad program at UCLA were both canceled in March. Pinardi swears that, in one way or another, he will eventually get to UCLA.

By Caroline Ghisolfi

Francesco Pinardi yearns to learn to say ‘yes’ to life unconditionally. But with grim news relentlessly clouding his days, he felt on the brink of giving in to an overwhelming passivity.

“I feel myself shutting down,” he thought more than once about waiting out the pandemic in the Italian Alps.

In March, while Pinardi’s hometown, Milan, buried hundreds of coronavirus victims every day, Pinardi anxiously awaited news from UCLA, where he’d been guaranteed a spot in a spring study abroad program.

Pinardi had reluctantly cut short his first internship at a corporate finance firm some weeks back to preserve his health for UCLA. He remained hopeful that the study abroad program would come through until it was canceled in late March.

“I was naive, then,” he said. “I used to think that once you pass that test or ace that interview, it’s all written down, sealed, secure.”

Pinardi swears that he will eventually get to UCLA. For the moment, he has returned to Milan, where he’s planning to stay for a Master’s degree after he graduates this June from Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore.

“Right now, I need certainty,” he said.

Giannis Koutromanis, 22, Military base near Chios, Greece

Giannis Koutromanis, 22, enjoys time by the ocean before the coronavirus pandemic kept him confined to base.

By Manuel Porras

Giannis Koutromanis hasn’t been outside the wire in weeks.

As he speaks, sentries order him to identify himself. He details how he is confined to the limits of a Greek military base near Chios. Like all eligible adult males in Greece, Koutromanis is completing his compulsory military service before he finishes his college education.

He explains that for a Greek person, quarantine measures are no easy thing since the culture revolves around seeing each another face to face, regularly visiting with family, and spending hours talking over dinner.

Once, visits to the nearby city were a daily occurrence. Now, they are only granted with special permission. His ten days of leave for Easter was canceled. He learns about the outside world through his friends, family, and girlfriend.

He completes his service in September and for now hopes for no change in plans. He is scheduled to complete his degree in theater studies in his hometown of Petras in early 2021, then make the move to Athens to take classes in sports journalism. He hopes to have a traditional graduation ceremony and celebration, but he knows it’s not likely at this point.

“If it is for the good of everyone, that’s okay,” he said.

Claudia de Larratea, 22, Mataró, Spain

Claudia de Larratea, 22, bides her time in her bedroom in Barcelona, Spain, before she graduates. Her graduation ceremony is still technically on hold.

By Cyrus Beschloss

On a good day, Claudia de Larratea reads and practices French on her family’s sunlit balcony as she rounds out her degree in marketing and social media at Tecnocampus Mataró in Mataró, a seaside city a 40-minute drive from Barcelona.

The good days are muted by Spain’s horrific battle with coronavirus, which has killed more than 26,000 in Spain – more deaths per-capita than the United States, France, Italy and the United Kingdom.

“Of course, I’m scared because a lot of businesses and enterprises are closed and will have problems to re-open,” de Larratea said.

She was supposed to graduate in July but hasn’t received communication from her university. In July, she was supposed to go to England to work for a month as a group leader for 40 kids participating in a summer exchange program before pivoting to permanent work. But the program was canceled. Her job applications haven’t produced any leads.

“So, being a student who has just graduated and is looking for a job right now with little experience doesn’t look good,” she said. Still, “I prefer to stay positive…and think that with the online courses I’m taking and everything, I will get a chance.”

Bakhodirov Davlatbek, 23, Tashkent, Uzbekistan

Before the coronavirus pandemic limited vehicle use in Uzbekistan, Bakhodirov Davlatbek, 23, loved driving around with his friends.

By Noah Cortez

Bakhodirov Davlatbek is a 23-year-old student from Uzbekistan, studying business administration at Westminster International University in Tashkent, the Central Asian country’s capital.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Davlatbek loved to spend his free time driving in his car with friends. But when Covid-19 hit, “All of the actions [that] I used to do stopped in one day,” he said. “Most of [the] people in Uzbekistan understood the condition and stayed home.”

Those who didn’t, were arrested or fined.

Davlatbek’s classes transitioned to Zoom, and he stayed at home with his family. Davlatbek says some of his classmates are very sad to finish their last year like this, while others are indifferent. He submitted his last exam on April 24 and is set to graduate.

Davlatbek fears a second wave of coronavirus, but he hopes that everything will be over by November, when his graduation ceremony is scheduled to take place.

“I hope that we will have it,” he said.

Luciana Wajner Saverin, 23, Herzliya, Israel

Luciana Wajner Saverin, 23, has remained positive despite the changing circumstances. She has been hunkering down in her mother’s apartment in Herzliya, Israel.

By: Anat Peled

Luciana Wajner Saverin didn’t expect to spend her senior year locked up in an apartment with her mother staring at Zoom for hours upon hours a day.

“It’s very, very sad for me to have it finish this way,” she says. “We work really hard to get to our final year and to have it be something and then to have it be on Zoom like every other class…it puts you down a lot.”

Israel initially took a tough approach to the virus, placing the entire country on what was essentially a full-on lockdown. Wajner Saverin has managed to maintain a positive attitude throughout and has kept herself busy with home workouts and cooking.

It’s only when she talks about the big trip she had planned to South America for after graduation that her smile fades a little. Taking a big trip after the army is an Israeli tradition, but due to an injury, she never got to take hers.

The plan had been to buy a one-way ticket to Brazil and travel alone for several months. There was no plan B because she wanted to push herself out of her comfort zone. Unfortunately, the coronavirus came along.

Ghada El Sharony, 22, Cairo, Egypt

Ghada El Sharony, 22, maintains the corner office in her bedroom, working on personal projects as she waits to hear from her school about how to finish up the last few assignments and projects so she can earn her diploma.

By Nathaniel Jediah Stuart

Ghada El Sharony had only three classes and a short film standing between her and her diploma.

Now, El Sharony isn’t sure when she’ll get her degree.

By the beginning of March, El Sharony had begun to lay the groundwork for her short film, a final project required to graduate from the prestigious High Cinema Institute in Cairo, where she is one of eight students in her year.

Soon after, school officials told her not to come to school the next day. Then, in a Facebook group chat, her university instructed her classmates to make WhatsApp groups for each class and then went silent.

Weeks later, Egypt’s Minister of Education mandated essays instead of exams but said nothing about other projects like films. Resolute, El Sharony resolved to work on her remaining essays and to move on.

“Actually, I’m considering myself as a graduate now: I’m not going to wait for their certificate,” she said.

For now, she spends her days studying French and experimenting with film editing programs.

“I don’t have a problem with just having free time and working on myself and trying to watch more movies and read more [books] and more articles,” she said. “It’s good.”

She’s had another adjustment to make: she is working from two different homes since her parents just separated amid the pandemic.

“It’s a factor, I think, of not feeling really settled or at peace,” she said.

Rita Costa, 21, Bombarral, Portugal

Rita Costa, 21, catches up on class reading while cleansing her pores with a face mask from her parent’s deck in Bombarral, Portugal.

By McArdle Hankin

In the first week of March, fashion buyers gathered in a Paris warehouse to choose pieces for their stores. The models wore high heels, designer dresses –– and surgical face masks.

“We all thought it was over-the-top, but looking back, it was such a dangerous place, literally people from all over the world were packed into one room,” said Rita Costa, a five-foot-ten Portuguese model.

While she models internationally, Costa is also due to graduate from the University of Lisbon.

This summer, she planned to apply to graduate programs in international relations –– a degree that was inspired by a photoshoot in Malaysia.

“It was there I first heard Adhan [an Islamic prayer broadcast from speakers into the street], and it made me so curious, so I eventually declared my degree,” she said.

Due to COVID-19, Costa’s classes were canceled for a month before becoming virtual, a setback she believes will require her to reconfigure her plans and graduate a semester late.

“It is strange because I don’t even remember my last day at school,” she said. “It was a Friday. But it was totally normal. And now we haven’t been back.”

Nevertheless, she is diligent with her remote studies and spends most of the day behind her bedroom desk, beneath a window that looks onto a field –– a less-than-subtle reminder of her distance from the runway.

“Hopefully, things will get better soon, but until then, at least I have the goats and sheep to watch.”

Luseane Minoeti Valu, 24, Auckland, New Zealand

Luseane Minoneti Valu, 24, cherishes her time in her bedroom in Auckland, New Zealand, a space where she can rest.

By Thomas La Guardia

Luseane Minoeti Valu is completing her degree in sociology at the University of Auckland. Despite the struggles of quarantine, she hasn’t let any of them interfere with the things she loves the most and the goals she has for her future.

She continues to work part-time at LeVa, a non-profit organization whose mission is to “unleash the potential” and improve the lives of those in the Pasifika community. While maintaining a job to support her family, she tries her best to foster the relationships with her extended family as well. She has been able to keep in touch with many of them over social media.

Graduation hasn’t been canceled — it is planned for September — but Valu has decided to postpone participating in a ceremony until 2021 so that more of her family can attend.

Diego Cruz-Velasco, 24, Mexico City, Mexico

Diego Cruz-Velasco, 24, takes his medical classes from his bedroom, which also functions as his office, classroom and home cinema.

By McArdle Hankin

From the home desk where he is wrapping up his medical degree online, Diego Cruz-Velasco can see Avenida Reforma, one of Mexico City’s main avenues, which is famous for its tall buildings, parks, historical landmarks and traffic. Now, Cruz-Velasco describes it as “very tranquil.”

“Mexico City has run out of beer, and there is no traffic on Avenida Reforma. It’s almost not Mexico City,” said Cruz-Velasco, a medical student in his final year.

Since childhood, Cruz-Velasco has wanted to follow in his parents’ footsteps to become a doctor. At age 13, Cruz-Velasco stood behind his mother and stared calmly as she helped deliver a stranger’s baby. He was captured.

He expects to return to the hospital for classes in the coming weeks and isn’t afraid of returning to a more chaotic work environment. After graduation, he will spend a year in Civil Service, where he will practice in an underserved population in Mexico. Although he knows COVID-19 may come back and that the crowded hospitals may persist, he is eager to return.

“The hospital relaxes me,” he said. “It’s funny, but it’s true. The hospital makes me calmer.”

Emma Kay Tocci, 22, Jeju, South Korea

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Emma Kay Tocci, 22, headed to South Korea, where she had planned to relocate so she could enroll in a Korean language school.

By Andrea Chung

Emma Kay Tocci had a hard time adjusting to life in the United Arab Emirates when she moved there to attend New York University Abu Dhabi. So the Colorado native decided to create a video series that would ease future students into their new home.

The coronavirus hit as Tocci was editing the project. And while her university remains open, the strict social distancing rules made the campus seem foreign.

“It was just really disheartening to experience that,” she said.

So Tocci left for South Korea, where she had planned to relocate after the now-canceled graduation at the university in Abu Dhabi, to enroll in a Korean language school.

Upon arriving in South Korea, she was quarantined in a government facility in Chungju. Now, she is staying with a friend in Jeju before moving to Seoul.

“I’ve never been away from my family with no known date of return,” said Tocci, who decided against returning home to avoid putting her family at risk. Tocci believes her college experience has taught her to adapt quickly.

“I didn’t think I would be able to figure NYUAD out,” she said. “But I did.”

Yara Abdalla, 22, Khartoum, Sudan

Ahfad University for Women canceled classes in March, indefinitely postponing Yara Abdalla’s graduation. At 22, Abdalla is no stranger to disruption—the popular uprising that led to the ouster of President Omar al-Bashir last year forced her school to temporarily shut down just last spring. “Sudan is full of surprises,” she said.

By Emily Wilder

Yara Abdalla is surrounded by cardboard boxes. Her family has already sold their home in Khartoum. But as COVID-19 shut down the city, their planned move to Egypt is paused.

From her window, Abdalla can see an almost empty Bashir Elnefeidi Street, one of the Sudanese capital’s main thoroughfares. The city’s curfew begins at 1 p.m. in an attempt to curtail Sudan’s rapidly growing coronavirus caseload.

The 22-year-old studying psychology at Ahfad University for Women is no stranger to disruption — the popular uprising that led to the ouster of President Omar al-Bashir last year forced her school to shut down temporarily just last spring.

“Sudan is full of surprises,” she said.

In March, her university canceled classes and postponed graduation indefinitely. Unlike her brother, who “is suffering” through online courses using their unstable internet, she has no studies to keep her busy during the day. So, because it’s Ramadan, Abdalla has become nocturnal.

While she is happy to have more time to learn Spanish and read the Quran, she doesn’t know when she will complete her degree. And she’s concerned for her country.

“I don’t know how people are going to survive this honestly,” she said.


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