Prospects of a prospective international student in a pandemic era

Hey, it’s 2020 everyone!
Dec 2020
Andreas
S.
Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

The first six months of 2020 have been an emotional rollercoaster. The initial highs included receiving my acceptance letter from MIT; the lows — the COVID-19 outbreak and everything that followed from it, a canceled flight travel nightmare, the MIT campus closing, changing policies for international students which led to denied visa appointments at US embassies all around the world, including in my home country, Sweden. Not to mention everything else that came with the uncertainty following the pandemic, such as the risk of the disease spreading, dealing with isolation away from family and friends, as well as the rising fear of being unemployed. This is the story of my journey through 2020, one that I’m never going to forget.

Let’s wind back to February. I had received my acceptance letter from MIT EECS. I was over the moon, and decided to immediately book my flight to Boston so I could attend the campus visit. At the time, I was living in a small town in Germany called Saarbrücken as part of a research internship at the Max Planck Institute over the spring. Fast forward to early March, my arrival in Boston. I recall tuning in to the funky music of my Uber driver while being struck by the night lights radiating from the skyscrapers. I was starry eyed. It felt like I was part of an episode of Boston Legal. 

The campus visit days were exciting; I got to meet many curious prospective students, listened to several short talks by famous professors and had great pastries at the Stata Center. Prospective students were assigned to various groups to participate in social activities. We went bowling and later to a local pub—though, I realized too late that I couldn’t use my ID card to purchase any drinks at the bar (I needed my passport, which I’d left at the hotel). I still had a lot of fun. I even decided to stay a few extra days in Boston to play the tourist and get a feel for the atmosphere around Cambridge, as it was after all a city I would likely call home for the years to come.

Following my wonderful time in Cambridge, I was set on joining MIT. However, I’d already booked flights to visit other schools, so I set off for the west coast, from the Bay Area to Seattle. This was right around the time when restrictions started to be imposed due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Campuses were shutting down, and I started to seriously worry that I wouldn’t be able to fly back home. This was mid-March and flights were grounded all across the US. Meanwhile, I quickly arranged for personally funded Airbnb rooms as a replacement for the hotel bookings schools would no longer cover. I was already too far into my journey to give it all up and turn around. I watched remote seminars, joined virtual socials and engaged in discussions with several professors, all from rooms near the schools and socially distanced from other people.

My last destination was Seattle. One the one hand, I really didn’t want to reschedule my flight as it would cost me more than I could afford. On the other, I was scared of catching COVID-19 (or having it and infecting anyone else), especially since the Seattle area was ground zero for the virus spread in the US at the time. I was also worried about my friends and family back in Sweden. My mom works with toddlers all day, and I kept thinking that she must be particularly exposed to the virus. Suddenly, the outlook of the spread in Sweden wasn’t looking good either. I felt very far from home.

A few days later, I took an Uber to the Seattle Tacoma Airport, only to find that my flight had been cancelled. I rushed to the airport clerks and argued my case. They told me to hold on while they tried to figure out how I could get back home. I had to get back home, I literally couldn’t afford to stay indefinitely in the US. I decided to sleep at the airport and hope that things would be resolved the next day. They didn’t. I was desperate. I emailed a professor from the last school I had visited and he kindly arranged for me to stay at a nearby hotel until the next flight back. My conscience took a hit when I realized that I was asking for help from a PI I had decided not to work with. I remained stuck in Seattle for two additional nights, before getting a call from the airport staff. I caught an absurd flight, from Seattle down to San Francisco, then up to Vancouver, then to London, and finally to Frankfurt. When arriving in Frankfurt, I still had to figure out how to get back home to Sweden, but had to stay in quarantine for 2 weeks before considering taking a flight back to Sweden. I was afraid they would close the borders. This whole ordeal was a nightmare to say the least.

During all this, I kept asking myself: How long will this go on before I can relocate to Boston? Will I be able to get a visa this year? Should I defer grad school? Does MIT still want me, or should I try for a program closer to home? If I can’t attend grad school this year, what will I do in the meantime? These are scary thoughts, and caused me a great deal of anxiety and stress.

I ultimately managed to get through the worst part. I finished my internship and booked the next flight back to Sweden right after the quarantine period ended. Fortunately, the flight hadn’t been canceled, and I managed to get back home around the beginning of April. As soon as I arrived in Sweden, I felt the urgency to maintain multiple options open in case things didn’t work out; I applied for jobs where I figured my degree would be valued. I cold-emailed recruiters and handed out my CV, and I did coding practices to brush up my technical interviewing skills. Since all of this took a considerable amount of time and effort to get done, I filed for unemployment benefits as a safety net to be able to support myself.

Around the beginning of June, I received a call from my local labor office mentioning that they had potential job openings. These jobs included washing dishes in restaurants, picking up garbage from grass sections and pavements using state-of-the-art grappling claws, or scraping out gum from subway station floors (ok that last one wasn’t really an option, but you get the idea). Granted, many of these jobs may have been more useful than the potential contributions I would make while pursuing my PhD. This idea made me seriously consider a career shift. Perhaps my Master’s degree in Engineering Physics would be useful for understanding how plants could be efficiently utilized to extract as many nutrients as possible through sunlight-angle optimization? This is a fancy way of saying that I could become a farmer.

During the summer, I was beginning to think more clearly. I took my time in lockdown to relax, read books, and occasionally monitor the situation around MIT. I was hoping they would manage the outbreak in the area, as there was a significant time period between April and September for things to be resolved before the start of grad school. But seeing how things evolved in the news, the idea of any form of resolution seemed increasingly distant. I struggled a bit during this time, but eventually came to terms with the idea that I might not start grad school anytime soon.

Despite this period of uncertainty, I still kept my hopes up for grad school. While having job interviews lined up, I did what I could to prepare for MIT as an international student; I arranged all of the necessary documents (I-20, F1 visa application, opening a US bank account remotely, etc.) and sorted through a hassle with the US embassy in Sweden to get my visa appointment ready. I am glad I did this in time. Around the end of July, my future PI reached out to me and suggested that I could start my studies remotely. He reassured me that he would be fully supportive of that option while I waited for the embassy to open and travel restrictions to lighten. He also encouraged me to participate in his research group meetings. That was so relieving! I finally felt that I had my security.

While waiting for my visa to arrive, I attended several virtual seminars about different aspects of life as a new grad student entering MIT, including housing, medical insurance, and ongoing updates on travel restriction policies, the COVID-19 situation around Cambridge, and how MIT is dealing with these issues. This has been incredibly helpful and reassuring. In fact, since the outbreak, the MIT community has been actively updating me with information regarding all possible issues associated with the virus and following up with updates on how to move forward. This has been very helpful for me in preparing for the upcoming semester. All of this made me feel like MIT had my back at every step of the way! I might not be able to join in the early fall, but I would have all the support to conduct my studies until I can fly to Boston, which is fantastic.

It’s been a hectic past 6 months, but MIT makes it easy to stay optimistic. The administrative staff has been incredibly helpful in setting up the academic year for us international students. These are strange times, but I am grateful to be part of such a supportive community like MIT, and it tells me that the efforts from everyone here is reflective of the kind of people and makes me appreciate my decision to come to MIT even more!