January/February 2021 Alumni E-News Spotlight: College During COVID by the Class of 2020 Class Agents
By Emily Hsu '20 and Yan Ying Mor '20, Class of 2020 Class Agents


Emily Hsu ‘20 is a freshman at Stanford University pursuing a major in science, technology, and society. Yan Ying Mor ‘20 is a freshman at the University of Chicago pursuing a public policy major. They have both been attending college remotely from Taipei since the beginning of the school year. Emily is hoping to go to campus next fall, while Yan Ying is considering an earlier arrival in spring if the situation allows. 

As we click “submit” on our last Canvas assessments, we breathe a sigh of relief as the first quarter of college comes to an end. Fall quarter had gone by in a flash. Without the traditional orientation week, move-in day, and social events, it feels as though college never started.

With COVID-19 at its peak in the United States, many TAS alumni have opted to take class remotely from Taiwan. Online learning comes with its ups and downs. For those who choose or are required to attend classes synchronously, it means staying up for gruelling hours with heavy ramifications on mental and physical health. 24/7 UberEats options become our sole food source and fatigue becomes a constant companion as one’s circadian rhythm is misaligned with daylight hours. Even noting down meeting times has become a hassle, considering the drastically different time zones and the puzzle that is daylight saving time. Fortunately, both of us have the option of watching lecture recordings asynchronously, offering us newfound flexibility in our work schedules. Nevertheless, our first quarter of college has become a cycle of mildly awkward Zoom calls broken up by meals and the occasional study session with high school friends.

Emily's desktop where she's attending college virtually.

As a result of the uncertainty and stress surrounding the pandemic, college professors have adjusted their curriculums to adapt to online learning. For example, at Stanford, formal midterms or finals were replaced with personal projects and biweekly quizzes. At UChicago, humanities seminars, the heart of the first-year experience, were partially migrated to discussion modules on Canvas. In general, professors have been generous with extending deadlines for international students -- recognizing the stress of learning in dramatically different time zones. Especially during election week, the shared wave of apprehension between professors and students alike, led to numerous assignment extensions.

However, online assessments still come with its challenges. For Emily’s linear algebra class, questions became more difficult due to the open-note, open-internet nature of the quizzes, and the multiple-choice format is less sympathetic towards partially correct answers. For Yan Ying’s Calculus class, close note assessments are regulated by strict guidelines, requiring students to make their desk clearly visible through their computers’ webcam frame with close monitoring throughout the exam by the professor.

Remote learning aside, we have found college academics to be much more rewarding and challenging than high school. As we browsed our respective course catalogs, our fall quarter course “wishlists” grew longer, quickly expanding beyond the limits of what we were permitted to take in a single quarter. From “Busting Energy Myths” to “Physics for Future Presidents,” the specialization of courses at the university-level lay in stark contrast with the standardized nature of the high school core. Emily took this opportunity to enroll in “Technology and the 2020 Election” this past fall and engaged in exciting discussions on online filter bubbles and its effects on polarization among many other topics with guest speakers from Twitter, Facebook, and government agencies. Yan Ying particularly enjoys her social science core sequence “Self, Culture, and Society”, where she analyzed the modern issues, ranging from fast fashion to the role of immigrants in the US economy, through the lens of the founders of numerous social scientific fields.

Yan Ying Mor '20

Another defining feature of college academics is that our learning has become less reliant on the instructor. As Stanford and UChicago both run on ten-week long quarters, we zoom through content at almost three times the speed of an honors-level high school course. Passing classes is no longer an individual endeavour as we have learned to seek out help whenever we need it at Zoom office hours or weekly Discord study sessions. Working through challenging problem sets has become a collective struggle and has strengthened our bonds with our peers working from all over the world. Since we are given the freedom of watching pre-recorded lectures in our own time, we have also come to realize the importance of self-discipline and accountability, especially given the distractions of studying from home. Emily keeps a weekly planner where she writes her schedule to keep herself on track, while Yan Ying creates and decorates a variety of organizational spreads in her bullet-journal.

The area of school in which we have missed out the most is extracurriculars. Given the time differences, we have been unable to participate in many club meetings, guest speaker events, and informational sessions. As a result, we have disengaged from most of campus life beyond academics. It has been much harder to make new friends in college without the avenue of clubs and shared interests on top of the online communication barrier. Even at the “bonding” Zoom sessions our schools had planned for orientation week, with almost every participant’s camera off and mic muted, the environment is not exactly conducive to making new friends.

Against all odds, Yan Ying has found a home in the K-Pop fan community at UChicago by joining biweekly Zoom dance classes where she learns her favourite K-Pop choreographies with fellow student fans as early as 8 in the morning. Emily also made new friends through a course called “Frosh 101”, a small class with six other freshmen where she engaged in meaningful conversations about the transition to college and other college-related topics like the “imposter syndrome”, the fear of not belonging.

Emily Hsu '20

The pandemic has also shed uncertainty over our summer plans as we do not know if we will be able to go to America for work or on-campus research in the summer. Because we are studying remotely, it is also especially difficult to find and seek guidance from upperclasspeople in similar fields. Nevertheless, Emily has moved forward with applications over the winter break for remote summer internships and research positions. As first-years with limited work experience and access to on-campus resources, we have found building our career profiles quite challenging and would love to get advice from the TAS alumni community!

Despite the nontraditional freshman year, we never seize to find blessings in disguise. Staying in Taiwan also means that we have more time to spend with our families and to further explore the city. Juggling extracurriculars on top of eight classes in high school, there were rarely moments where we could enjoy a coffee at a local cafe or have a meal with friends on a weekday. Although the pace is faster and the workload is heavier in college, being home for the bulk of the time has opened up time for us to chat with our parents and banter with our siblings. For example, Emily’s brother has been back in Taiwan since his campus shut down in the spring and Yan Ying’s family has reunited once again with her older brother returning to Taiwan following his completion of his mandatory military service in Singapore. Moreover, most of our high school friends have stayed by our side this fall. As most TAS alumni are going through the same experience, we find comfort in sharing our successes and struggles, encouraging each other in these unprecedented times.

During this abnormal chapter of our lives, we have learned to actively seek help when we need it. Whether among friends, classmates, or professors, we have built wide support systems and have grown stronger as a result. While the pandemic rages on in other parts of the world, Taiwan has been a safe haven with a competent government and compassionate citizenry. Although freshman year is not quite what we expected it to be, we welcomed the new challenges and still found reasons to be grateful.

Emily and Yan Ying are the Class Agents for the Class of 2020. Feel free to reach out to us at 20emilyh@alumni.tas.tw and 20yanyingm@alumni.tas.tw!