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Studying 'abroad' remotely during COVID-19

Forward Thinking series
Jack Liu (third year Global Health and Social Medicine undergraduate)

27 January 2022

Looking back at my online study abroad year at Johns Hopkins, I can’t say it was the study abroad year I expected, but it was one of the best ways to get through the 2020 pandemic year. Given the same context, I would make the same choice every time. This reflection might not be what you are expecting to read: it is the story of my first year of Zoom University.

To be honest, I was very disappointed when the news broke out in March 2020 that the first semester of my study abroad was set to be online-only. We were offered the choice to defer our study abroad year, but I went against the headwind and chose to do my study abroad online. I had already studied in the United States of America, and so while it was disappointing not to travel there, I proceeded with the online program at Johns Hopkins.

When the semester started I was living alone in Blackheath. Yes, I’m one of the stubborn ones who paid London-level rent during the pandemic. At the first lecture, I realised something I should have foreseen that was going to make my study ‘abroad’ unique and unforgettable. The UK is four hours ahead of Baltimore most of the time, except for the week when we have changed the clock for the winter and the Americans have not, and vice versa in the spring. Not only did this four-hour lead save my life many times, when I only had to submit something by midnight, or to catch upon reading, it also allowed me to enjoy a whole year worth of free mornings. For the first time, I was motivated to get up early! Takeaways in London weren’t allowed to open past 10pm back then, not to mention pubs. I now know it is worth it to trade your night out for a morning run, a fresh baguette, foraging chestnuts, or coincidentally bumping into the BBC weather crew at the Greenwich observatory.

I was allowed to choose from literally any class JHU offers, even the graduate ones. I picked some close in content to my courses at Global Health and Social Medicine, as well as some others. For example, I took the course Medical Humanitarianism. Being a third-year module for the JHU students, I wouldn’t say it was easy, but it was well within my grasp. What surprised me about the American system was that participation was expected: you would either be called on to speak in class, or you had to write and reply to online forums.

I also chose a fourth-year seminar called The Origin of Capitalism. This was far more challenging and almost gave me a Thursday-night-being-called-up-to-speak-in-front-of-the-class-phobia. It was like going across the street to LSE for a guest seminar, except it happens every week. We read Keynes, Hayek, Schumpeter: to quote BBC host Jeremy Paxman, ‘all the important stuff’. Who knew that by the end of the term, we would be reading Donna Haraway? This was the last week of class, and Haraway was the first familiar name I had heard. I still recommend challenging yourself a little, though. There were other fascinating classes as well, like one about the history of London. Yes, you heard it right, an American university class about London, happening on Zoom, while I’m in London. I don’t have a British accent, but I was officially recognised as the second-best British accent in the class, second only to the professor who was born and raised in White Hart Lane. I also took classes in architectural history and urban anthropology. Learning for fun is fun, as it turns out.

That was my experience ‘studying abroad’. Every minute of it was taught on Zoom, but it was a unique experience to live in London while studying at Johns Hopkins at the same time. I found a

(remote) job as a game developer, and I was able to see London during the quiet hours. It was a blessing, and I don’t have to say, ‘in disguise’.

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