Harvard Kennedy School Students Grapple with Spring 2021 Decision


Harvard Kennedy School students say they are conflicted about spring plans following the school’s decision to offer in-person classes for international students in the spring.

The Kennedy School announced Wednesday that it plans to offer a hybrid of in-person and online classes for its students for the spring semester, prioritizing in-person class spots for students who do not currently hold U.S. visas. The plan marks a contrast to the Kennedy School’s fall format following the COVID-19 pandemic, which has consisted of an entirely online curriculum.

For certain degree programs, the school will modify course offerings to accommodate an in-person class schedule, Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf wrote in an email to HKS affiliates announcing the plan.

Some students have expressed mixed feelings about the announcement. Allan D. Franklin, an international student from Barbados in the Mid-Career Masters in Public Administration program, said while he is still processing the decision, he sees limitations on courses as the plan’s biggest drawback. For those in Franklin’s program cohort, the school announced it would only hold three specific courses in-person for non-U.S. students who “do not presently hold visas but are able to obtain them for the Spring term.”


“I had settled on the courses I want to do for spring and fall. I kind of made the choices together,” Franklin said. “For example, the courses that I want to specialize in, the area I want to specialize in, I was going to do the majority of those courses in fall. And with the on site coming to Cambridge in spring with the option that's being provided that wouldn't be possible. So for me, that's one of the biggest complications.”

Students who are seeking visas would need to take all three courses, and could take elective courses online, one of which can count toward graduation requirements.

Beatriz M.C. Alqueres, another international student, agreed that an option of only three courses would limit the learning experience.

“I was happy for so many colleagues who will be able to get their visas and establish themselves in better learning conditions in Cambridge. However, the obligation to take three predetermined courses, limited to international students, makes the whole decision questionable,” Alqueres wrote in an email.

“In a course (MC/MPA) where the main attractions are the cohort and the flexibility of the curriculum, forcing the choice of three specific courses is completely limiting and inconsistent. In addition, the impossibility of interacting with domestic students makes this whole interpersonal exchange completely superficial,” Alqueres added.

The process of obtaining visas forms another source of uncertainty for international students. While Elmendorf wrote in the spring announcement that students could reach out to the Harvard International Office for help with individual circumstances, he added that Harvard does not control visa issuance and admittance into the United States.

In many countries, U.S. embassies and consulates have been closed and visa appointments have been indefinitely postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In Alqueres’s case, the consulates in her country, Brazil, are still closed.

“The embassies in Brazil are still closed and not issuing student visas,” Alqueres wrote. “Before this scenario, when we were still unsure about the fall, my experience with the Harvard International Office was the best one. They were really fast in responding to my concerns, always trying to indicate and help with good solutions. I believe now it won't be different.”

Kennedy School students from the United States, meanwhile, will not receive the same in-person offerings — though the announcement notes that all students will be able to spend a “modest” amount of time on the Harvard campus.

The Kennedy School has also offered all students the unusual opportunity to take a leave of absence in the spring and return in spring 2022 while carrying over any financial aid and scholarships.

Though she hasn’t come to a decision yet, Allison M. Agsten, a U.S.-based student in the year-long Mid-Career MPA program, wrote in an email that distance learning has been challenging for her family, and she is considering the option of deferral.

“It is painful to even consider deferring but as a domestic student and a parent, I must acknowledge the toll distance learning has taken on my family. With three of us in school online full time, we are challenged to maintain good work, good health, and good spirits,” Agsten wrote.

But according to Alqueres, for many students, deferral is not a feasible option.

“As many of my colleagues, I'm not considering deferring,” Alqueres wrote. “It really doesn't make sense for many of us. We have organized our lives for this year. I believe if you are an independent worker or a business owner you could do it but for the vast majority this is not possible.”

Ultimately, Franklin and Alqueres expressed disillusion with their current options, mourning the loss of the typical Harvard “experience.”

“I was really hoping to get a full Harvard experience in 2021,” Franklin said. “I still haven’t made up my mind what normal would have looked like for me at Harvard or in Harvard. I know fast forwarding to this point in time, with what’s being offered, I guess my expectations would have been a bit unrealistic before.”

Alqueres agreed.

“For an international student, going to Harvard means not just a master program to make, but a lifetime experience. For me, it was 8 years of planning to apply, preparing for tests and building the relations that got me here. For others it was a whole life dedicated to it.” Alqueres wrote.

“We understand that COVID caught everyone off guard but there is an opportunity to show why Harvard is the most prestigious university in the world. We can think of so many alternatives for students not to feel so hurt during this year. Especially for those who are investing their own savings,” Alqueres added.

—Staff writer Raquel Coronell Uribe can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @raquelco15.