A premature return home

Nicole Tong

international exchange, return, disruption

Exchange and COVID-19 in Europe

When I ask my seniors for the highlight of their university experiences, the answer is often their overseas exchange programmes. My exchange to Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands was no doubt a memorable experience too, but for very different reasons. Like many others, my exchange semester from February to June 2020 was abruptly disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Within the first two weeks at Erasmus, I had settled comfortably in the campus dorm, made new friends and exciting travel plans to Dublin, Switzerland and Eastern Europe. I started getting used to the routines— attending classes three times a week, grocery trips to Albert Heijn, and having mala parties with my new international friends.

As March approached, news about the worsening COVID-19 situation in Europe dominated many conversations in class, with my friends and family back home. While we were still able to attend seminars in-person, everything became about COVID-19. In the communications faculty, our classes started focusing on the use of social media during the pandemic, the COVID-19 situation’s influence on advertising, as well as the growing popularity of TikTok during the pandemic.

As the coronavirus cases in nearby Germany and France started to rise rapidly, I had a gut feeling that we would soon be asked to return to Singapore, hence I started making plans and preparations in the event we were to leave. We had barely completed one-fifth of our exchange programme and wondered whether we could even continue with the rest of our semester online. We thought about our rent and whether we would still need to pay if we returned home since our contract did not permit early cancellation.

I had hoped for the situation to improve by April due to plans to visit Hungary, Austria and Czech Republic with our new friends. However, we were acutely aware that every meeting could be our last.

Recall by MOE

On 15th March, the dreaded email from NUS finally arrived, announcing the Ministry of Education’s (MOE) recall of all students who were currently overseas. It is hard to describe the feeling when we were presented with this reality. It was a mix of disappointment, frustration and helplessness, for being unable to accomplish our planned trips. But we also understood the rationale behind this directive. There were no options and no negotiation.

At the same time, I felt assured and calm because the next steps were laid out plainly for us. Within three hours of the recall announcement, the exchange department at NUS Global Relations Office informed us of the possibility to claim the cost of our return flights and provided assistance with our disrupted academic plans.

I also felt deep down that returning to Singapore to be with my family (and more comprehensive health insurance) would be a safer and better option.

Fearing that the Netherlands might soon announce a lockdown, I promptly booked my return flight for three days later. These three days became incredibly precious, yet there was little we could do since social gatherings and domestic travel was discouraged. My housemates and I spent our last day at Kralingse Bos, the park which was a stone’s throw from our campus. After all, we couldn’t leave the Netherlands without visiting a windmill, right?

Returning home 

On the morning of 18th March, I dragged my luggage across the empty campus to Oude Plantage, the tram stop that began to sound like home. During this ten-minute walk, I only spotted one other student briskly walking to his dormitory. The usual throngs of students were nowhere to be seen since the university announced the shift to remote learning. The lights in the campus shops were turned off, and the only sounds in the air were the quacking of ducks by the pond.

The thirty-minute tram journey to Rotterdam Centraal felt surreal. This city, where I had only been for less than two months, had become so familiar to me. Just by looking at the graffiti on the walls, the bicycle rental shops and the ING bank office, I knew exactly where I was. The foreign-sounding Dutch names did not sound so foreign anymore. After an hour of a journey by train, I arrived at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam.

Feelings of anxiety and caution filled the air as many passengers milled around with masks on their faces.

Many of them were international students, and I even met several classmates while queuing to check-in. As I boarded the flight, the feeling of returning home finally sank in.

During the weeks that ensued, I managed to reflect on my exchange experience and process the waves of emotions I felt especially during my last week in Rotterdam. While my exchange semester was cut short, I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to spend one and a half months immersed in such a beautiful city. I am also incredibly impressed by the support and prompt action from both my host and home universities in this period of uncertainty. While the COVID-19 brings about unprecedented changes, it is inspiring to see how we adapt to new circumstances. I hope that as students and as a society, we will be able to rise above the challenges together and emerge stronger from this pandemic.

Nicole Tong is a final-year student at the National University of Singapore majoring in Communications & New Media. She enjoys travelling for both school and leisure to experience various cultures and to meet new people. Email: nicole_tong@u.nus.edu