In January, Aleksandra Klochkova, a third-year student in the Liberal Arts and Sciences programme at St Petersburg University, headed off for Bard College in the suburbs of New York City as an exchange student. Even as the city was becoming the global epicentre of the pandemic, the young woman decided to stay in the U.S. Aleksandra explains why she didn’t want to come back home ahead of time and describes what life has been like on the Bard College campus during the lockdown.
When did you arrive in the U.S., and how long were you originally supposed to stay there?
I got here on 21 January and the plan was for me to stay until 20 May.
Do you know how long you are going to stay there now, and have any problems arisen that are connected with your residence hall or your visa, since you might have to stay longer than that?
If the situation gets worse, they will probably keep us on campus for a longer time and they may extend our visas. At least, they told us that this might happen. But, in all likelihood, the programme (and I hope the epidemic too) will be over at the end of May, and they will be able to let us go home.
Has anybody from St Petersburg University got in touch with you?
Yes, as soon as it became clear that the situation was serious, representatives of the faculty wrote to us, and so did some teachers and people from the office in charge of the international programmes. They are in constant touch with us and are ready, if it becomes necessary, to help us in any way they can, and to give us advice about paperwork and about the possibility of going back home. This support is very important.
When and why did you make the decision to remain quarantined in the U.S.?
It was a lengthy process. I thought long and hard about it. I discussed the situation with my parents and our advisors here. I made up my mind to stay in the middle of March, when it was all just getting started. I didn’t want to travel at that time through public places and airports. To become infected and infect others, and to bring the disease back to Russia. And I had a safe alternative – to stay on campus, which is sufficiently isolated. It’s not in the centre of the city but in the suburbs, in Annandale.
Bard College is located in a suburban setting in the small town of Annandale-on-Hudson, which is in the state of New York, around 90 miles (144 kilometres) to the north of Manhattan. Its campus takes up approximately 1,000 acres (404 hectares), which are covered with classroom buildings, residence halls, research centres, a library, a dining hall and cultural and sports facilities. In addition, there is a park along the Hudson River – fields and woodlands that at one time belonged to the owners of three historical estates, on the territory of which the campus stands today.
What is the situation on campus now? Can you leave the residence hall? Is there a health clinic? What is open, and what isn’t?
We live in residence halls, which we can leave since we decided against self-isolation. Those who decided to isolate themselves stay in their residence halls, and somebody brings them food and everything else they need. There is a service that offers psychological support and another one that delivers food and medicine. Those of us who decided not to go into isolation leave our residence halls two or three times a day and walk to the dining hall.
The dining hall is open and provides all of us with the essentials. We can go for a walk, but we must keep a distance from other people.
We have a big campus, and there are a lot of woods and fields here, so we go outside, take a walk and get some fresh air, because we have no other options. The library is closed, and so is the gym. Actually, all we have is the dining hall, the residence hall and the woods and fields around us.
As for healthcare, we have health insurance that covers us anywhere in the country. The campus health service is still open, but it has taken stricter measures. They now recommend that you consult a physician only in case of an emergency, when you have serious symptoms.
Are you living alone, or do you have a roommate? How have you set up your daily routine?
Some students still have a roommate, and others have moved to different residence halls and taken single rooms. I’m still living with my roommate. We’re both in our third year. We don’t have a very big room, and we’re not isolating ourselves. We get along fine, but we keep at a distance of two to three metres from each other.
What is a typical day like during the quarantine? How have you arranged your distance learning? Do your studies take up more or less time now?
On the whole, classes take as much time as they used to – we have something like two or three classes a day. But since we’re learning at a distance now, some teachers are giving us more to do, more homework. Our daily routine goes something like this: we wake up and go to class – I mean, we turn on the computer and listen to our teachers. We take a few breaks to have something to eat, we go outside to get some fresh air and then we do our homework. That’s basically it. With such a workload, the days go by quickly.
What aspects of the American educational system do you find particularly interesting? Have you had any revelations?
This isn’t the first time I’ve been to the U.S., and there’s a lot that I already take for granted. But, on the whole, what I like about the system and the way of teaching is that, despite the difference in ages, all of the teachers relate to students as if we were colleagues, or even friends. There’s no ‘teacher-student’ dichotomy. We have a really friendly rapport. They treat us like future professionals, and so they call us colleagues. There’s a really friendly, relaxed atmosphere in classes, thanks mostly to the teachers.
Aren’t you disappointed that you went off to have a look at another country and ended up in the epicentre of a pandemic? Have you found any local online entertainment?
Bard College organises quite a few online events and broadcasts. There have been online concerts, discussions and all sorts of panels. There was even an online meeting with the president of the college. College life goes on – it’s just in the online mode. Of course, it’s disappointing that we ended up coming here at this particular moment, but I can honestly say that the two months I spent here before the outbreak of the virus were unbelievably awesome, and I’m really grateful for the experience, even if it was for such a short time.
What is the emotional situation on campus? Is there a mood of panic or stress? Isn’t it scary?
When the virus broke out here, of course we all were a bit concerned and started to worry, but now we accept the situation for what it is and try to be calm. There’s very little we can do about it, and to return to Russia might be even more dangerous. So, for the time being, we’re staying here and trying not to panic. We have a lot of classes with our teachers, and they keep us occupied and, in some ways, you could even say, entertained. Life on campus is improving, even under such conditions, because the administration is trying to be receptive to students’ requests.
From the outside, it probably seems like it must be really boring for us here, but it has been an interesting experience to go through a quarantine here in the U.S. Basically, we hope that everything is going to be alright and in May we will be able to go home without any problems. I’ve met a lot of cool people here and made some close friends, and I really hope to see them again after this is all over with.