When Virginia school campuses closed last spring, it was the first of many unique challenges for Chatham Hall’s international student community.
“Last year I was planning to spend Spring Break in Miami and then do some college visits,” said Vanessa RenHan ’21.
“When that wasn’t possible, I thought I would stay on campus. But then Virginia mandated that all schools shut down. My roommate invited me to stay with her for as long as I wanted to. It was a great time with her family. I spent the summer with them because I knew that if I went home to China then I wouldn’t have the chance to come back. I am a senior, I wanted to complete my college applications in the states because of the network here and work with Dr. McHugh. I also wanted to finish my entire high school career here, I wanted to have the entire high school experience.”
RenHan is the current editor of Columns, the student newspaper, and president of the International Student Association. In the past she has served on the Student Council and as a Prefect and was a four-year member of the Cross Country team.
“This year has been a tough year, but I’m very lucky that I have Ms. Bodnar as my advisor. She’s been very supportive during my entire time here. And Dr. McHugh has also been someone I can talk to. They both made my 2020 a little bit better,” she reflected. “I learned that I had to stay flexible, especially in the time of a pandemic and uncertainty, and make the best out of the time and options that I have.”
For Gloria Guo ’22, returning to campus this year was not an option. Instead, she took advantage of the School’s remote classes.
“I really didn’t want to transfer to another international school in Shanghai as a junior or former overseas student,” she said, when asked about her decision to go remote. “And I did not want to waste my opportunity to be a part of this amazing community.”
Sunny Xu ’23 was able to return to campus only after a two-week quarantine in a third country. With two other Turtles, she quarantined in Dubai, United Arab Emirates before returning to Chatham and quarantining at Gilmore House.
“I didn’t want to have classes via Zoom,” Xu noted. “Being on campus meant that not only could I be with my friends, but I could also absorb knowledge in the classroom from my teachers.”
Unlike RenHan, Guo, and Xu, Lou Riedel ’22 was not returning to Chatham Hall this year but rather arriving as a new ASSIST Scholar, brought to the School by the U.S.-based nonprofit organization that matches academically talented, multilingual international students with American independent secondary schools for a one-year stay.
“I wanted to spend a year abroad not only to improve my language skills, but also to learn about the culture,” she explained. “Obviously this was a pretty crazy year to do this, but I’m still glad I did it… It was definitely a tough decision, especially because COVID was a lot worse in the U.S. than in Germany. But I think what reassured my parents was that Chatham is a small community, the School doesn’t have that many students, and that the School had a very clear plan for how they were going to handle it.”
Riedel’s main fears about coming to campus were not the virus itself, but rather what the restrictions put in place to fight it might mean to her study abroad experience.
“At the beginning I was scared that the restrictions the School had to put in place because of COVID would make it a lot harder to make friends or to truly integrate into the community. But since Chatham Hall had a plan and was able to keep us safe we were able to do a lot of things, sports, for example, that really helped me find friend groups. Chatham Hall managed to enable us to do a lot of activities despite the virus.”
Riedel participated on the Cross Country and Basketball teams, as well as the Spiritual Life program. She looks forward to more activities in the spring.
In the 2020-2021 school year, Chatham Hall enrolled students from 10 countries including Bermuda, Cayman Islands, China, Germany, Hong Kong, Russia, South Korea, Turkmenistan, Vietnam and the United States. Throughout the year faculty members welcomed into their classrooms remote learners from across the globe. The dedication of these students to attending classes and remaining involved has allowed the School to maintain a global community, ensuring a rich diversity from which all community members benefit.