International students jumped through several hoops to get to campus this fall. Sapan Shah (MBA ’23) reports.
“The answer is YES!” read the first line of the decision letter from HBS to successful applicants this year. As much as it was the culmination of years of perseverance and months of applications for candidates, it was also the beginning of the next chapter of their lives. The months leading up to August 2021 were marked by excitement and anticipation but also fraught with apprehension as the Covid-19 pandemic raged on in various parts of the world. For international students hoping to matriculate at HBS this fall, these months were an uphill trek. Every step of the pre-matriculation process involved unique challenges brought on by the pandemic, from visas to vaccines.
For Naresh Kandoi (MBA ’23), the arduous process began earlier than most. As a former candidate in the MBA class of 2022, Kandoi looked forward to matriculating in the fall of 2020. Even with lockdowns being instituted in India, there was the hope that normalcy would be restored by fall. The start date was merely weeks away when the possibility of a deferral presented itself. Seeing as there was no end to the pandemic in sight, Kandoi elected to defer his admission. “Everything was uncertain, and we didn’t know how the virus was evolving. Since I was the only support for my parents back home, I opted to defer,” said Kandoi. The deferral was a no-brainer for Adi Kusnadi (MBA ’23) from Indonesia, for whom online classes would mean a limited exposure to his cohort and diminished opportunities to make connections. Additionally, the 11-hour time difference between Jakarta and Boston would mean classes at odd hours of the night. A large fraction of the class of 2022 admits from Indonesia opted to defer, as the US embassies in Indonesia shut down between March and September 2020.
When the visa process for 2021 began, things looked optimistic. Kandoi, like the other admitted students from India, had scheduled visa interviews at one of the four embassies in the country. However, when the second wave of the pandemic peaked in late April and early May, embassies began canceling the visa appointments scheduled during this period. By the end of May, a sense of doom set in among students due to start school in the US this fall. While the embassies had started posting a trickle of new visa appointments on their website, there were concerted efforts among the student community across social media platforms like Telegram, Discord, and WhatsApp to post live updates of new slots being opened. The result was encouraging, but only barely. With a total of close to 200,000 students aspiring to pursue higher education in the US every year, the demand for F1 visa slots outweighed the supply by several orders of magnitude. This mismatch, coupled with the primitive interface and arbitrary limits on login attempts and clicks on the visa website, was a constant source of anxiety. “The struggle for a visa appointment was just as stressful as, if not more than, the wait for the HBS admissions results,” quips Yoshita Agrawal (MBA ’23). It was only in mid-June when the US Embassy in India announced the opening of tens of thousands of interview slots that Indian students breathed a sigh of relief. Agrawal managed to book a visa appointment in the last week of July, a mere two weeks before she planned to travel. “With the student visa a prerequisite for loan approval, I was cutting it very close to the due date of the first semester fees. By sheer luck, it all worked out,” she added.
The prolonged shutdown of Indonesia’s US embassies in 2020 was the proverbial price that was paid to enable them to stay open in 2021 to grant student visas in time for the fall, reports Kusnadi. “During the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Indonesia in October 2020, an association of students put forth to him a request to expedite student visa processing. The request was discussed in the bilateral talks and resulted in the embassies reopening and issuing student visas,” Kusnadi added.
As the international cohort did the needful to be eligible for travel into the US, getting access to the campus was yet another roadblock. In May 2021, the university announced that it would require Covid-19 vaccination for all students on campus this fall, with the specification that only an FDA or a WHO-approved vaccine would be considered eligible. Many international students, especially those in countries without the approved vaccines, were in a fix. Raches Ella (MBA ’23), Project Lead on India-based Bharat Biotech’s Covid-19 vaccine Covaxin, was inoculated with both doses of Covaxin early on. Covaxin was one of only two vaccines in use in India at the time, the other being Oxford-AstraZeneca’s Covishield, manufactured at the Serum Institute of India. “The university’s criteria on the vaccines was harsh but fair. To ensure a safe campus environment, the cohort needs to be inoculated by a vaccine of the highest quality,” says Ella. “While it is only a matter of time before Covaxin receives a WHO approval, the best course of action for anyone vaccinated with Covaxin would be to arrive earlier to the US and get re-vaccinated with one of the approved jabs.” Students from India and Indonesia, who had received one or both doses of yet to be approved vaccines, reported doing the same. Studies to determine the safety and efficacy of different combinations of vaccines are underway. Last month, WHO warned individuals against mixing vaccines by themselves, urging that these decisions be left to public health authorities.
Those who received the Covishield vaccine in India were hardly in the clear. Vaccinations for all adults commenced on May 1, and the Indian government soon announced a 12-week gap between two doses of Covishield. With the country also facing a vaccine shortage, this meant that students hoping to travel to the US for the fall semester would be racing the clock to get a second dose. However, a few weeks after the announcement, the government released updated guidelines to allow students going abroad to get the second dose before the 84-day period elapsed.
The last mile of the journey to campus for international students—flying into the US—was not without its difficulties. Not only did international hubs in Europe and the Middle East institute travel restrictions and quarantine requirements for transiting passengers, but these restrictions were also largely unclear and were adjusted frequently. “Singapore is the most common hub for passengers from Indonesia, but in July, Singapore banned transit travelers from Indonesia,” recalls Kusnadi. “The UAE, too, banned Indonesians from entering the country. However, these restrictions did not clarify whether transiting passengers would be allowed. It took us weeks to confirm the same,” said Kusnadi, who booked a last-minute Emirates flight from Jakarta to Boston via Dubai.
Students from India who booked Air India’s direct flights to New York to avoid quarantine during transit were met with arbitrary cancellations and reschedulings. Last-minute bookings were priced at twice, sometimes thrice as much as tickets booked in advance. An RC student from India added, “Air India canceled my flight without even an email—less than six weeks before I needed to take off, and I found out by complete chance. They are yet to process my refund.”
Despite the less than ideal pre-matriculation period that was the summer of 2021, many in the cohort have left worries behind and are looking forward to a life-changing experience. Kusnadi is ecstatic, “Arriving in Boston after a 22-hour flight, and after more than a year of waiting after the deferral, was exhilarating. I cannot wait to meet the class of 2023 and start school.”
Sapan Shah (MBA ’23) hails from India. Before HBS, he worked in consumer goods and non-profit healthcare, and during the latter had been vital in the implementation of India’s HIV/AIDS control strategy. He spends his leisure time immersed in popular culture and quizzing.