In the Spring of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the lives of college students around the world with classes moving online, internships rescinded, and graduation ceremonies cancelled. These developments have affected the career plans and aspirations of a generation of college students. CCWT launched an oral history project to document and amplify student voices and experiences during the pandemic.
Sunanda Goh, a computer science major at UW-Madison, moved back to Malaysia following the university announcement that the remainder of the Spring 2020 semester would transition to online. It was 12 a.m. in Malaysia at the time of this interview, demonstrating the challenges Sunanda and other international students face as they attempt to learn online from abroad. Sunanda discusses the difficulties of transitioning to an online platform, the hurdles of coordinating the two time zones, and the various concerns he has regarding job prospects for the future. The interview ends with Sunanda’s perspective on recent protests and racism on UW’s campus. This interview was conducted by Esther Ama Safia Mohammad. The transcript was edited and condensed by Alexandra Pasqualone.
When you first learned that the COVID-19 pandemic would affect your courses at UW-Madison, what was your reaction?
I was very relieved that the University was taking action. Prior to the decision to transition to online courses, I remember hearing a rumor that someone at the school had been infected. I was relieved when they finally told us that they were moving the classes online. That made me feel safe.
I was relieved when they finally told us that they were moving the classes online. That made me feel safe.
How has the pandemic affected your life as a student?
I'm not really used to doing stuff online. The way we were studying was so different. Studying is something that requires you to interact with your professors or your peers. In terms of remote learning, I would not recommend it since you cannot interact with the professor. Attending classes remotely from Malaysia means that if I want to “visit” office hours at 2 pm Madison time, I need to wake up at 3 am where I live in Malaysia to talk to my professor. During the initial transition, I had to talk to a lot of professors about my concerns and my difficulties with remote learning while living in a different time zone. I had to ensure that my grades were not affected because of this additional challenge.
Outside of remote learning, have there been any changes to your university-related activities in response to the pandemic?
I was a Committee Member for the Malaysian Students Association. Prior to the pandemic, we had planned about four events that we hoped to host during the semester. Unfortunately, many people left Madison after the announcement. We tried our best to transition those events to online platforms, however, being a social club, moving to virtual events was not as viable. Overall, I would say that student activities, including Greek life, is being affected.
Have any of those changes been especially challenging or difficult to manage?
As I mentioned, the hardest thing to do is to talk to professors. A lot of the time when the professors are making a decision, they are thinking, "Hey, how am I going to move this content online and do so smoothly?” They also tend to forget about people that are living in a different time zones, so I had to reach out to professors to voice my concerns. I am really lucky that my professors have been understanding. Some courses are synchronous, so you have to use zoom to join the lectures in real time. Luckily, none of my courses are synchronous. All my lectures are prerecorded and then sent to us. However, in terms of finals, it was stressful because I had to talk to the professor about arranging a make-up date since TA’s and professors were not awake to proctor my exam at 3 o’clock in the morning.
A lot of professors tend to forget about people that are living in different time zones. So, I had to reach out to voice my concerns.
How has COVID-19 affected your employment?
Prior to COVID, I was working at a student computer lab. I really loved the joband I learned a lot from it, but I could not go to work anymore after the transition. Computer labs are no longer open. Despite not being able to work, the university gave us the first two weeks of employment wages and if you needed more, I believe you can apply for that. Overall, I think the university is doing a good job of ensuring that employees are not affected in this way.
If I have the same qualifications as another person that is a citizen, would I be eliminated just because I'm not a citizen? Would my citizenship be a disadvantage to me?
So, what are your future career plans and how has COVID-19 affected those plans going forward?
I would say that my career plans are not very solid currently. I'm exploring a lot of stuff outside of computer science. As a CS major, the typical work will be either a programmer or a software developer. That's definitely one of my career plans. I also enjoy singing a lot so I am completing a Digital Cinema Production certificate program. I am hoping to make it to Hollywood and get some work there.
In terms of how COVID-19 affects this, I would say that the employment rate has dropped due to the pandemic. Additionally, because I am not a U.S. resident, I am not sure how that would impact my employment. I definitely would understand that companies now prefer people that are residents of the U.S. more, especially with the way that President Donald Trump wants to raise the employment rate for US citizens. It is one of my concerns and I am not sure how employers are going to react. If I have the same qualifications as another person that is a citizen, would I be eliminated just because I'm not a citizen? Would my citizenship be a disadvantage to me?
How has COVID-19 affected the availability of internships in your field of interest?
I was planning to obtain an internship next summer. Previously, employers would not look at our citizenship when they looked for interns, so I am not really worried. I believe I can learn a lot from internships, however, there is a big difference when you are working remotely, especially as a Computer Science major. Computer Science requires teamwork where you coordinate with your mentors and your peers to do the job. So, I would be really sad if I have to participate in an internship online. I do not think I would learn a lot from it honestly.
And what support do you think students need from their colleges or universities to help them get a job in the middle of this crisis?
I think students need connections since it is really difficult to get a job right now. I have heard a lot of people saying that once a job is posted, there will be thousands, or tens of thousands of applications submitted. I wish that the university could give students access to a portal for employers to conduct a webinar or virtual internship, or even a virtual job fair for students to connect with employers.
I think students need connections since it is really difficult to get a job right now. I have heard a lot of people saying that once a job is posted, there will be thousands, or tens of thousands of applications submitted.
Regarding connections, it is not only about applying for the job, but it is also about knowing what you are doing in the job and understanding the mission and vision of the company; and whether the mission and vision of the company actually align with your goals. It is important for us to connect with the employers so that we know what we are applying for rather than spend 10 to 20 hours filling out applications for companies that we are not interested in.
In recent weeks, we’ve seen mass protests and outrage over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Have these events influenced or otherwise affected you in any way?
It is a really tragic event. African Americans have always been mistreated on campus. The homecoming video last year did not include African Americans although they had already been invited to appear in the video. In the end, they were not included in the final video. Events of bias toward African Americans have always happened in the United States. My power is very limited since I am not a U.S. citizen. If I were in Madison right now and joined the protests, I am not sure the first amendment, ensuring the right to protest, applies to noncitizens such as myself. Protesting might affect my visa. Also, I cannot vote anyway, so my power is limited. I am happy people are standing up against racism and that society is doing something to help other races who are mistreated.
Have you personally encountered racism during your time as a college student? If so, and only if you are comfortable doing so, can you describe the situation?
Personally, I have not encountered any racism when I was in Madison, which is a good thing. I do not think that my friends or people close to me have encountered that as well, but there is a lot of racism happening on campus. When COVID-19 first erupted in the U.S., we have seen a lot of racist remarks towards Asians on campus. It is uncomfortable to see people of color having to deal with racism. It is definitely wrong for them to have to deal with this kind of situation.
Esther Ama Safia Mohammed is a Fall 2020 graduate of the Professional French Master’s Program at UW-Madison. She also holds a master’s degree in Linguistics and Didactics from the University of Cape Coast, Ghana. Her academic research on student motivation and international mobility informs her understanding of Human resource development. Ama has gained diverse professional experiences from working as a teaching assistant in Cape Coast, as an executive assistant at a logistics company in Burkina Faso, as an assistant manager of a cocoa cooperative in Cote d’Ivoire and as a project assistant in a philanthropic organization in Quebec. In summer 2020, Ama worked at CCWT with a team of student-workers to collect oral histories to document student-experiences during the coronavirus pandemic. Through this work, she gained insight into student anxieties concerning their future careers in the fast-approaching post-Covid world
Alexandra Pasqualone is a second-year student in a Joint PhD in Educational Policy Studies (EPS) and History. She has spent several years teaching in various capacities, including positions as a high school teacher in NJ, an English teacher at Akdeniz University in Turkey, and a Career Access and College Readiness Coordinator in Philadelphia. She is broadly interested in the historical role of youths as major activists who spurred changes within their communities. As part of her MA thesis at the University of Cincinnati, Alexandra conducted an oral history project attending to the protests of high school students in Philadelphia during the late 1960s and 1970s. Her current research centers around the implications of schools on Arab-American identity formation during the mid-twentieth century.