Five international students who started the 2020-21 school year studying remotely to earn a Master of Laws degree at the UConn School of Law made a bold move in the middle of the academic year and the middle of a pandemic. They came to Hartford.
Antonia May, Felix Hoffman and Johanna Leutnant came from Germany, Helena Verhuyck from Belgium, and Salome Chapeyama from Malawi. They arrived to find a campus still mostly closed, but with a few small classes offered in person and a library where they could study.
“Being physically present on campus has been the highlight of my time at UConn Law,” said Chapeyama, who graduated with an LLM in Insurance Law. “I am happy that I got the chance to walk to campus with a backpack and greet people along the way with a smile under my mask.”
The process of getting to the United States, however, was anything but simple. Canceled embassy visits and the persistent uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic overshadowed the process.
“Until the minute I was sitting on the airplane to the United States, I had no idea if it was going to work out,” May said. “The process of getting here was very tricky because we were waiting for embassies to open and then it happened very quickly.”
“To choose to come to Hartford during COVID was such a brave decision for the students,” said Carrianna Field, director of graduate and exchange programs. “Being in the same time zone not only allowed them to have a better schedule but gave them the opportunity to meet other law students, embrace our campus as their own and even in some cases get vaccinated for COVID prior to returning home.”
After arriving in the United States and spending three weeks exploring New York City, May stayed with Verhuyck and Leutnant for a week in the Hartford apartment they shared. May moved to her own apartment in the West End of Hartford, and continue her studies toward an LLM in Human Rights and Social Justice.
Leutnant, who also earned an LLM in Human Rights and Social Justice, said she was keen to come to Hartford after struggling to stay engaged during her first semester, when she studied remotely from Germany. “The biggest challenge for me was probably the isolation from other students, which was especially hard at the beginning,” she said.
The students had not met each other before arriving, but Verhuyck and Leutnant, who had connected virtually to arrange living together, were booked on the same flight from Washington, D.C., to Hartford, and arrived together.
“It was so nice to arrive here with another person I already kind of knew,” said Verhuyck, who graduated with an LLM in U.S. Legal Studies. “The friendship grew quickly and it made the transition a lot more comfortable."
Verhuyck, who had initially made a spreadsheet of American law schools before deciding on UConn Law, said had been looking forward to connecting with faculty, staff and other students while studying in the “insurance capital of the world.”
After a semester of online learning across a six-hour time difference, Verhuyck’s resolve to come to Hartford only intensified. The online format was difficult, and the time difference made it challenging to engage with lectures, she said.
Once settled into their Hartford lifestyle, the students said they found a much easier school routine. Living within the time zone that aligned with the class hours allowed them able to keep regular schedules and better engage with the material.
Some of the five students enrolled in a class on campus, experiences which they said impressed them and enriched their academic experience.
Chapeyama, who attended the Higher Learning Education writing seminar taught by Associate Dean Darcy Kirk, said she will forever value the experience of classroom time at UConn Law.
“I enjoyed sharing my experiences and listening to my classmates’ experiences on issues such as freedom of speech, academic freedom and diversity, equity and inclusion,” she said.
Chapeyama will return to Malawi this summer and said she is excited to bring her new skills into private practice. Her time at UConn Law helped her better understand complex systems and practices and strengthened her ability to give strong, compassionate advice to her clients, she said.
Yan Hong, director of graduate admissions, said some of the students gained invaluable experience in living in the United States during a time of historic political difficulties.
“They watched closely the U.S. political climate and presidential election,” Hong said. “By living in the U.S. they were in a position to get more complete, objective and timely reporting of such issues.”
In addition to attending virtual and on-campus classes, the students made the most of their time in the United States by taking road trips and exploring the area.
May, Leutnant and Verhuyck traveled extensively together, including trips to Boston, New York City and Maine. They said these trips, and their friendship, have been the highlight of their time in Connecticut.
The students plan to return to their home countries for the immediate future, but could see themselves spending time in the United States in the future.
“I am grateful I was able to be here and learn such interesting things without the crazy time difference,” Leutnant said. “I loved being here and I look forward to visiting campus in Hartford if I am back in Connecticut.”