How college students are documenting their disrupted education

As online graduations wrap up the school year, student photographers reflect on the past two months.

Photograph by Nick Lin, Parsons School of Design
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“When I returned to New York City for school in January, my mom insisted I bring a coverall suit with masks and full-on protection gear in case of any emergency. So I wore those in this isolation self-portrait to reflect on the current living circumstances.”

Photograph by Nick Lin, Parsons School of Design

Days after signing a lease for her New York City apartment, Kelly Liu received a call from her parents. The last flight to Singapore, where she was born, was in less than 48 hours, they told her. Liu, an undergraduate studying design and photography at The New School in Manhattan, scrambled to book a flight back. Within 30 hours, she found herself flying across the world, leaving behind the life she’d built mid-semester. “Singapore called back many of their citizens to ensure their safety,” she says. “Everything that happened within those 30 hours felt so surreal.”

When she arrived, Liu and her brother, who also studies in the U.S., quarantined for 14 days in a hotel room. They both had to attend online classes, and coordinated when they could speak. “I stayed on mute while he commented in his classes, and he stayed on mute when I commented on mine,” she says.

As the coronavirus pandemic shut college campuses, students have gone home, celebrations and commencements have been put on hold, and many are left wondering how to finish their degrees. Some have had to find jobs while continuing to study. Many have asked for their tuition money back. Most worry about the future.

For photography students like Liu, lockdown has also meant finding fresh ways to create in static spaces. “Photo classes have been hard for me as I’ve had to work with what I look at every day, which isn’t much,” she says. “But I have to make something out of it.” William Camargo, a master's student at Claremont Graduate University, has been using photography to tell his family’s story through their possessions, a change of pace from his typical form of storytelling. “A lot of my work was out in the community. I was taking portraits, going out in neighborhoods, which is now not possible,” Camargo says, “I gravitate towards that connection.”

Disrupted from their on-campus lives, student photographers are finding inspiration in their quarantined communities and reconsidering what home looks and feels like to them. Many have turned the cameras toward their families, their roommates, or the empty spaces once filled by friends. The work of these student photographers from around the country offer a peek into what it’s like to lose community in the middle of a school year, find new sources of inspiration, and grapple with graduating into a world reeling from an unprecedented pandemic.

“This image is of my younger brother and his girlfriend in a playhouse behind my family home. Being quarantined here has taken me back to what it felt like growing up. It’s gotten me to take a step back and make things in a more playful and exploratory way.”
Alexandra McDowell, Parsons School of Design
“Four of us met up at my friend’s house to walk six feet apart. We walked in no particular direction for three hours and I didn’t realize how much I needed it. It was strange, goofy, and wonderful to be distracted and to laugh with my friends.”
Lauren Miller, Syracuse University
“I have a lot of fears during this pandemic, but none more than someone hurting me because of my identity. There have been hundreds of recorded cases of xenophobic attacks on Asian Americans across the United States. The attacks make me want to not show my true self. After 27 years of fighting to prove that I belong in this country, I still fear being told to go back where I came from.”
Eric Lee, George Washington University
“As a mother, I wanted to model for my daughters the ability to adapt to a new situation. In fact, they have lived in four countries already and our family is used to changing from one country to another.”
Olga Jaramillo, George Washington University
“A portrait of my sister heavily influenced by what I feel are ambiguous directions of where we go from here. As we’re both students during this time, we’ve been navigating our respective academic cyberspaces and trying our best to establish altered routines. Yet I take comfort in knowing we can escape such isolating circumstances in each other’s company.”
Gabrielle Cavallaro, Syracuse University
“The moment I landed [in Vietnam], I gathered my bags and went straight to the quarantine center the government has set up for returning citizens. With nothing much to do, I spent time struggling to gain closure for the abrupt separation from my life in the U.S.”
Kai Nguyen, Syracuse University
“When my brother and I came back to Singapore, everyone was required to go directly to a hotel for a 14-day quarantine. The windows were sealed shut, so fresh air wasn’t an option. All of our meals were ordered from the outside and delivered without contact. We were not allowed to leave the room.”
Kelly Liu, Parsons School of Design
“One of my morning bike rides through Joaquin Miller Park in Oakland, California. Every day since the shelter in place has felt more or less the same. But these bike rides offer me a chance to break that routine. For two to three hours in the morning, I get to see the Bay Area wake up. The fog rolls slowly over the hills before the sun rises. Sometimes the fog is so thick, it sounds like it's raining. It gives me a moment to escape the uncertainty.”
James Tensuan, University of California Berkely
“I realized that my backyard has a plethora of items that can become part of my work. These items carry symbolism with cultural references. The bean bag I am carrying in the right hand is from my mother's current job at a Latinx grocery store in Orange County, California. I am wearing the very recognizable Nike Cortez, which roam around in many Latinx Southern California neighborhoods.”
William Camargo, Claremont Graduate University
“Rituals have been important to me lately, and I’ve been interested in photographing people with a solid sense of faith. This image is of a group of individuals during a socially-distanced gathering in Massachusetts.”
Dylan Hausthor, Yale University
“I was isolated in two rooms in which I ate, slept, worked, and occasionally did some yoga. Every morning, I looked at the withering daffodils, which my friend had dropped off in front of my house, and my improvised compost bin slowly filling up. It reminded me that time was passing—just a little more strangely than usual.”
Alexandra Von Minden, University of California Berkely and Freie Universität Berlin
“My sister came down with a fever after coming home from studying abroad in Europe and my dad started feeling a little sick as well. Our family quarantined them and made a separate spot in the kitchen for their dirty dishes. This was early in the quarantine and we couldn’t easily get ahold of a coronavirus test. We had no way of telling if she had COVID-19.”
Andy Bao, University of California, Los Angeles
“I've been thinking a lot about my grandparents, who live in a retirement community in Hanover, Pennsylvania that is currently on lockdown. I feel like I'm constantly hearing news of retirement homes and assisted living facilities getting infected, and I just can't help but worry theirs will be next.”
Camille Desanto, George Washington University
“Nothing is easy and everything is unexpected, but all we can do is cling to what is good. Isolation allows for, and often forces, self-reflection. While this can have a positive impact overall, you have to first overcome many negative feelings such as self-doubt, loneliness, and depression.”
Bailey Ingham, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill
“This pig, which died of natural causes, lays in the bucket of my brother-in-law’s telehandler on his farm near Paullina, Iowa. It’s unfortunate but happens occasionally inagriculture. The move back home to rural Iowa has been a mixed bag. It’s been great to catch up with family, but it feels like I’m stuck in limbo.”
James Year, Ohio University
“One of our important refuges is the roof, which we reach by climbing a rickety ladder through a small opening in the ceiling. New York, my home, has become the global epicenter of COVID-19. The roof is the one place we can escape to.”
Anouk Wellford, Bard College
“I chose to photograph my generation’s experience during quarantine, wanting to capture their mixture of emotions from a distance. As much as I wanted to go up to them and hug them, it was important for it to be genuine in capturing them from afar.”
Aijah Raye Refuerzo, Parsons School of Design