Class of 2021: Xuanxuan Chen is completing her senior year virtually—and taking the distance in stride

When Xuanxuan Chen packed up her campus room in mid-March 2020 to head back to China, she took it in stride, knowing the whole world was dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. But she never thought she would still be away from Vanderbilt’s campus in 2021.

Xuanxuan Chen in her hometown of Nanjing, Jiangsu, China. (Contributed photo)

“I miss taking long walks across campus on Friday afternoons with my friends, watching everyone slow down from the week,” she said.

The settings of those vibrant Friday afternoons take on an almost painterly quality as she recalls them. “The colors of the trees and flowers and the squirrels running around along with the diversity of people—it creates some of my most beautiful memories,” she said.

The Asian studies and medicine, health and society double major is thankful for those campus memories as she’s completed her entire senior year online from her home in Nanjing, Jiangsu, China. Chen said her professors quickly made accommodations to help her and other students who are learning from different time zones. (Nanjing is 14 hours ahead of Nashville.) She also credits her small class sizes with the smooth transition to online learning. Though she admits it’s far from ideal, she has approached this season with a mature and unselfish attitude.

“Everyone in the world is influenced to a certain degree and in certain ways by COVID-19, so I’m OK with adapting to this unprecedented time, and I’m OK with changing my way of learning,” she said.

“Everyone in the world is influenced to a certain degree and in certain ways by COVID-19, so I’m OK with adapting to this unprecedented time and I’m OK with changing my way of learning.”

Special friendship

Part of her positive outlook is aided by an act of kindness that blossomed into a friendship between Chen and Laurie Woods, MLAS’00, MA’02, PhD’08, senior lecturer in sociology. In November 2019, Woods invited Chen and a group of other students to join her and her granddaughter for Thanksgiving in Woods’ faculty apartment in McGill Hall.

“There were very few people on campus, and I didn’t know anything about Thanksgiving, but we enjoyed her delicious food and a group of us talked and relaxed. It’s a precious memory I have of Vanderbilt,” Chen said.

Chen is deeply moved that Woods has continued to check in with her throughout the pandemic.

“She not only cares about my studies in her classes and my education in other parts of Vanderbilt, but she also cares for me as a person who may face struggles and challenges—and she wants to help,” Chen said.

Chen credits Vanderbilt’s supportive environment and her professors with cultivating her love of learning. She plans to attend graduate school to expand her work in Chinese and Japanese history and literature. She says that by studying in the U.S., she’s been able to read the works of a diverse array of Chinese authors from different cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds.

“The more I study and read other opinions, the more I find my view, my understanding, my knowledge is still limited—and I want to learn more,” she said. “Vanderbilt has opened up my thinking, and the university makes me happy with being a student.”

This profile is part of a series of stories and videos highlighting undergraduate and graduate students in the Class of 2021.