My Covid Story:

Minseo shares her story as an international boarding student from South Korea at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Early on, when things looked worse in her home country, she and her parents grappled with what made more sense: staying in the United States (U.S.) or going home. Thankfully, Minseo made the decision to return to her own country because the statistics quickly began to turn.

COVID Poses Unique Challenges for International Students, Minseo Reflects

Mid-February 2020, I sat at a table in my school’s grand dining hall and received a call from my parents. They expressed concerns (that I shared)  about my going home to South Korea over the upcoming spring break. At that time, Korea was experiencing hundreds of Coronavirus cases each day, with numbers continuing to rise. Despite our initial trepidation, I soon found myself bundled up at the Incheon Airport waiting for my parents to pick me up to drive home, along with my luggage, hand sanitizers, ethanol spray, and three packs of KF94 masks — including the one I was wearing.  

Spring term of my freshman year was a mess, but I felt relieved about the early decision to return to my family before strict travel restrictions ensued a couple weeks after my arrival.

Since the outset of the pandemic, I’ve been grateful for South Korea’s well-designed healthcare systems. For example, anyone, including foreigners, were reassured that they could enter the hospital and receive treatment if they tested positive for the virus. They also  quickly established systems and processes that halted the spread of COVID-19 and reversed that initial spike, including successfully stopping a recent outbreak that could have led to a resurgence.

Pros and Cons of Remote Learning

Meanwhile, the pandemic was heating up in the U.S. causing nationwide school shutdowns from March through May 2020. Now faced with learning from home unexpectedly during my spring term, I took the time to explore areas that I don’t normally have the luxury to examine due to a packed daily school schedule. I researched architectural design like the Burj Khalifal; watched Netflix movies, COSMOS, and quantum mechanic documentaries; and reached out to teach coding to students. I tried to make the best of what could be done during self-quarantine.

I took the time to explore areas that I don’t normally have the luxury to examine

However, as an international student in South Korea, I faced many difficulties during that semester. Due to the 13-hour time difference between the Eastern Standard Time (EST) operations for my school courses and Korean Standard Time (KST), I grappled with the arrangement of my schedule: Should I wake up early before dawn or should I just stay up through the night for my 4 AM class and then sleep until noon?

Should I wake up early before dawn or should I just stay up through the night for my 4 AM class and then sleep until noon?

With continual disruption to my sleep-wake cycle, and countless sleepless nights, during spring term and into summer break, I never settled into a routine, healthy sleeping pattern. Instead, I struggled through sporadic intervals of disjointed sleep and rest. When I got the chance to connect with friends from either South Korea or the U.S. over video calls, we lamented about our collective fatigue, mental stress, and interrupted sleep schedules. It was clear that many international, as well as regional U.S. students, were having similar troubles.

COVID-19 Sparks Innovation

While the COVID-19 pandemic has brought much suffering, it has also brought some pockets of hope and opportunities

While the COVID-19 pandemic has brought much suffering, it has also brought some pockets of hope and opportunities, especially in terms of  development in technology and bioengineering. Coronavirus has become a catalyst for scientific initiatives like telemedicine. Along these lines, many inspirations have stemmed from college students and fellow high schoolers who have been discovering solutions to combat the Coronavirus, such as COVID-Map and informative apps. As a problem-solver myself, I wanted to contribute too with my own knowledge about software programming and product-creation.

Together with a close friend from Korea, we designed the DreamCatcher Lab team, entered an artificial intelligence (AI) competition called POSCO 2020 AI Challenge; as participants, we began to develop a smart app and product in order to help patients with partial and chronic insomnia, and anyone having trouble getting a good night’s sleep in general. My own disrupted pattern, as well as many of my friends and schoolmates, was the impetus to search for a solution to maintaining good sleep cycles. In the span of three months, we successfully created the DreamCatcher app with pink noise music therapy, a wireless device, and a novel AI technique, called ElectroCardioGram (ECG) estimation from a PhotoPlethysmoGram (PPG) wave, to help monitor user’s sleep. Ironically it felt like I had insomnia from staying up nights debugging the program; but it was amazing to see the idea become a reality.

Trying to Make Sense of the Inconceivable

As a quantum mechanics enthusiast, I’ve learned to appreciate the unruly subatomic universe as “orderly chaos” — sensible things made up of objects that follow senseless rules. Trying to decrypt the phenomena and reach mathematical proofs, leads to one of two opposite places: either scientific properties with definitive answers or somewhere even more surreal.

The past several months have been the latter: bizarre,  unimaginable, even incomprehensible. As the pandemic and public health crisis impacts all of us globally, cyclic relapses of racial discrimination — George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, David McAtee — persist in a fundamentally-corrupt system. Asian gaslighting and violence serve as another inconceivable reminder. Add to that, burning infernos, first in Australia then across the West Coast of the U.S. like some blistering plague. The events collectively unfolding like a morbid tale or tragic playbook. Is there order to this chaos and destruction?  Worse yet, these outcomes probably won’t remain confined to the year 2020.

How Does this Relate to My School?

Following a couple weeks of online learning from Korea, my school is (at least tentatively) reopening for the start of fall term. I’ll be flying back to campus in October. Despite the degree of disaster and upheaval, I’m relieved to see changes in the school’s approach. We now have an Anti-Racist Workshop period in the weekly schedule and have regular talks and interviews about race during assembly. 

Overall, the concept of online zooming for math or even orchestra class isn’t as awkward anymore. With back-to-campus protocols, I’m curious (and a bit nervous) to learn whether the school’s meticulous planning to prevent Coronavirus outbreaks will prevail. Routine dormitory sanitizations, check-ups, food pick-ups and social distancing, meeting restrictions, 24/7 health center operations, and more comprise the plan. Upperclassmen already moved into the school dorms several weeks ago.

Honestly the precautions aren’t nearly enough to put my mind, nor my parents’ and friends’ minds, at ease.

Honestly the precautions aren’t nearly enough to put my mind, nor my parents’ and friends’ minds, at ease. The thought of an influx of hundreds more students to the campus and positive cases continuing to pop up in nearby towns worry me. 

Despite these legitimate concerns, I’m committed to trying, along with my peers, to focus my thoughts and energy on continuing to create, innovate, and solve problems. Taking my cues from visionaries, scientists, activists and classmates, I’ll thrive to make sense of the situation, and to discover solutions. Creating and inventing, like I did with the DreamCatcher, offers the possibility of practical solutions and provides a sense of hope. 

“The past is our present,” as the saying goes. Unravelling the twisted strings and determining viable solutions, from global warming to the battle against new, more-resilient viruses to centuries old and ensconced problems like racism, may sound insurmountable. But, if we’ve learned anything from this pandemic, we definitely ought to try. 

Reported by Anoushka Mahendra-Rajah
Written by Minseo Kim
Edited by Dr. Jacki Hart

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