The Choice to Battle COVID-19 Alone in a Foreign Land

Shernise Tan, Melvin Chee, and Jasleen Sidhu, Singapore Management University

“An unprecedented crisis of our generation” were the words of Minister Lawrence Wong, who announced the tightening of border restrictions to combat Covid-19 (Toh 2020). Among those that felt extreme negative ramifications due to the pandemic were the 23,715 Singaporean students in tertiary institutions around the world (Vignesh 2020). As most Singaporeans students scrambled to head home after the government’s advisory back in March, there were also students like Felicia* who chose to stay in her host country – Australia, as she had access to sufficient economic and social capital to do so. Thus, it is intriguing to understand the reasons behind her decisions and what lies ahead for her as she battles the pandemic miles away from home.

We spoke to Felicia, a Singaporean, who pursued her education in Melbourne (Monash University) two years ago because her applications for local universities were unsuccessful and she always wanted to experience life in a country with different customs and values. She adjusted to her life as a student immigrant by developing strong social networks among her Australian church community and her university friends. As her church community consisted of Australians who are the children of immigrants, they formed strong bonds due to their common backgrounds. Furthermore, Felicia could support herself comfortably due to the savings she accumulated over the years and she had access to a university education fund given to her by her parents.

This seemed like an ideal arrangement then, but Australia, like much of the world, started to experience the ramifications of Covid-19. Felicia’s education was first disrupted when Australia imposed social restrictions and Monash University transitioned to full home-based learning. Although this shift was meant to safeguard students’ health, Felicia felt like she was cheated of her full international education experience. Nonetheless, Felicia’s rationale for continuing to choose to stay in Australia stemmed from her strong social connections and comfortable financial situation.

However, as Australia was hit by the second wave of the outbreak, the government imposed tighter social restrictions, restricting her access to this church community and support-system that she established. Felicia felt a heightened sense of isolation as she was staying alone in a dorm and was extremely worried about her family due to the escalating Covid-19 situation in Singapore. As such, she started developing thoughts of returning and eventually came home in August.

This pandemic highlighted the differences in each student’s privilege in terms of their economic and social capital, ultimately determining whether they have the agency to decide if they remain in their host countries or return home. Felicia had the privilege of choice to remain in Australia due to her social and economic capital. However, this was not the case for many students who may lack such capabilities.

Voluntary Immobility: The Luxury of Choice

Felicia’s story revealed that she had high social and economic capital, which increased her potential and revealed ability to navigate the pandemic and remain voluntarily immobile in Australia (Carling and Schewel, 2018; Schewel 2019). This expands on our discussion on the ability aspect of the aspiration-ability model.

Felicia shared that financial concerns were not a major consideration when she decided to pursue her overseas education due to the aforementioned reasons. Hence, Felicia’s financial position differed from other migrants as she had no issues continuing to bolster her daily expenses while other students may face financial hardship. Felicia also had high social capital in the form of her Australian church community and her family and friends in Singapore; she maintained many institutionalized networks and connections of mutual acquaintance, hence there is low potential cost of staying in Australia (Massey 1999). Felicia presumably felt supported in Australia, explaining her prolonged voluntary stay in Australia.

Thus, Felicia could fulfil her aspirations to continue staying in Australia and become voluntarily immobilized due to her high level of embeddedness in Australia, as seen from her social and economic capital which are otherwise known as “retain factors” that compels an individual to stay (Schewel 2019). This sharply contrasts to her immigrant friends who she mentioned were scrambling to return to Singapore in March.

What can we learn from this Unprecedented Pandemic

Felicia’s story juxtaposed that of other migrant international students who were facing the same predicament after the pandemic hit. The fact that Felicia’s education migration experience lasted for a longer duration in comparison to her counterparts serves to reinforce her unique position. It was Felicia’s overt voluntary immobility that contrasted the plight of many others who were potentially experiencing involuntary immobility or were forced to return to Singapore due to financial constraints or a lack of a solid support system. We found this particularly striking as it displayed the connections between one’s mobility and one’s access to such resources.

Strikingly, the notion that university students supposedly receive relative equal treatment (their plight and living conditions during Covid-19) was debunked by the pandemic through Felicia’s experience. Some students had more control over their decisions due to their access to social and economic capital. These resources determined their ability to be mobile which then tied in to their aspiration to stay or leave.

The future: Allure to pursue overseas education will remain

As many countries are now experiencing the second wave of Covid-19 and have reimposed restrictions, the question of when international students like Felicia can return to campus safely remains unanswered. Nonetheless, Felicia shared that she will be the first in line to go back, once again underscoring the necessity of social and economic capital in allowing an individual to be in a position of power to opt for mobility or immobility during their pursuit of overseas education.

Therefore, it makes us wonder if host universities and countries have a bigger role to play in bridging these inequalities to ensure that all international students receive balanced treatment and opportunities in their pursuit of overseas education?


Carling, J and Schewel, K. (2018). Revisiting aspiration and ability in international migration. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 44(6), 945–963.

Massey, D. S. (1999). Why Does Immigration Occur?: A Theoretical Synthesis. In C. Hirschman, P. Kasinitz, & J. DeWind (Eds.), Handbook of International Migration, The Russell Sage Foundation.

Schewel, K. (2019). Understanding immobility: Moving beyond the mobility bias in migration studies. International Migration Review, 54(2), 328–355.

Toh, T. W. (2020). Borders to be tightened amid rapidly escalating virus situation around the world: Lawrence Wong. The Straits Times, March 23. Retrieved December 11, 2020.

Naidoo, V. (2020). Commentary: Eve as universities close lecture halls and go online, studying abroad is still the dream. Channel Newsasia, August 16. Retrieved December 11, 2020.