The unforeseen yet memorable semester

Reflection on my study abroad experience

Shriya Sharma

uncertainty, study abroad, time

Stuck Abroad

The onset of coronavirus in 2020 was an unwelcome one, which put an abrupt stop to many plans for this year. Come January, many university students, including myself, were gearing up to enter a Student Exchange Programme abroad. To arrive at this point, many elaborate preparations had been made and a lot of time and efforts had gone into making this transition overseas as smooth as possible. My exchange programme was happening in Reims, France, where I was supposed to be studying at the partner university, SciencesPo, for five months.

By the time I had settled in Reims, the first wave of coronavirus had already hit Singapore, leaving many of us worried for our families back home. Very soon, Europe too was hit by this pandemic, but at a much harder rate than anyone could have imagined. Very quickly, a lot of us grew uncertain as to where our immediate future was heading and if the completion of our exchange was even possible. Nearing March, every week felt like our last in the country, and just as we had feared, we were soon called back by the National University of Singapore.

When the Ministry of Health issued an official order recalling all Singaporean students back home, panic ensued and many rushed to find their ways back home. Singapore Airlines’ flights were collectively cancelled and due to France’s sharp rise in COVID-19 cases, all one-way travel from France to Singapore had been blocked.

Air travel was restricted and flight ticket prices were sky-high. I remember spending my last few days in the country searching for the most economical means to get back home safe and sound.

The French lockdown, which began on 18th March 2020, was very sudden and unsettling. Public transport was curbed to limit travelling within the country and private transport, like Uber, stopped immediately. Since I was staying in Reims, I first needed to find my way to Paris, to be able to board an international outbound from Charles De Gaulle Airport. However, this first leg of the journey proved to be the most difficult. My friend and I could find no transport to Grand Central Train Station and had to journey on cobblestone paths for a whole hour with our heavy luggage, only to find that we had missed our sole train to Paris. The night of 18th March became one of the most stressful nights of my life. It felt like we were being sucked into this lonely city and further away from our homes.

Learning Back at Home

With a lucky turn of events, we managed to hitch a bumpy car ride to Paris and make it to our overnight stay near the airport. The journey getting there had been tumultuous but we were fortunate in making it to our scheduled flights, which luckily didn’t cancel on us either. Finally, back home, I stayed in isolation for 14 days where I could finally comprehend the incredulous week I had rushed out of France. As we stayed cooped in our rooms, my friends and I grew apprehensive day-by-day over SciencesPo’s decision to continue with the semester. We had heard stories from our friends, who had been recalled before their semester abroad could even begin. They now suffered from a wasted semester and possibly overdue graduation. I remember being so relieved when my university finally announced that they would be resuming operations through remote learning. This brought along many curriculum changes with modified syllabus and extension of the semester’s duration.

Online learning meant that the previously interactive classes had inevitably dulled down to a Zoom session, with limited engagement.

The learning process became a lot more linear and less attractive and the poor network connections during Zoom lessons were highly disruptive for class discussions. Yet, all of the international students were very grateful to be able to continue their semester online as the alternatives could have been much worse.

The Gift of Time

The coronavirus in 2020 successfully wiped out any pre-existing summer plans. While my past two summers had been jam-packed with internships, this year it was fated to be locked indoors with no work and no pay. The internship offer which I had secured whilst in France was revoked at the last minute due to uncertainty from the pandemic. For a while, this was a grave cause of concern as the importance of a penultimate internship is undoubtedly greater in securing a full-time position after graduation. However, the imposed holiday soon became a blessing in disguise. This unexpected break, which would have otherwise never been penned to my schedule, was much needed in clearing out the fog in my head. It gave me ample time for introspection, understanding and re-evaluating my life priorities, and for the first time, truly deciding where I wanted to head career-wise.

While the lockdown may appear oppressive on the surface, it is a gift of time, which can be used wisely to self-educate and improve our daily lives.

For once, my time was not being dictated by another’s schedule or timetable, and it was up to me to use it on my terms. This lockdown may not be my most ‘productive’ work-wise, but it will be the most enriching in curating a better quality of life.

Shriya Sharma is currently a rising senior at the National University of Singapore majoring in Communications and New Media. She enjoys writing on a wide range of topics and is currently spending the summer at home learning all that she can. Email: sharma.shriya9@gmail.com