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Set to Graduate Without Having Set Foot on Campus, Harvard Law LL.M. Students Look to the ‘Silver Linings’

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For Angelina A. Kwan, an LL.M. student, her Harvard experience has been an “amazing, frustrating, [and] exhilarating” one, marked by a struggle to keep up with the near-opposite time-zones between Cambridge and her home in Hong Kong.

In a month, Kwan — along with dozens of other Master of Laws students in her cohort — will graduate with a Harvard Law degree, without ever having set foot on campus.

“You take on the challenge and push yourself as much as you can,” Kwan said. “So far I’ve survived.”

From Monday to Wednesday, Kwan logs onto Zoom at 11:30 p.m. in the evening and attends class until 1:30 a.m. On Thursdays, her mediation course begins less than four hours later, at 5:00 a.m.

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“You only get three hours max of sleep, and then you have to be able to be present, and be a mediator, and take notes, and answer questions, and go through the Socratic method of learning,” she said.

Harvard Law School’s LL.M. program is a one-year degree program for individuals hailing from a diverse range of backgrounds and ages — 97 percent of the current cohort is composed of international students. In a normal year, the program consists of approximately 180 individuals — including government officials, judges, professors, and businesspeople — from around 70 countries.

With the pandemic, however, LL.M. students have experienced a one-year education many said they never anticipated. Scattered across the globe, participants in the program said in interviews that time zone differences, separation from classmates, and the fact that they will never learn in person on the University’s campus were key issues on their minds.

Harvard Law School spokesperson Jeff Neal said that since the onset of the pandemic, the Law School’s “first priority” has been to “protect the health and safety of our community” while also “maintaining an excellent academic program” and “finding ways to support student community.”

“We understand that this has been an extraordinarily challenging year for students and people around the globe, including our LL.M. students,” Neal wrote.

Persevering Amidst the Pandemic

Pauline Heingle, a LL.M. student originally from France but currently living in Rome, Italy, said the most difficult aspect of the virtual school year was learning to “keep up with the classes psychologically” in an online format and “connect socially with people.”

“It’s quite hard,” she said. “I think it’s the same issue with the first year JDs. For people that have already been on campus in Boston, you already have some network. Here, we’re completely left alone.”

Heingle said finding peers to work together with, let alone scheduling study sessions around time zone differences, has been a major challenge.

“That’s the hardest thing to do,” she said. “To find that classmate you can work with, you can speak with — especially with the different time zones — and do it completely online.”

Makoto C. Hong, an LL.M. student hailing from Singapore — 12 hours ahead of Eastern time — said navigating disparate time zones has been “the most challenging part” of the LL.M. experience.

“It has made it more difficult, especially to go for things like meetings outside of classes, office hours,” Hong said. “The instructors have been really very helpful, but I would still feel very bad to trouble them to schedule special hours as opposed to the usual hours, which are maybe 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. Singapore time.”

Neal wrote that over the course of the pandemic, the Law School increased the number of courses and events offered at times accessible to students in far-away time zones and launched a new Technology Assistance Fund to provide up to $1 million to assist students in overcoming “technological obstacles to participating fully in online learning.”

Though students made an effort to hold regular social events in earlier months, Hong said it has been difficult to continue that effort through nine months of exclusively virtual interaction.

“Frankly, there is much more inertia to meet when it’s a virtual environment and when there are such disparate time zones,” Hong said.

Misthura A. Otubu said that with few peers in her time zone and unreliable internet, her learning experience from Nigeria has been “very exhausting,” and that “Zoom fatigue was real.”

“We share lecture notes and generally everybody is just really willing to help, which is quite uplifting,” Otubu said. “But then again, there’s a big challenge of not being able to associate with a lot of people, as you would normally have in an in-person setting.”

Victor O. Ojeah, another LL.M. student currently residing in Nigeria, said a central reason why he and his peers chose Harvard Law School was because of its unique reputation as a place to connect with global leaders and prominent legal scholars.

“One of the value propositions that Harvard sells to us is the ability to meet and network with some of the most talented people across the world,” Ojeah said. “Unfortunately, that was a promise Harvard did not meet this academic year for LL.M. students.”

Efforts To Engage the Administration

Prior to the fall semester, when Ikram Ais learned that her LL.M. program would be virtual, she said she was not surprised given the “difficulty of the situation.”

“I can’t say it was the fair approach, but it was the most reasonable one,” said Ais, who is living in Germany.

After hearing the decision, Ais said she reached out to her peers and made an effort to “keep in touch” and “be communicative with one another.”

“They’re venting, I’m venting, and then we’re just pushing through. I felt like that was really important for all of us,” Ais said.

Ojeah said that from the time LL.M. students received their admission letters in March 2020 up until the news that the spring semester would be remain online, members of his class have “tried to have a conversation” with the Law School to suggest modified policies that could “mutually suit both the students and the administration.”

“It appeared, however, that the administration was not very keen on hearing students’ perspectives,” Ojeah said. “When you talk to an average LL.M. student of this year, the perception we have about HLS is that graduate students are probably not as important as other students in the school.”

According to Ojeah, every time students attempted to “contribute to the decision-making process,” it felt as if they were met with “stiff resistance.”

“Some of the students, for example, as early as April of last year were suggesting to Harvard that if it is thought that the pandemic is going to be so bad, they could consider shifting the calendar to a later date for resumption to allow some in-person activity,” he said. “Or they could give people a more flexible deferral process — we came up with a lot of options, and all of them fell on deaf ears.”

Neal, the HLS spokesperson, wrote that the Law School held “multiple meetings” with this year’s LL.M. class, beginning last summer and carrying on into the fall term in order to hear student perspectives.

Program administrators, Neal added, recognized that many LL.M. students may “prefer not to commence their one-year programs this year,” and extended the traditional deferral deadline by approximately six weeks. All deferrals were accepted, according to Neal.

By May 2020, Ojeah said, nearly half of his class had deferred. Many who have continued with the program, he said, are considering an additional LL.M. program because the Harvard Law experience did not “meet our expectations.”

Following her cohort’s completely virtual year and the online festivities planned in lieu of a traditional commencement, Ais said she is advocating strongly for an in-person ceremony at some point in the future, something Harvard and the Law School have promised to students.

‘The Finest Moment’

Despite the manifold challenges of being an LL.M. student during the pandemic, Shota Toda — an LL.M. student based in Tokyo — said he had experienced several “silver linings,” including chatting on Zoom with classmates and exchanging photos of their respective home countries.

“Sometimes we’ll send pictures which we took in a neighborhood or in a park or a tourism spot,” Toda said. “I take a picture and send it to my classmates, and that’s how we can communicate with each other.”

Otubu said some of her favorite memories emerged from working with student organizations. Obutu currently serves as a publication editor for the Kennedy School’s Africa Policy Journal.

“I’ve actually really gotten to know the people on the team and I feel like I’ve actually been doing substantial work in that regard,” she said. “It’s just very exciting for me — I’ve never taken on an editorial role in such a renowned journal before.”

Maria L. Passador, an editorial board member of the Harvard Business Law Review, said she worked as part of the publication’s sponsorship committee, organizing seminars with students from across the Law School.

“There were 1Ls, 2Ls, 3Ls, and everybody shared their own views,” Passador said. “That was so exciting, that was really a way in which we could do something, notwithstanding the distance and the fact that there were just a couple of LL.M.s in the group — we were really close-knit.”

Ojeah also said his involvement in a student association — the Harvard Arbitration Society — has been “one of [the] most exciting moments” of his LL.M. experience.

“We had this conference and it was just mind blowing — not just the outcome, but the feedback from people,” Ojeah said. “That’s been one of my highest points at HLS.”

Hong said he and two other LL.M. students from Singapore have made it a tradition since September to meet in person at least once every two weeks to discuss the various aspects of their Law School experience and stay connected.

“That has really helped,” Hong said. “We’ll discuss classes, constitutional law, time zone challenges — so that’s really nice.”

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This past January, Toda said he took an exam in his international commercial arbitration class that was “almost crazy” in its degree of complexity and took “long, long hours.” One of Toda’s best friends from the program was also enrolled in the course.

Shortly after Toda completed the grueling exam, he was notified that he had passed with the highest possible grade and his friend had received a Dean’s Scholar distinction.

“We shared that experience on Zoom,” Toda said. “We said congrats to each other — that was the finest moment for me.”

—Staff writer Emmy M. Cho can be reached at emmy.cho@thecrimson.com.

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