Students Abroad: Pandemic Edition





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With the volatility of COVID-19, countries across the globe have adopted wildly different approaches in combating the spread of COVID-19. As COVID-19 cases skyrocketed across the globe, many universities shut down their campuses and shifted to online learning, persuading Singaporean students studying abroad to return home. Meanwhile, Singapore implemented staggered arrivals into the country which barred many international students who had gone home for the summer from returning to Singapore for their next school term. These students faced unique challenges depending on the situations of their home countries.

Let’s investigate what some of these challenges are, shall we? 

India 

(Saraf, 2020)

Khush Vardhan Saraf is a third-year architecture major at NUS. He was taking online classes at home in India when his grandmother and domestic worker contracted COVID-19 in May 2020.  As India had no official quarantine measures in place, they were confined to a room in Khush’s apartment, putting the rest of his family at risk. 

But it wasn’t just Khush’s immediate family that were infected—most of his extended family contracted COVID-19 as well.  “After a point, we just lost track, [and] after a point it didn’t matter,” said Khush. 

Contracting COVID-19 has become “very commonplace” in India since it’s first wave due to the absence of official quarantine measures, and hospitals hitting critical capacity. Poor healthcare infrastructure was a chronic issue in India even before the pandemic.  “It was just how the whole thing worked,” Khush said. “It was infuriating and sad.” 

Aside from grappling with the ‘mental toll’ of the pandemic, Khush also faced challenges with his studies, namely for his studio module. After being denied entry into Singapore, he was the only student on Zoom while all his coursemates attended classes in-person. This led to a markedly different learning experience for Khush than that of his coursemates. 

The lecturers’ voice was often muffled as Zoom picked up the background chatter of other students, making lessons “very difficult” to follow. Additionally, he had no access to proper facilities, such as printers and laser cutters to make his architecture models. This caused his work to be “not as detailed and well done” as his peers’. Though his performance for the studio module dropped, Khush shared that he scored well for all his other modules. 

United States of America

(Chan, 2020)

Joei Chan was a first-year English literature major from Agnes Scott College (ASC), US, who recently attended a semester at NUS. Though Joei is a Singaporean citizen, she had spent most of her life in China as her parents worked there. She then went to the US to pursue her tertiary education.

Joei was the first student from ASC to be quarantined in March 2020. After returning from a brief stay in Singapore to attend to family matters, Joei was confined to her dorm room for two weeks per college regulations 

When her quarantine ended, Joei realised that she was getting “weird looks” from her school mates, who “looked really scared” to see her. She suspected that it was due to both her recent travel history as well as anti-Asian sentiments. “Friends who I used to talk to about my day, or go into their rooms to chat about stuff [with], just didn’t talk to me anymore,” she said. Thankfully, there were no further developments on this front but she recalls being worried about her safety in a place she used to think of as home for six months. 

In addition to her social isolation, Joei had to scramble to find a way home when she was released from quarantine as a university-wide evacuation had begun. She was unable to be reunited with her family, who were living in Shanghai, as China had closed its borders and ceased to issue visas to foreigners such as herself.

In the end, her parents sent her to live with her relatives in Singapore in early April, a month after her first quarantine at her college. After deciding to take a gap year from ACS, Joei enrolled for one semester at NUS to pass the time. In November, Joei was finally reunited with her mother, who had returned to Singapore from Shanghai. 

“Even though I went through a lot, I wouldn’t have changed it,” Joei concluded, as she had forged new friendships in Singapore despite the challenges she faced. 

France 

(Boulanger, 2021)

Charlotte Boulanger is a fourth-year student under the NUS – Sciences Po Double Degree Programme (DDP). She spent the first two years of her programme in France at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), and the last two years at NUS. 

Charlotte was completing her second and final year at Sciences Po when COVID-19 shut down her campus. Taken off-guard by the pandemic and misjudging its severity, Sciences Po first attempted a hybrid in-person and e-learning course structure for two weeks. Subsequently, they closed their campus and fully shifted to online learning due to the worsening pandemic. The “rough” transition caused Sciences Po to ease the rigour of all courses. Mandatory attendance was abolished and exams were open for 48 hours to account for the inaccessibility of technology.

Charlotte quickly adapted to online learning at home as she was used to independent study. Moreover, she had a strong social support system as she stayed with her family. The lack of space was her only obstacle. “Juggling [between] a small space, studying, and cohabitation was an issue,” she said. 

Charlotte transferred to NUS in August 2020 for her third year under the DDP. Compared to the leniency of Sciences Po, Charlotte found NUS much stricter in its requirement for online learning. “Singapore felt more like it was trying to move from face-to-face to online without taking into account the specificities [individual circumstances of each student] of the situation,” she said.

China 

(Su, 2021) 

Peter Su is a second-year engineering student at NUS. During his summer vacation this year, he went back to his hometown Chaozhou, China.

The small city has not seen a single COVID-19 case since May 2020 (as of date-of-writing). Life in Chaozhou currently has mostly returned to pre-pandemic times, with the exception of contact-tracing practices and mask mandates in public spaces. Peter found life in Chaozhou more ”relaxed” than in Singapore.

But even though COVID-19 restrictions were more relaxed in Chaozhou, strict contact tracing via Wechat was still enforced. Unlike Singapore’s contact tracing app where data on a user’s whereabouts are only accessible to authorities when the user tests positive for COVID-19, contact tracing information on WeChat is automatic and accessible to everyone at all times. The user’s close contacts are automatically mined to compile a record of the user’s whereabouts in the past 14 days. This record, along with a green QR code which indicates that a user is low-risk, are needed to access shared spaces. 

When he returned to Singapore for his semester this August, Peter felt more “worried” about COVID-19. He missed interacting with people without being concerned about social distancing, especially in large groups. Dining in Singapore was a different experience too. “When I am dining in a restaurant in Singapore, I still find it kind of scary. I want to minimise the time I spend unmasked.”

The one thing Peter missed in Singapore was meeting up with his friends in large groups, especially the friends he has not met in a long time.

Despite having to adjust to a more restricted lifestyle in Singapore, Peter finds the safety measures “acceptable” as Singapore has more COVID-19 cases than Chaozhou. Having lived in Singapore for a long time, Peter finds that he is able to slip back to his daily routine with ease.