June 22, 2020

Dear Dean Whiting, Dean Designate Mehrotra, and representatives from Harvard International Office,

We hope this letter finds you safe and well amidst these tumultuous times. We write on behalf of the international student body of the incoming class of 2020 regarding the upcoming online semester. We appreciate the time, effort and further considerations taken into making a decision that keeps the GSD’s best interests at heart and hope that this correspondence shall be taken in the same spirit.

In addition to the mail written to you to address general concerns which all incoming students face, a few challenges specific to the international student body arose after conducting a survey (see Appendix). The responses of the survey comprised more than half of incoming international students. We feel that international students have been disproportionately affected in the fallout of the global pandemic and the resulting administrative decision. The implications of a remote semester and the impact it has from a legal, economic, academic and social point of view compromises our enrollment capacities. Harvard GSD and the International Office ought to account for these challenges that we, as incoming international students face.

As part of a graduate community that is coping with a global pandemic, the GSD’s response has not been forthright. Only 30%[1] of the incoming international student community is satisfied with the communications led by Harvard International Offices and the Admissions office. The intent of this letter is not to be accusatory, but rather seeks to open a clear channel of communication and suggests alternatives to some aspects that we feel have been inadequately addressed. The following are key areas that we consider crucial to make a decision moving forward and would like to be answered and considered at the earliest.

1. Mandatory enrollment in a fully online semester perpetuates inequality amongst the domestic and international students, who face force majeure.

a.     It is impossible for students to make visa appointments as embassies are closed indefinitely. If the spring semester resumes in-person, many international students most definitely will not get their visa in time. In the majority of cases embassies and the HIO (communication on June 4th, 2020) have provided no information as to when they shall open and begin to process visas for students. In fact, more than 70%[2] of us are impacted by the closure of embassies. In cases of China and India, appointment dates have been granted in the months of February and March of 2021, which will most certainly jeopardize the possibility of an in-person Spring semester.


b.      Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, both domestic and international travel bans exist in various countries. These situations with an indefinite expiry date cannot be bypassed or appealed by students, and they also affect the enrollment of international students should the Spring semester resume in-person.  We are concerned by the lack of a long-term plan and acknowledgement of the issue at this juncture for future mobility and return to campus next year.


c.     We fear the lack of legitimacy and the recognition of a fully online program, since an online certification of the classes that we attend is not recognized by many international bodies. The perception of such a degree in the global labor market is ambiguous and unpredictable. For example, Chinese Ministry of Education and the Council Of Architecture in India do not fully recognize or allow architects to practice with an online degree. 93%[3] students are concerned that the online classes will have a significant impact on future employability.

For international students, the GSD has not provided an adequate actionable plan to enable access to higher education and academia. More than 70%[4] of us are impacted by the closure of embassies. In addition, 69%[5] of us believe that the conditions specific to our countries must be answered by the HIO. Given the described obstacles, we strongly recommend that the GSD provides country and case specific deferrals as a solution.

2. The absence of a legal status as an international student in the U.S. compromises possible employment opportunities, both on-campus and off-campus. Many of us had decided to come to the GSD for the advertised employment opportunities backed up by the school’s reputation and alumni network; remote learning makes these resources unavailable to international students. We urge the GSD to come up with specific plans to address the employment of international students immediately.

a.     An online semester deprives international students of the opportunity to work on-campus jobs, including serving as TA/RA, while many rely on these positions to pay for their tuition and expenses. 83%[6] international students feel the pandemic had a negative impact on their financial situation for the upcoming semester, not to mention the limited financial aid provided by the GSD to international students which is incomparable to that received by our domestic peers. The lack of a legal framework for international students to work on campus during their graduate program at GSD makes it almost impossible for students to have any sort of income while studying.

b.      Remote learning compromises eligibility for CPT and OPT, which are only granted when the international student has been enrolled in least nine months of consecutive in-person instruction. 86%[7] of the students who participated in the survey think that the HIO and the GSD haven't adequately addressed the impact of remote learning in Curricular and Optional Practical Training. On top of gaining valuable professional skills, experience and connections, many rely on pre and post-completion OPT and CPT to pay off student loans. The reticence of the GSD on this matter neglects the concerns of international students who make up 54%[8] of the whole student body at the GSD. In fact, the decision to have fall semester online has already disqualified the incoming international students from OPT and CPT in Summer 2021, and is likely to affect future qualifications for OPT and CPT as the pandemic continues. It is therefore of utmost importance that the GSD takes action to advocate for the employment of international students and connect us with employment opportunities and career service resources.

3. Online learning discriminates against international students disproportionately with regards to lack of access to certain curriculum, resources and networking opportunities.

  1. An online curriculum greatly disadvantages the international student body because of imparity of different time-zones, wifi speeds, country-imposed firewalls, and electricity shortages present across the globe. The Virtual Learning Memo sent out on June 4th mentions classes that will ‘engage’ different time zones, but so far the GSD has provided a vague and confusing action plan. We request a clear and specific plan about how the GSD will respond to time zone and geographical differences. For extreme cases with significant periods of inaccessibility to online learning infrastructure, we suggest that the administration considers granting case-specific deferrals.

  1. An online curriculum greatly disadvantages students with lack of access to fabrication and technological resources. 92%[9] of international students agree on the detrimental impact on learning due to the lack of access to library materials and fabrication resources, compared to 80%[10] of domestic students. We suggest the development of possible collaborations with local universities and architecture practices to resolve this adverse physical impact on the lack of resources. Furthermore, students will struggle to independently locate these resources due to geographical distance, lack of transportation and lack of funds. We request that the GSD come up with solutions to address the negative impact on learning practical skills such as model making and digital fabrication, especially in the case of non-background students.

4. International students bear the brunt of the lack of community building due to their diverse geographical locations and disparate time zones, especially considering the following aspects:

  1. The lack of concrete local action in different parts of the world has jeopardized community building. Email correspondences from the GSD on May 1st, May 17th and June 4th stated objectives to help us connect with fellow incoming and current students, including the activation of a global alumni network and expanded outreach of student groups. However, no formal channels have been established for international students. We request concrete and effective action immediately from the GSD to connect us with existing local chapters and, in specific cases, establish new chapters for the students to build communities.

  1. In light of the pandemic and recent policies, xenophobia towards certain countries is mounting and has not been addressed by GSD.  Anti-immigration policies have been threatening, restricting, banning or even revoking immigrant visas from students and scholars. Cases of discrimination and violence against all racial minorities (Asians, especially Chinese) have been repeatedly reported, leaving targeted individuals vulnerable to isolation, discrimination, and harassment. We urge the GSD to publicly support these students and promise no tolerance to xenophobic behaviors. We also recommend that the GSD incorporate programs raising awareness of cultural sensitivity and caution against pandemic-related discrimination during Orientation Week.

We recognize the radical changes and uncertainty introduced by the global pandemic to our school and the world, as well as the work the GSD has to do to accommodate the situation. It is our hope that with this letter, we can keep the conversations with the GSD going to make sure that the incoming international students receive adequate information and responses that specifically address the concerns we have and the challenges we face. 

Way Forward:

We hope to see and discuss a tentative list of actionable plans during a conversation with the dean and HIO on a later date (post the discussion on the 24th) that will help equip us with official responses to make informed choices.

After consulting with our peers, a few probable dates to adjourn are:

  1. July 1st 2020, 10 AM EST
  2. July 6th 2020  10 AM EST

Summarizing the most pressing points and requests as proposed above:

  1. Country and case specific deferrals
  2. Timezone-specific accommodations for classes, studios, and office hours
  3. Leveraging resources from local universities and alumni networks worldwide
  4. Virtual on-campus employment and part-time CPT opportunities in place of lost J-term and Summer CPT
  5. Cultural sensitivity training during the orientation program in relation to the pandemic and xenophobic policies

We look forward to an inclusive, equitable and transparent discussion. Thank you for your time and energy to ensure that our experience is edifying, fulfilling and as safe as possible.


Incoming International Students of Harvard Graduate School of Design 

(In alphabetical order)

Aakrity Madhan, MDes

Aijing Li, MUP

Ana Zhibaj, MUP

Arthur van Havre, MDE

Barbara Graeff MLA I AP

Catalina Pérez-Aguirre, MDes

Chenyu Wang (Claire), MUP

Ching-Yun Liu, MLA I AP

Chuan Yin, MArch II

Chunfeng Yang, MLA I

Cristina Dávila González, MUP

Devashree Shah, M. Arch II

Diego Lara Olguín, MDes

Ding Yuhe, March II

Ellena Oi Ling Wong, MLA I AP

Felicia Liang, MDE

Fernando Garrido Carreras, MArch I

Guangya Zhu, MLAUD

Guoli Zhang,MAUD

Haimei Li, MAUD

Haochen Zhang, March II

Haoran Jia, MDes

Hoon Cheon, MDes

Hsin-Ju Lin, MDes

Ignacio Lafuente, MUP

Indrajeet Haldar, MDes

Jason Yang, MDes

Jiabin Wei, MDE

Jinzi Wei, March II

Jiqi Zhu, M.Arch I

Jiwon Park, MUP

Juan Villalón Hernando, MAUD

Junru Ruan, MDes

Kanij Fateema, MUP

Kritika Kharbanda, MDes

Laura Bermúdez-Duchamp, MDes

Le Yang, MAUD

Margaret Zhou, MDE

Mengyao Li, MUP

Minzhi Lin, MLA I AP


Owen.A.Mellett, MArch I AP

Pablo Castillo Luna, M. Arch II

Pinyang Paul Chen, MLAUD

Pitchapa Setpakdee, MLA II

Ran Mei, MDes

Ruijie Liu, MLA I AP

Shengfeng Gao, MLA I

Shiqi Zhang, M.Arch I

TaeYong Kim, MDes

Tanushri Dalmiya, MAUD

Tara Bassi, M.Arch I

Viviana Urra, MDes

Wilbert Sanchez Montes de Oca, MDes

Xiaodong Zhu, MAUD

Xiaofei Hong ,MDes

Yifan Shen, MDes

Yu Kiu Chan, M.Arch II

Yu Qin, MAUD

Yunzi Shi, M.Arch I

Zhuoer Mu, MAUD

Zhuohan Zhou, MLA I

Incoming Domestic Students, Current Students and Alumni of Graduate School of Design (In alphabetical order)

Alex Reed, M. Arch 1

Celeste Martore, M.Arch I

Charlotte Day, MArch 1

Chris Dsida, MUP

Gemma Holt, MUP

Josiah Brown, MLA I AP

Liam Cook, MArch 1 AP

Lucy Yip, MDes’20

Maggie Weese, MUP

Maharshi Bhattacharya, MDes’20

Selwyn Bachus II, M. Arch II ‘22

Trent Tepool, MDE

[1] GSD Incoming Students, “GSD Incoming Student Survey,” 2020, 6-8.

[2] ibid., 8.

[3] ibid., 8.

[4] ibid., 7.

[5] ibid., 8.

[6] ibid., 8.

[7] Ibid., 8.

[8] Harvard University Graduate School of Design, “GSD Annual Report 2017-2018,” 2019, http://campaign.gsd.harvard.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/GSD128_2018_Annual-Report-ALL_01-14-19_v8_reduced-size.pdf, 9.

[9] GSD Incoming Students, “GSD Incoming Student Survey,” 2020, 5.

[10] Ibid., 5.