[OPINION] Studying in the U.S. in the middle of a pandemic

Marie Tanya Recalde
[OPINION] Studying in the U.S. in the middle of a pandemic
'COVID-19 elevated and expanded the scope of my education'

When I applied for Fulbright’s Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship in Finance and Banking, a fully-funded program of non-degree academic study and related professional experiences in the USA, I did not expect that I would get a unique learning experience.  

I was not new to studying abroad, having finished my Master of Corporate Law in Cambridge University in the United Kingdom as a Chevening scholar. However, the education I received this time around was different. 

Ironically, I thank the coronavirus for that. 

I arrived in Boston, Massachusetts in August 2019 and, together with 12 other fellows from a dozen different countries, since then busied myself attending various finance and law classes and seminars in the best US universities, such as Harvard, MIT, and Boston University, and meeting global leaders and professionals in various conferences such as the IMF-World Bank Annual Meetings in Washington, DC in order to  beef up my skills as a policy officer in the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas and to hone my leadership skills in the finance sector. I originally set the focus of my fellowship on financial regulation of fintech and financial innovation, the two things that have been disrupting the banking system around the world. But COVID-19 elevated and expanded the scope of my education. 

Staying in the US during the Great Lockdown when it was the epicenter of the pandemic was not the most pleasant of experiences, but the positive side greatly outweighed the negative part. It was the best time for a foreign student to experience American culture and for a foreign central banker to study and experience central banking in the USA.

Around me, panic, confusion, and uncertainty were palpable, especially in the beginning. It did not help that Massachusetts was among the first states to record a COVID-19 “superspreading event” through the Biogen conference in late February. There was the bizarre panic buying of toilet paper, on top of food staples and disinfectants. “Medical essentials” such as alcohol, hand sanitizer, vitamin C, masks, and thermometers were scarce. As nonessential businesses closed in late March, a lot of people including many of my working student classmates lost their jobs or were furloughed. (READ: U.S. workers face unequal future when virus recedes)

MY PRECIOUS. A woman shows rolls of much-coveted toilet paper. Photo by Tanya Recalde

It was serendipitous that I was taking a class on Financial Crises when the pandemic broke out. As soon as the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 as a global pandemic, and Massachusetts declared a state of emergency, universities in Boston stopped in-person instruction and all classes moved online. Students who were on spring break suddenly found themselves unable to return to their school accommodations. I ended up glued to the news on a daily basis, monitoring the extraordinary actions that the Federal Reserve (as well as the IMF and World Bank based in Washington, DC) was doing to contain the negative economic effects of the virus and discussing them in detail over our weekly Zoom classes. If I was not analyzing the Fed’s actions, I was living in them. As I walked outside to buy my necessities, I found myself identifying establishments which could apply for the Fed’s Main Street Lending Program or the Paycheck Protection Program Liquidity Facility. If I was not concentrating on the Fed, I was closely monitoring the actions of the major central banks around the world and the BSP.  

As I plunged into this rabbit hole of learning, all my dots suddenly connected. The banking laws and regulations of the USA, UK, and the Philippines that I studied by heart suddenly became handy and helpful in dissecting the actions of financial regulators around the world. This period also gave me a chance to revisit my other degree, which is economics, and to review monetary policy in order to round up my “full” central banking education. (READ: U, V, W or L? The alphabet soup of economic recovery scenarios)

I spent the time – freed up by not being required to prepare and travel for classes, meetings, and conferences – writing a law book on credit and bankruptcy and observing everything around me. The pandemic exposed many aspects of US society that was not evident in ordinary times, such as the bigger proportion of immigrants doing “essential” work, the higher vulnerability of colored people to have severe infection, the huge number of Americans living paycheck to paycheck and the double of whammy of losing a job and the medical insurance connected to it, the difficulty of sourcing imported goods at a short amount of time such as masks from China, and the preference of society to shift to cashless, digital finance. (READ: Rappler Talk: How Filipinos abroad are dealing with coronavirus)

The lockdown in Boston was not as strict as in the Philippines. People were still able to move around freely, and public transportation was available. But many followed the government’s advice to restrict nonessential travel and the trains and buses ran almost empty. Masks were not required in the beginning, but as the number of infections rose, stores required shoppers to wear a face covering. By May, masks began to be required in public areas. While there was no local government “ayuda” distributed per household unlike here, many primary schools turned into food banks and gave out food packs and essential items daily to their students’ families.

EMPTY. Supermarket shelves are wiped out. Photo by Ünal Sayman

I spent a month and a half in Boston during the pandemic. During this time, I saw the resilience, hospitality, and community spirit of American people. Professors who are advanced in age were able to easily learn and use online teaching tools. Young people volunteered to run errands and do grocery shopping for the elderly and vulnerable. Many sewed masks to give away to those without. A lot of people made it a point to buy from small businesses to keep these establishments alive. In my fellowship, our host institution let us stay in our accommodation and provided needed support to help us finish our program. Our host families regularly checked up on us and volunteered to provide assistance, such as a ride to the airport, in times of need. 

COVID-19 might have disrupted my otherwise carefully planned program, but by providing me with a distinctive view of American ethos learned alongside academic and professional endeavors, it provided me with a once-in-a lifetime, truly enriching, and entirely transformative educational experience. – Rappler.com

Marie Tanya Z. Recalde is a lawyer and economist from the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas. She is an awardee of the Chevening, Fulbright, and Cambridge Trust scholarships, 3 of the most prestigious scholarships in the world.

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