Lim Li Yun, Jerlyn Cheong, and Chen Lee Wai, Singapore Management University
When asked about the pinnacle of university education, most university students often describe their International Student Exchange Programme (ISEP) experience: A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that allows them to experience living abroad for 4 to 6 months, outside of their comfort zone. However, the ISEP experience was vastly different for thousands of students this year.
On 15th March 2020, the Singapore Ministry of Education recalled all students on official overseas placements due to the Covid-19 pandemic. While university students were scrambling to return to Singapore, A, a 22-year-old Singaporean undergraduate was left stranded in Warsaw, Poland as the worsening situation in Europe had prompted Poland to shut its borders.
What distinguished A’s exchange experience from others was the extensive immobility she and her friends faced. Derived from the aspiration-ability model (Carling and Schewel 2018), immobility is a result of the interaction between one’s desire to migrate (aspiration) and the actualization of the aspiration (ability). During A’s journey home, changing aspirations and abilities resulted in different forms of immobility. From which, we can also see how they interpreted their immobility differently, embodying Mata-Codesal’s (2015) concept of how people give meaning to their immobility.
When the alarming spread of Covid-19 prompted Polish officials to move lessons online, A and her friends experienced their first form of immobility. While international students around them returned to their home countries, A’s host university had yet to update them on module-related arrangements. For the sake of getting a guarantee to complete their curriculum in Singapore, A and company chose to remain in Poland, reflecting voluntary immobility.
Shortly after receiving confirmation from their host university, Murphy’s law struck: Poland closed their air borders on March 15, and subsequently, their internal land borders.
With the majority of flights cancelled, they were forced to stay in Warsaw involuntarily, unable to travel anywhere nor return home. A and friends had previously made plans to visit Spain and Budapest, and travel within Poland, but alas, the year 2020 had other plans for them. A looked defeated, seemingly reminiscing the emotions she felt back then.
She proceeded to recount dejectedly that the Covid-19 restrictions implemented in Poland left them with no choice but to be cooped up in their small apartment for the majority of the time, only leaving for grocery runs. If given the choice, A and her friends would have chosen to travel anywhere beyond the vicinity they lived in, but they evidently lacked the ability to do so.
The option of returning to Singapore was further defeated by a lack of information from her home university. In response to A’s urgent calls and text messages, she was simply told:
“Erm… Just try your best.”
Unsurprisingly, tensions rose in the small apartment. Nonetheless, A assured us that disputes were quickly resolved via nightly bonding sessions. Although it was not easy to stay, A found meaning in her immobility, in terms of being able to bond more with her friends.
In contrast, her friend perceived their immobility differently. Coming from a less privileged background, A’s friend wanted to make the most out of her exchange trip and was quite reluctant to head back to Singapore. Their inability to return home made her somewhat happy because it meant spending more time in Europe. At the same time, it dismayed her that she was stuck in the apartment and could not realise her travel aspirations.
However, any aspirations to travel beyond the constraints of their apartment were eventually worn down after hearing the experience of A‘s friends crossing the Poland borders. Upon receiving news of Poland’s closure of air borders, A’s friends attempted to return to Poland from Lithuania via Uber. Unfortunately, their driver refused to drive too close to Poland’s borders after witnessing barricades being set up and exclaimed:
“I cannot and I don’t want to drive you any further.”
The group resorted to making an arduous trek towards the borders, only to be turned away by the border officials. After futile calls to various points of liaison for help, they defeatedly lugged their weary bodies and luggage to a town in Lithuania by foot some distance away. Only after 2-3 days of calling the Consulate and Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs was the group able to set foot into Poland again.
In lieu of this story, A had her aspirations challenged, leading to internal constraints of risk aversion (Schewel 2019). Coupled with a lack of available commercial flights, her aspiration to move was drastically reduced. This reflects A’s transition into acquiescent immobility, where she had neither the ability nor desire to force her way out of Poland.
A and company eventually left Poland via an emergency flight out to London, after repeatedly reaching out to the Singapore Consulate in Poland for help. Thereafter, the onus was on them to find their way back from London, which involved extensive administrative work given the limited options available. They were in a constant state of uncertainty as they had to ensure that airports were still open for transit. After a 24-hour door to door journey, they finally returned to Singapore. What was previously a convenient, uncomplicated experience had now evolved into weeks of stressful planning and liaising. Who would have thought that air travel would have changed this drastically within a month?
However, finally being in Singapore was not the bed of roses we thought it would be for A. While relieved to be home, A recounted in despondence that her return was yet another prolonged period of immobility due to the imposed stay-home notice and subsequent circuit breaker. Despite similar conditions of immobility, A’s experience at home left her feeling more isolated than her Poland experience, where she was in constant companionship of her friends. Albeit it was a shame that they could not enjoy the full exchange experience, it was admittedly an interesting and unforgettable one.
A’s journey of immobility is definitely novel, but in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, most of us are experiencing immobility too and will continue to do so in this new normal. Throughout A’s journey, immobility seemed like a less than ideal situation, but she navigated through it and found meaning. Thus, immobility need not always be interpreted negatively as we have the power to shape our perceptions. With the Covid-19 situation unlikely to ease anytime soon, how then will you make meaning out of your immobility?
Carling, J and Schewel, K. (2018). Revisiting aspiration and ability in international migration. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 44(6), 945–963.
Mata-Codesal, D. (2015). “Ways of Staying Put in Ecuador: Social and Embodied Experiences of Mobility–Immobility Interactions.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 41(14), 2274–90.
Schewel, K. (2019). Understanding immobility: Moving beyond the mobility bias in migration studies. International Migration Review, 54(2), 328–355.