It feels like yesterday that I was packing my bags and leaving Chennai to begin my journey in the United States of America. I was looking forward to two years of an enriching experience in an American university, however I could never have predicted that a pandemic would happen and effectively alter my dreams and expectations I had about my time in the United States.
This isn’t a post describing how my life was affected by the pandemic. I’ll save that for a separate post. Rather, it’s a short description of my four semesters of my Master’s degree, three of them fully online. All this, while I still struggle to come to terms with the fact that I have graduated. Time seems to have flown by so fast!
I guess I’d described my initial days in the US in my previous blog posts. I had plans of making a separate post to talk about my first day at Northeastern University, but grad school was just too hectic for me to find the time to get back to blogging.
Without giving away too much, I was all excited for the first day of grad school. Seeing a classroom of mostly Indian students made me feel connected to my home country. Even the professor who was teaching us that day was Indian! That was the point when it felt like I was in India all along.
As the days went by, the honeymoon period of my MS journey quickly got over, and in the next month, I was faced with multiple complex projects with short deadlines. There were many a times when anxiety got the better of me (and I also realised that I am susceptible to anxiety attacks), but the support and collaboration I got from my peers, who were in the same situation as I was, combined with the support of my family and friends back home, helped me pull through.
Finals Week approached, and my two exams were unfortunately scheduled back-to-back, which meant I had to be smart with my preparation and time management. It was a unique experience giving a paper-pen final exam without the added logistics that come with writing an end semester exam in Indian universities. Writing the final exam felt just like writing a midterm paper or a simple class test. We came to the classroom at the specified time, we were given our question papers, and we completed the test within (or even before) the deadline. I remember being all excited for my Data Networking final exam, as my flight back to Muscat was in the following two days, which would become the longest journey I have ever travelled on my own.
I returned back to the United States just in time for the start of my second semester. One memory that particularly stands out was when the news of the passing of Oman’s great leader Sultan Qaboos bin Said was declared, in the early hours of January 11, 2020. It was 7:30pm, January 10, 2020 in Boston, when the news broke out across all social media. I was in class, and when a break was announced, that’s when I came to know of the Sultan’s passing. I was too numb and paranoid to concentrate on the rest of the class, and I called home as soon as the class was dismissed for the day. Thankfully, a smooth transition of power ensued in the country.
I would say February 2020 was the most stressful month of my entire journey at Northeastern, for we had much more complex projects to deal with, along with limited time. I still don’t know how I managed to get through this month, and there were a couple of instances where I had just simply given up, because it was getting too stressful for me. I am not proud of what I did back then, though at that time it seemed like the right thing to do. A saving grace was the trips I made to my relative’s home every weekend, which was a short train journey for an hour. I guess these little trips helped me maintain my sanity, and was a way to prepare myself for what would come next.
March 2020 was chaotic. The pandemic had just begun to take hold of Boston, and by the second week of March, my university shut down its campus completely, for what would be a more than 6 month complete shutdown. Suddenly I found myself without access to the university library, where I usually spent my nights catching up on my homework and studies. I also lost access to the dining area, where I usually buy one of my meals almost every day. My Northeastern University experience as I remembered it, had come to a screeching halt, and I would eventually graduate just a month before the university finally deemed it safe to remove most of the restrictions.
This was the month where I had to spend almost all my time at home. For an introvert like me, who never compromised on his peace and quiet, I found it especially hard to adjust to staying at home for an extended period of time. In the span of a month, I went from sitting in the classroom to sitting on my bed to attend online classes. I must give due credit to the university in quicky adapting to the online mode of teaching. The only good thing that came out of this period was that I learnt cooking, and looking back, it is doubtful whether I would have learned cooking, had the pandemic not happened.
By April 2020, we had gotten used to the new normal. One of my final exams was a take-home exam, while the other was a real-time online exam that was open-book, open-notes. Taking a take-home exam and an online exam for the final were again very new to me, but it was an interesting experience!
While some of my peers took summer courses, I decided it was time to give myself a break, especially due to the stressful prior semester and the unravelling of the pandemic. I utilized this time to catch up on some interesting courses on Coursera, while simultaneously working on my cooking skills. I stayed indoors for most of the time, while meeting my relatives once a month. And before I knew it, the four summer months were over.
Before the start of the Fall 2020 semester, my university announced that they would be transitioning to a unique mode of education: the hybrid model. In this, the students and the faculty had the option to choose between in-person attendance and remote attendance. This provided students the opportunity to attend classes in person if they wished, or to attend them from the comfort of their home. Eagerly looking forward to getting back to the classroom, I began my third semester. However, both my professors chose to be teaching remotely for the semester, therefore, I did not get an opportunity to attend classes in-person.
September 2020 was fun. I was looking forward to both courses, since both of them looked interesting on paper (spoiler alert: they were!). This was also the time when the search for internships and co-ops picked up, since the situation was slowly improving and the job market was recovering. Unfortunately, there were fewer positions open for Spring 2021 semester, so competition was high again.
By October 2020, I got the true expereince of what the semester was going to be like. The assignments kept coming one after the other, with little room to breathe. The only saving grace was that the coursework was much easier to understand and comprehend, and also the fact that the new friends that I made through these two courses were there to help me out when I needed help.
November 2020 meant Midterms. My midterms for both courses were scheduled within a week of each other, adding to the tension. Somehow, everything worked out smoothly, and I did my best in them. I was also getting interviews for potential co-op positions, but I was yet to get a positive response.
December 2020 was my birthday month! It was the first ever birthday I spent away from my family, and Finals Week was coming up as well! Both my exams went smoothly, and it was a bittersweet experience bidding farewell to my professors without having seen them in person. My most memorable “last class” was with the Software-Defined Networking subject, where we had our final exam for one hour, and then it became an informal fun session, where the professor made us all sing a song, compulsorily! As someone who has never sung before, I sang the “Faded” song by Alan Walker. It was a fun session that almost went upto midnight. Following which, it started snowing heavily, and I woke up to snow-covered streets the next day! It was such a beautiful sight and such a beautiful ending to the third semester.
In the month of January, I made a last-minute decision to visit Muscat for a month. It was the first time I would be meeting my parents, after the whole COVID-19 thing started. I had to miss my flight as I didn’t receive my COVID-19 test results in time. Eventually, I rescheduled my flight for the next day, and sat on the longest flight of my life, a full 13 hours! I almost cried when I saw Dubai’s skyline, it felt good to be back in the neighbourhood! Of course, that feeling only intensified after boarding my connection to Muscat, and seeing the beautiful city in the dead of night (around 3am local time). I stood in the immigration queue for a full 4 and a half hours – I stood in the beginning of the line at 3:45 am, and my turn arrived only at 8:15am! I was looking forward to reaching home by dawn, instead it was 9:30am when I finally reached home.
I attended the first two weeks of the semester online from Muscat, and thus I had to wake up at 3am for one of my classes starting at 6pm New York time. But the comfort of being with family trumped the struggle of staying drowsily awake through the lecture. My other class was at 9am New York time, which was a manageable 6pm Muscat time. Online classes would never have happened if COVID never happened, therefore, this was a whole new experience for me.
February 2021 was when I made peace with the fact that I would not be getting the opportunity to go on a co-op. It was an extremely crushing moment, when I realised that I was the only one in my apartment without an internship. This also meant that I would be graduating in the next three months, something I was not at all prepared for. It was too much for me to absorb at that time, and the thought of going back to Boston and facing my peers who were already on their co-ops, was a scary one. One day before my flight back to Boston, I cried the whole day, apprehensive of what was going to happen in my life. It was a sad trip back to Boston, made interesting only by the fact that my connecting flight from Dubai to Boston got delayed by a full 7 hours, due to inclement weather in the US Northeast. This provided me with the rare opportunity to explore Dubai International Airport in more detail. I bought a Karak Chai from a McDonald’s, and wondered when I’d get the opportunity to drink it again in the Gulf.
Within a week of my arrival in Boston, I was invited to an interview for an on-campus role. It was a super exciting moment for me as I did not have any luck in securing an on-campus job so far, while my peers held multiple on-campus jobs. I ended up becoming an Instructional Assistant, and receiving my first salary in my bank account was such a special moment for me!
March 2021 was when I began my first day as an Instructional Assistant. It took me a week to get fully used to the responsibilities of the role, however it was an enriching and fun experience! I also got the opportunity to visit parts of the Northeastern campus I have never been to before. I also made many new friends through this role! This month was also filled with anxiety, since I was applying for my post-graduation work authorization, and I had to make sure every step was done properly and carefully. Finally, towards the end of the month, me and my friend mailed our applications together from the same post office and it felt great to have company while double- and triple-checking my set of documents.
I was dreading the arrival of April. It would mean my final month at Northeastern University, and also at my on-campus job that I enjoyed doing. Waking up everyday reminded me of my impending graduation. I was just not ready to graduate this early, even though it was going to be almost 2 years since I started on this journey. It felt like yesterday that I had arrived to the United States for the very first time and was writing my blog post describing my first ever flight to the United States. People usually feel happy that they are graduating, however, all I did was cry. I probably was the only person who reacted this way. I did each of my assignments knowing that this would probably be my final days in an academic setting. And before I knew it, it was the final week of April. A couple of interviews kept me busy, but I couldn’t help but think “this is my last day in a classroom environment”. And I couldn’t comprehend how rotten my luck was, to have my last-ever classes completely online. Luckily, I was able to locate the original classroom for the Telecommunications Public Policy course, and planned to attend my final class for that subject by going to the classroom and joining the Zoom meeting from there, with a couple of my friends. As ridiculous as the whole idea may probably sound to you, I couldn’t think of a better way to commemorate my last class for the course.
While this course did not have a final exam, my other course for the semester, Fundamentals of the Internet of Things, did have a final exam. And the day the final exam would be, was the last ever class at Northeastern University for me. Also, it would be the last ever exam for this degree. Needless to say, it was a bittersweet moment, and thankfully, the course was an easy one, which allowed me to actually think and feel about the significance of this exam. Again, I chose to go to the assigned classroom for this course, but the building was locked as it was a Saturday. So I had to make do with another classroom in another building. The exam itself was an easy one, and once I was done, I felt..empty. Not happy, not sad, I was just emotionless. I was done. I was done with my Master’s degree, without going to the classroom for 2 and a half semesters. I can’t believe I was done. I refused to believe it was over. I looked forward to 2 years of experiencing the American college experience, instead all I did was spend my time sitting at home and attending the lectures. Let me tell you, attending lectures online may be fun for sometime, but you do start missing the in-person experience after a while. This was definitely not the Master’s experience I signed up for, and paid so much for. Yes, I know all this was beyond anyone’s control, but I couldn’t help feeling like something was missing.
My exam was on the 1st of May. The following week had a lot of events for graduating students, and I did sign up for “The Last Lecture”, which was an in-person event held at the university auditorium. I had not been here since my orientation right before my first semester at Northeastern, and it seemed only fitting that I visited this place one last time before I officially graduate. This lecture was more of a motivational nature, and it was really good! Another event that I attended was the procession, which involved a procession of all graduates, wearing the graduation cap and gown. Wearing the graduation dress for the first time ever, felt good! But it also reminded me that my journey at Northeastern was over. I also got a chance to get a graduation ceremony-like photograph of me taken, since our diplomas would not get distributed at the actual graduation ceremony (“Commencement”).
The End (Of My Journey)
May 9, 2021 was the Commencement ceremony for Masters’ students. This was held in Fenway Park, Boston’s most well-known sports stadium, which was specifically chosen to accommodate all the people coming while also maintaining social distancing. Well, I was happy, to finally be inside this iconic landmark of the city of Boston! The ceremony itself was short, about 1.5 hours long. It was very different from what a normal Commencement would have looked like, but it was way better than having nothing at all. I don’t remember much about that day, as everything seemed to go in a blur. The only thing that I had on the back of my mind that day was the realisation that this was my last day as a Northeastern student. After the ceremony was over, it was time to click pictures. All around I could see happy faces, and groups of people clicking pictures. It made me wonder, whether I was the only one feeling sad on the day of graduation too. Like most people, I had originally dreamed of my family being there in Boston to see me graduate, but due to COVID-19, that ended up not happening. The ceremony was broadcasted live, therefore my family could see the ceremony live from thousands of miles back home. But it just wasn’t the same as them being there in person.
We made sure to take pictures at many of Northeastern University’s landmarks, but at times, we were deterred by the long lines of fellow graduates waiting to do the same. The whole evening was spent in capturing memories of a lifetime. After that, we went to a high-end Indian restaurant to have lunch, and unwinded at a friend’s place after what was an incredibly long day.
This is where I am now. At the crossroads of life. Unsure what my next chapter in my life would look like. But I hope it’s as interesting as this one! And as soon as I get a concrete answer to this question myself, I will create another blog post about it. Till then, take care and stay safe!