As the semester draws to a close and many of the Class of 2026 students prepare to go on various study away paths, leaving Shanghai for an extended period, let’s take a moment to reflect on the journey we’ve traveled to reach the midpoint of our college studies.

As many are aware, the Class of 2026 has gone through numerous transitions, from the shift from high school to moving away from home, to China’s transitioning out of lockdown and the requirement of daily COVID testing, and finally to the easing of COVID restrictions. Another significant transition was our move from Century Avenue campus to the Qiantan campus, among other countless memorable changes. It’s important to note that while transitions are common to every class, the Class of 2026 faced unique challenges. We were supposed to be the first “semi-normal” freshman class, but many of us didn’t experience a typical freshman year. Arriving in Shanghai, we lacked much information about what to expect, especially since international students from the Class of 2025 hadn’t yet arrived due to China’s quarantine restrictions and lockdowns. This was a difficult time period for everyone and this article will explore the experiences of international students from the Class of 2026 and how they navigated the transition to NYU Shanghai. I conducted three interviews with Nagyeong (Helen) Sin from the U.S., Leena Faisal from Pakistan, and Isabel (Isa) Villalobos from Costa Rica.

Question One: How did being part of the freshman class of 2026, experiencing the unique challenges of transitioning to college and moving to China, shape your perspective on the “typical” college experience?

Helen: “I have never thought about moving to a different country to study abroad, especially so far away from my mom. I have always imagined myself staying in the U.S. for my studies. COVID has definitely caused a lot of new changes that have deviated from the normal college lifestyle.”

Leena: “It definitely made it harder for me in many ways, especially because the COVID policies were very strict at that time, so adjusting to a completely new country became even more challenging.”

Isa: “I think that these challenges shaped my perspective in a sense that now I definitely have a greater appreciation for the post-COVID era of China. I really enjoy living in Shanghai and going to a city school, and I must say that it’s a completely different experience than any traditional American university, but I’m here for it and I love every second of it.”

Question Two: Can you describe the specific challenges and emotions you faced as the first “full” class to arrive in China after the quarantine lockdown, and how this experience impacted your adjustment to university life?

Helen: “As the first full class to arrive in China after the quarantine lockdown, it was the most challenging experience for me. I had to start school a week late, which resulted in falling behind in my studies. The most difficult aspect for me was homesickness. I remember calling my close friends back home, crying, but it was their support and belief in me that helped me through. This has impacted on my education heavily which made me have more doubts about myself.”

Leena: “Even after the lockdown, there were many COVID policies and everyone had to abide by them. For example, daily testing and wearing masks, and not being able to enter dorms or the academic building without testing was definitely difficult. At some points, many of the other students and I contemplated returning back to our home country because it became extremely hard to adjust.”

Isa: “Some of the challenges I’ve faced living in China are definitely the language barrier. At first it was a lot to overcome but as I learned more Chinese, life here has gotten significantly easier. I think the quarantine experience impacted my friend making process since our university is so small. It restricted us a lot from making connections since we were locked down for weeks at a time.”

Question Three: In what ways did the quarantine affect the overall atmosphere and dynamics of your freshman class, and how did you cope with this unexpected situation?

Helen: “Quarantine dampened my emotions and disrupted the atmosphere upon my arrival in Shanghai. I was initially excited about exploring the city, but being confined to quarantine really dampened that excitement. However, quarantine also provided an opportunity for me to connect more with my freshman class, as we all shared this unique experience and used it as a bonding opportunity. Coping with this experience was made easier by talking with my mother, who provided invaluable emotional support.”

Leena: “While quarantining with people from my country definitely gave me a chance to get closer to them, at the same time, I also believe it stripped me off from getting to know other people in my freshmen year, particularly first semester. Although I managed to make friends who are from different places, such as Armenia, U.S., Mongolia, and more through meeting them in clubs or in class, sometimes I wonder what would happen if we didn’t have to quarantine for a long time. We had to quarantine for a month after coming to China because our hotel staff repeatedly got COVID.”

Isa: “For me, I feel the quarantine impacted the atmosphere of our class in both a positive and negative way. I feel like a lot of us share trauma from the quarantine era and the fear of the unknown, but I feel like all of us grew from the situation together since it inevitably made some of us form closer relationships to each other and know each other as a class better than other classes.” 

Question Four: Reflecting on your experiences, what advice would you give to future freshman classes moving to a new country during uncertain times?

Helen: “My advice would be don’t be scared of these new experiences, as there are many others who share similar experiences and can help ease the process. The main takeaway is to understand that you’re not alone, and there are many people who can support you.”

Leena: “I would tell them to gather as much information as they can before making such a decision to evaluate whether they can handle the stress that comes with it. Had I not received the support of my family, I would probably not be able to adjust here.” 

Isa: “I feel like being part of the class of 2026 has definitely influenced my personal growth. The quarantine most definitely challenged my relationships with people and mostly with myself but I’ve learned a lot about myself especially to never forget yourself in an environment with so much change which is something I’ll most definitely carry with me beyond my college years.”

Question Five: How do you think being part of this “experimental” class has influenced your personal growth or resilience, and what lessons have you learned that you will carry with you beyond your college years?

Helen: “I learned to see beyond the current situation and gain lessons from the challenges I encountered. Even though college didn’t unfold as I had anticipated, I chose not to fixate on the setbacks and instead viewed them as learning opportunities. In times of uncertainty, it’s important to extract wisdom from these experiences to foster personal growth and emerge stronger.”

Leena: “ It definitely strengthened me in some ways. It made me more resilient to change and uncertainty.”

Isa: “My advice for future freshmen would be to trust your gut. It’s okay to feel a little lost when going through such dramatic lifestyle changes, but try to remember everyone else is in the same boat.”

Despite the immense challenges we faced, we have grown and learned from these experiences. Collectively, we recognize that these “guinea pig” trials have developed our character and maturity. Not everyone can navigate such transitions in foreign lands, surrounded by strangers who became our friends. Our journey through China’s lockdown and numerous transitions has been a testament to our resilience, adaptability, and the bonds we’ve formed as a community at NYU Shanghai.