With the COVID-19 pandemic looming large in the United States, international students at Syracuse University faced an unpredictable dilemma. As campus instruction shifted to a remote learning environment after spring break, many international students undertook the gauntlet of airline travel, accompanied by the uncertainty of the virus’ impact on their countries and whether they would be placed in quarantine when they reached home. Others remained in Syracuse, distant from family and friends and not knowing when they could return home.
We reached out to two undergraduates and two graduate students, so they could share their stories about this unprecedented time. While they have all adjusted to completing their coursework for the semester online and other changes in their lives, they also have remained passionate about their interests that led them to Syracuse University.
An Encouraging Voice Amid Pandemic Fears
Yajie “Lannie” Lan ’24 was far from her home in Chengdu, in the Chinese province of Sichuan, when the new coronavirus struck Wuhan last fall. The unsettling news inspired the first-year School of Architecture student to write an inspirational song and create an accompanying music video, posted on YouTube . Lan is recognized as a student leader in the School of Architecture and her community-building skills were evident as she pieced the project together, collaborating with two friends from home who were also studying in North America, as well as friends on campus who shared their music and video production expertise. “The three of us had been playing music together before,” Lan says. “When the coronavirus broke out, we were deeply concerned about our motherland. As Chinese students studying abroad, we hoped to use our strength to convey the care and blessing to our home country in song.”
The song opens gently with, “I want to let my heartbeat / Green grass under the snow / And rainbow after the storm / Embrace you / I want to let the romantic cherry blossoms / Flowing River / And precious tears / Embrace you.”
As the beat picks up, Lan begins to rap, “It’s not a natural disaster but people recklessly break the rules / And bury the truth / We hope that we will never forget this crisis / Because unarmed, innocent people are inflicted / Let’s cross the bleak snowfields / To search for the lake of life / Looking at the same sky…”
The song juxtaposes the darkness of the COVID-19 crisis with the importance of being kind, having courage and supporting one another, with the message that we will get through the pandemic together. The video opens with a “social experiment” designed to combat stereotyping and harassment of Chinese Americans and others of Asian descent. It features Lan’s friend Chenhui “Peipei” Liu ’23, blindfolded and in a face mask, standing at various locations on campus with a sign reading, “#FIGHT VIRUS, NOT US…#A hug in exchange for a word of encouragement!” She receives embrace after embrace. Later in the video, Lan is seen recording in a Newhouse School studio. The video closes with students, faculty and staff holding signs with Chinese characters and saying in Mandarin, “Wuhan be strong! China be strong!”
In sharing a LinkedIn post about the song and video, School of Architecture Dean Michael Speaks wrote, “Lannie is a talented writer and gifted performer as well as one of our truly brilliant freshman architecture students. She is an inspiration to me and to us all.”
Lan says the project took a month to complete and with COVID-19 now a pandemic, she says, “Under the community of human destiny, we should encourage each other, and we dedicate this song to the world.”
Before spring break, Lan joined several other first-year students in asking Chinese students to donate masks, so everyone could wear one en route home. Her selflessness is not a surprise, since Lan’s campus activities include being a peer advisor, student ambassador and member of the Jiuge Chinese Classical Culture Association.
Now home in Chengdu, Lan says although the virus is there, she is encouraged that the number of new cases is on a downward slope. She is enjoying her classes through remote learning and is keeping in touch with friends still in Syracuse. “Most of them know how to cook, so they are living well,” she says.
When asked what stands out most about this time of crisis and how people are responding, Lan says, “Many people are sharing kindness—which makes those who have no good intentions realize that we will never remain silent and will be more united than ever.”
A Filmmaker’s Perspective
The journey home to Mumbai, India, from Syracuse amid the COVID-19 crisis was “partially surreal” for Saachi Jain ’22. Amid the uncertainty of what was ahead, Jain says it was mentally and emotionally challenging for her and friends from India to pack up and store their belongings and leave campus in March. They also worried how their return to India would unfold. “We were afraid about what would happen when we landed in India,” she says. “We heard people returning from the U.S. were being quarantined in hospitals, but the process was easier than we thought, and we got home without any real difficulty.”
Then, again, if there’s anyone who may make the most of a surreal experience, it could be Jain. As a film major at the Department of Transmedia in the College of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA), she can appreciate experiences beyond the usual. She also says that, as an international student, doing film work in the United States gives her the opportunity to share her creative vision with an entirely different audience. “I’m attracted to the sheer power the language of film has, to give platforms to voices that matter, and tell stories that change people’s lives,” she says. “I approach film as a passion, a hobby, but also a responsibility to give a unique voice to communities, and society as we know it.”
Jain was attracted to the VPA program because it “steers away from conventional expectations that other film schools may have for their students,” she says. “VPA allows students to foster their own voice and tell stories in the most comfortable way possible. The structure of the program enables students from all backgrounds to find their purpose in this medium.”
VPA allows students to foster their own voice and tell stories in the most comfortable way possible. The structure of the program enables students from all backgrounds to find their purpose in this medium.
Since returning home, Jain has maintained her enthusiasm. She says her professors have been understanding of the time difference and access to equipment, and she credits the University for doing its best to accommodate students’ needs. Her schoolwork has mainly been weekly assignments with a few online lectures mixed in. “I really enjoy attending my online discussions and lectures with all my studio and film professors,” she says. “They’ve left us largely independent and, again, accommodated our needs perfectly.”
For one class, Filmmaking Modes: Fiction/Hybrid, Jain created a three-part narrative series about a couple living in a dystopian environment. “I wanted to highlight the influence an external environment can have on two individuals, and how their dynamic changes as time passes by. I enjoy part-surrealist filmmaking so this was the perfect opportunity to execute something like this. I asked my parents to act as well, so it’s a great distraction from quarantine since we all enjoy it together,” says Jain, whose mother, Shibani Jain, is a member of the VPA Council.
This summer, Jain had hoped to immerse herself in Syracuse Abroad’s Italian Film Studies and Filmmaking program in Bologna, which features the world-renowned Cinema Ritrovato film festival, but the program was cancelled because of the pandemic. Jain had looked forward to joining friends in the program and learning about Italian cinema, but says, “Maybe next summer!”
On campus, Jain is involved with The International, a publication created for and produced by international students, and supplements her film interests as a member of Delta Kappa Alpha (DKA), a professional cinematic fraternity. “DKA was the first real community that I was a part of in Syracuse, and has shaped my college experience completely,” she says. “It has been the most rewarding experience in every single way, and if there’s one thing I really look forward to going back to, it’s all my brothers.”
Jain appreciates the sense of community that she has experienced at Syracuse University, saying it “provides a sense of belonging no matter where you come from.” During her time at Syracuse, she has grown fonder of the campus, community and people—and looks forward to new experiences. “What I’ve enjoyed the most is the process of learning about myself, and growing along with my fellow peers and getting to know each other as friends and as professionals in the future,” she says. “I can confidently say that the people I’ve met will prove to be very valuable to me in the future, as much as they are right now. The environment allows for great friendships and even greater memories.”
Preparing for Museum Work
When Zvipozvashe Ngwenya G’21 decided to explore graduate programs in museum studies , she had never heard of Syracuse University. But through internet research from her home in Harare, Zimbabwe, she learned about the University’s program, applied and was accepted. “I had a passion for museums,” says Ngwenya, who earned undergraduate degrees in archaeology and history and an honors degree from the University of Zimbabwe. “We didn't have specific courses or degrees related to museums, so I thought obviously in America they might have a museum studies degree.”
Ngwenya enrolled in the two-year museum studies graduate program at the School of Design in the College of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA) last fall. But when a scholarship she’d been promised from a church in Zimbabwe didn’t materialize, she received financial support through the VPA Dean’s Fund and Hendricks Chapel . The situation could have been overwhelming, but Ngwenya is grateful for the help she received, enabling her to settle in and focus on her studies. “Everything is fine for me,” she says. “I have good classmates, too. Whenever I need help, they are there to help me, because they understand that I’m international and English is not my first language. Whenever I need clarity outside classes, they are always there for me.”
When the University made the transition from residential to remote instruction in March because of the COVID-19 outbreak, Ngwenya says the initial adjustment was challenging since the museum studies program emphasizes experiential learning and she missed attending classes and going to the library. “My department has been doing a lot of things to make it as good as possible,” Ngwenya says, noting she and her classmates stay in touch through group texts.
In her Museum Installation and Preparation course, she says Andrew Saluti, assistant professor of museum studies and program coordinator, uses Blackboard and creates videos to guide the students through the practical work. Through the semester, they’ve learned how to prepare an exhibition space and objects that will be on display, including proper handling techniques. “Since we cannot have hands-on practice, we’re using software to design materials we were supposed to make this semester,” she says. “I feel like we are still having the same experience we were supposed to have, but it’s virtual. Professor Saluti is also offering an opportunity for us to have hands-on experience next fall.”
This semester, Ngwenya is also a teaching assistant in Design, Culture and Environment, a course taught by Dennis Earle, assistant teaching professor of environmental and interior design and Shaffer Art History Professor. She was honored when Earle asked her to help with the class, telling her one of the topics was the Great Zimbabwe National Monument, a UNESCO World Heritage site that dates back to the 11th century. For Ngwenya, it was an opportunity to share her knowledge about the famous archaeological site in her home country. Since going to remote learning, Ngwenya communicates with her students through email, answering questions and grading their homework assignments. “I love engaging with my students,” she says.
Ngwenya was initially drawn to the museum studies program because of her archaeological background and interest in artifacts, but says her interests have evolved. “I really love artifacts and know their importance,” she says. “But when I came here I was exposed to art. Now I can see how art communicates with people, how people speak out through art. It’s a good thing to use to engage with people and communicate with them, so it’s something I would like to introduce to museums in my country.”
Ngwenya says museums are failing in Zimbabwe and she’d like to help turn that around with the expertise she is developing here. “One major reason why I decided to come to America to study museums is I wanted to learn how they are managed so well, so I can take some of the tactics back to my country and try to implement them,” she says.
When she returns, she wants to encourage her alma mater to open an institutional museum and display artifacts that have been collected and stored there over the years. But Ngwenya’s aspirations extend well beyond that. Through her studies, she’s become interested in education and accessibility issues. She also seeks to share the stories of Zimbabwe’s successful women. “I want our museums to be a good environment for everyone, so people with physical challenges can access our projects,” she says. “One day I dream of owning a women’s gallery or a women’s museum that can portray women of all stages of life in Zimbabwe and show what makes them influential.”
Once life returns to normal, Ngwenya plans to intern at a museum to further her education and practical experience and resume some of the activities she enjoys on campus, such as tackling the climbing wall at the Barnes Center at The Arch. She remains appreciative of her professors for their guidance, as well as VPA associate dean Elisa Macedo Dekaney, who helped her resolve her financial circumstances; and Whitman School associate professor Alex Thevaranjan, who assisted her with housing accommodations. “I’m so grateful for these people,” she says. “One thing that also really helped me when I was stressed over my financial situation last fall was my Christian faith—it really helped me to keep on going.”
Balancing Cybersecurity Coursework with a Joy for Teaching
Chirag Sachdev G’20 traces his interest in cybersecurity to a college friend falling victim to a phishing incident and having her social media accounts hacked. The attacker accessed images she’d saved in the cloud and then communicated with her through email. At the time, Sachdev was working on a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering at the University of Mumbai, India, and had a basic idea of how to address the hack. He tracked the hacker’s IP and nailed down the location, then created a report with his friend and shared it with authorities. The hacker was prosecuted, and his friend’s accounts were recovered. “The feeling was something else,” he says. “The incident sparked my curiosity, and I decided to obtain certifications in ethical hacking and penetration testing. The knowledge I gained during those certifications was not in depth, so I decided to deepen my understanding and pursue a master’s education in cybersecurity.”
Sachdev is set to earn a master’s degree in cybersecurity from the College of Engineering and Computer Science (ECS) in May. After spending a semester in a master’s program at Drexel University, he transferred to Syracuse for the Spring 2019 semester and credits his ECS advisor, Professor Shiu-Kai Chin ’75, G’78, G’86, for helping him with his transfer and providing academic guidance. “I think the reason we clicked and were able to have a good rapport was that I was always honest with him and could voice my opinion,” he says. “I really admire Dr. Chin.”
As Sachdev adjusted to life in Syracuse, he realized he wasn’t acclimating well to the winter weather. Accustomed to the tropical climes of Mumbai, he struggled with seasonal affective disorder, he says, but through campus counseling services was able to rebound and get back on track. “My counselor was really helpful,” he says.
In that first semester on campus, Sachdev also found a place that appealed to his interest in teaching. He was hired as an academic coach and group tutor at the Center for Learning and Student Success (CLASS). Currently, he is working with students enrolled in General Physics II: Electromagnetism; and Application Programming for Information Systems, a School of Information Studies undergraduate course that includes a focus on Python programming. He cites his CLASS supervisor, Assistant Director Samantha Johnston, for all her support during his time here. “I really respect her,” he says. “It’s been a very good journey with CLASS.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the University to shift to remote learning, Sachdev says he was fortunate that CLASS moved his coaching and tutoring online. He enjoys teaching and says his sessions have always been interactive, so he wants to bring that online as well. He works to keep the students engaged through participation, which is challenging in a virtual environment, he says, but he uses screen sharing and other techniques to help the students through the sessions. “I meet roughly twice a week for one course with my students online through Blackboard Collaborate,” he says. “It’s been going pretty well. They just had an exam—and the people who attended my sessions were really happy with their results.”
That, of course, makes Sachdev happy. He looks forward to teaching, especially as a balance to the rigors of his coursework. He values the change of pace, meeting new people and the rewards of helping others. “I’d get out of bed and think, ‘Yeah, I have my tutoring session today,’” he says. “‘I’m going to make a difference; I’m going to help someone.’”
Sachdev says his coursework is going well, though he misses in-person interactions and going to campus every day. He believes faculty are doing their best in adjusting to the new reality of teaching online. Like many students with job searches underway and loans to pay back, Sachdev is worried about the economic instability caused by the pandemic, but hopes to land a position and put his cybersecurity skills to work. He also must consider whether to remain in the U.S. or return to Mumbai. “It has been a challenge, but the world has come to a standstill and we must adapt,” he says.
If anything, the pandemic has taught us to be flexible and demonstrated our resilience. As members of the Syracuse University community adjust routines, learn new lessons and innovate to overcome all sorts of obstacles, they can also look forward to the time when the virus has passed, when they can gather and enjoy one another’s company, share experiences and pick up where they left off on so many things. Near the end of her video, Lannie Lan offers this reminder of hope for everyone: “Although there is a crack,” she says, “that’s how the light shines in.”