Stuyvesant: Far From Home

How Stuyvesant students are conducting remote learning outside of NYC.

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By The Photo Department

Sunrises, beaches, busy city streets. Boasting an assortment of options, the virtual background often makes its appearance in Zoom meetings. But for some, it is a reality. Whether they like it or not, countless Stuyvesant students have scattered across the world throughout the pandemic, each facing his or her own set of problems as well as benefiting from the unique advantages of residing in a far corner of the map. In light of the foreign exchange programs that remain on hold, these retreats are largely personal, ranging from familial to a need for a change in atmosphere. A transition of any extent from the city that never sleeps demands utter adaptability, and these Stuyvesant students are making the best of their situation.

Sophomore Julian Hong, studying from South Korea, reported a negative experience abroad. “This new setting has definitely been hindering my learning. I’m constantly trying to keep myself awake. I also usually do all of my homework at night (since it’s when I work best), so I’ve been forced to do work in the evening, which has been hard to get used to,” he said in an e-mail interview. Considering the 14-hour time zone difference, Hong currently takes his classes between midnight and 4:25 a.m. and has not fully adapted, since he has arrived merely three weeks ago. “Keeping track of time has been difficult,” he stated. Social isolation is another major factor in the equation. However, Hong has been able to better acquaint himself with Korean culture despite the ongoing pandemic and shows optimism in these circumstances. “I would say my mental health has been getting significantly better. I haven’t been in Korea for over five years, and it feels really nice to visit again,” said Hong.

Sophomore Manolee Merlet, too, has been forced to adapt to the shift in time zones. Merlet currently resides in St. Maarten, a small picturesque island tucked away in the northeastearn Caribbean Sea. Unlike Hong, though, Merlet is content with the time zones in her area that result from St. Maarten’s proximity to the United States. “Studying in St. Maarten is different because the time zones are different here. For me, classes start at 11 a.m. and end around 3:00 p.m. It’s nice because I get to wake up later and get more sleep,” she explained. Along with the benefit of prolonged sleeping hours, Merlet enjoys the warm Caribbean weather and gorgeous, pristine beaches that populate the island. “I get the chance to go to the beach more and sightsee, which I wouldn’t have been able to do in NYC,” she said. “I prefer studying abroad because I can see my dad here, and the weather is better. It’s really warm here, and I prefer that over the cold weather in NYC.”

Though Hong and Merlet have undergone more drastic transformations in terms of physical surroundings, some students who are staying outside of New York City but are in the U.S. have also been adapting to the new settings and share similar sentiments to those traveling internationally.

Junior Elizabeth Stansberry, for example, has hunkered down with her family in Colorado. While the time difference between New York and Colorado is not too dramatic, it forces Stansberry to wake up and end classes two hours earlier––a reality she accepts with open arms. “I have to start at 7:15, but I’m done with classes by 12:30, which is a big plus,” Stansberry said. Because of the drastically different environment and landscape between the two states, Stansberry also enjoys a new set of activities with her recent move. “It’s very nice to just be here in the mountains because you get to go skiing on the weekends, go outside a bunch, and just do things you wouldn’t otherwise get to do,” she explained. However, a time change of any magnitude can bring confusion. “The two-hour difference has become a huge headache because every time I see a deadline or something else happening, I have to translate it in my head,” Stansberry remarked.

However, time spent outside of New York City can be lonely. “I don’t really know that many people who live here, so I haven’t seen another teenager in a long time,” Stansberry said. While she is still able to FaceTime friends and connect virtually, a lack of proximity makes socializing from outside of the city much more difficult. In addition, Stansberry has experienced frequent connectivity problems, citing frozen Google Meets screens and full Internet blackouts as regular occurrences. “We have WiFi,” she explained. “But if the WiFi cuts out, it’s just the end. I can’t go and text a friend saying ‘my WiFi cut out’ because my texts also won’t go through, so that’s become a bit of an issue.”

Junior Ty Oshima, who is studying at his family weekend home in the Catskill Mountains, described a similar challenge. “Unlike in New York [City], our house here is in a remote, rural area, and therefore, we do rarely lose power and Internet, which is probably one of the largest challenges,” he explained in an e-mail interview. Despite coming to view his country house as a place of living rather than just a weekend getaway, Oshima still misses being in the city. “Personally, I do prefer staying in New York City because New York City is my playground before and after school, with many more things to do in walking distance such as seeing friends or going to a neighborhood bakery,” he commented.

Currently living in Atlanta, Georgia, junior Asa Muhammad agrees with the inconveniences of not having public transportation but views this lack in a more positive light, as it safeguards him from potential COVID-19 exposure. Appalled by the deficiency of mask-wearing behavior, Muhammad does not go out as much as he would in New York. “You’ll see people at the grocery store just breathing over produce with a naked face, and it triggers such a visceral feeling of disgust,” he remarked. Like the previous interviewees, Muhammad prefers in-person learning, but his reason is quite unique. “I miss seating charts the most, funnily enough. Like, in Zoom, you can’t really have side conversations with kids you don’t already know, so there are limited opportunities for socialization and meeting new people. Back in school, there would be a lot of minute interactions that’d help build a camaraderie that could eventually burgeon into real friendship, and that just doesn’t happen over Zoom. And breakout rooms are the bane of my existence. Even if you get a good one, they’re always randomized such that you never see your new potential friends again,” he recounted through e-mail.

While Hong, Merlet, Stransberry, Oshima, and Muhammad have relocated with their families, other students had been planning to travel abroad through foreign exchange programs. The pandemic, of course, canceled such plans. Despite this, foreign exchange programs have been able to adapt to current circumstances, offering virtual studying opportunities to students instead. For instance, the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y), a language-immersion program that introduces high school students to new languages, continued Virtual NSLI-Y this year. Virtual NSLI-Y consists of a 10-week beginner-level course that provides students with a foreign language and cultural experience that fosters intercultural understanding. The available languages it offers include Arabic, Chinese (Mandarin), Korean, and Russian.

This learning opportunity appealed to junior Hannah Scheuer, whose passion for language-learning led her to apply for the Mandarin course of virtual NSLI-Y. “I had contemplated self-studying Mandarin for a while, but the prospect seemed daunting. When June came around and applications for the fall virtual program opened, I was excited to have an opportunity to jumpstart my Mandarin studies,” Scheuer said in an e-mail interview. During her studies, not only did Scheuer learn how to write and speak Mandarin, but she also learned about Chinese culture. “My favorite cultural activities were the hands-on ones like paper cutting and learning to use chopsticks. Though class has ended, our teacher is planning to Zoom with us on Chinese New Year and possibly teach us how to cook dumplings,” she explained.

In addition to this new cultural exposure, Scheuer was surrounded by new faces in her class, filled with classmates from different places in the nation. Because her classes were small, with about 10 students, she was able to form close relationships with her classmates. Scheuer attributes this bonding as one of the highlights of the program. “I became super close with a lot of my classmates, and we regularly video call and text each other,” she said. “We all share the same interest in learning Chinese, but we're from such different places (my classmates were from Virginia, Puerto Rico, Florida, Oklahoma, and a couple [of] other states).”

Learning a new language has its advantages, but the process of doing so may involve bumps and funny moments of miscommunication. “I remember from the first or second class when we had just learned the structure ‘wo shi ___’ to say ‘I am ___,’ one kid unmuted himself and out of nowhere said, ‘wo shi quirky.’ Our teacher didn't really understand the kid’s use of the word ‘quirky,’ but it was nonetheless a funny incident,” Scheuer recalls.

While unable to change their situation, these students have tapped into their inner resources of resiliency and adaptability. “After months of introspection and internal dialogues, I’m doing a lot better,” Muhammad notes. This is a simple yet profound statement that encapsulates the learning curve we are all facing during this challenging time, even more so to students learning from abroad.