Degrees & Departure: A Look into Student Migrants in the Pandemic

Shi Min Teh, Jing Wen Mah, and Nicole Lim, Singapore Management University

About Jane

It’s 10:30pm, and we see Jane on screen. Miles away and back in Cebu City, Philippines, Zoom has proven to be the only viable way for us to speak to her from sunny Singapore. Bespectacled, she dons a warm smile, ready to oblige us with every query we have of her migration journey thus far. Still, her tired voice does not escape us. This is the generosity and warmth of Jane – putting others above herself.

Jane, aged 21, hails from the Philippines. With parents in the lucrative business of wholesale livestock, Jane has had the luck of receiving a private education. This is testament to Carling and Schewel’s aspiration-ability model (2018) where the financial resources of her family allowed her to aspire. Like her siblings, the aspiration to study abroad for university is one shared by many Filipinos. It is believed that the completion of a prestigious degree attracts a multitude of opportunities that cannot be found back home – thus forming a strong culture of migration as observed by Kandel and Massey (2002). Thus, it was no surprise when Jane decided to complete her bachelor’s degree at a university in Singapore and potentially pursue a career in Singapore post-graduation.

Therefore, it is clear that both structure and agency had a part to play in Jane’s migration trajectory long before she moved to Singapore.

Panic in the Pandemic

At the dawn of the new year, the severity of the pandemic also dawned on the world. An unknown and highly contagious respiratory disease paid no mind to physical borders and spread rapidly through our interconnected world. Then, in January 2020, Jane had to evacuate her accommodation and watch as it turned into a quarantine facility for Covid-19.

4 months on, the second year of Jane’s degree drew to a close. She was stranded alone in Singapore as a month-long lockdown was declared. The pandemic was in full swing and panic was at an all-time high. With the family business weakening and the future uncertain, Jane and her family came up with 4 options:

  1. To remain in Singapore and continue her education at the hefty annual cost of SGD$65,000.
  2. To return to the Philippines, save on student accommodation and continue her university degree virtually.
  3. To apply for a leave of absence (LOA) at her university, return to the Philippines and take on an internship until the situation improves enough for her to return to Singapore.
  4. To return to the Philippines for good and transfer to the Ateneo de Manila University.

While Option 1 proved too exorbitant, Option 4 was the last resort. With little to no concrete information from the school’s administration, a homesick Jane was persuaded home by her parents when the lockdown in Singapore ended. Till then, Option 2 was the goal.

Curved by the Curve

After navigating through much bureaucracy, Jane completed her quarantine in Manila and made it home to Cebu.

In an attempt to flatten the curve, Jane was initially informed that her university would limit exposure by continuing with classes online. Things seemed on track for Option 2 to happen. That was until she was thrown yet another curveball; the school would take a mixed-mode approach for the following semester with the possibility of returning to physical classes midway through the term when the number of infections improved. 

This threw a wrench in her plans to continue her third year virtually. Jane received limited information from university administrators and eventually, she had to rally her fellow international students to consolidate their concerns in a centralised document for the administration to address. When her university provost confirmed that classes could happen in person, it was with a heavy heart that Jane finally applied for an LOA to pursue an internship which allowed her time to wait the pandemic out and shore up financially in expectation of her return back to Singapore in the future.

Hindsight is 20/20

Accustomed to this “new normal”, Jane is seated before us onscreen, generously sharing the trials and tribulations that have led her to this point. She acknowledges that hindsight is 20/20. Ultimately, this is all that this year has truly been. It was only having to think consciously in this interview that she finally recalled the whirlwind of events she has been through. The emotional toll once too fast to process, how the worries of her education then now pales in comparison to the worries of her family and their health.

When inquired about her future plans, Jane is determined to return to Singapore one day. Here, we witness the parallels of Jane’s story to Zhan and Zhou’s (2020) article on skilled immigrants in Singapore. Firstly, she recognizes her privileged position in relation to the many who have been relegated immobile back home. Jane has had the privilege of the resource to travel freely to Singapore to pursue an education that allows her to attain a higher wage. But as mentioned in Zhan and Zhou’s article, we witness the second dimension of migrants like Jane who, despite having high social and financial capital, can still be subjected to employment insecurity and settlement uncertainties associated with unstable jobs, temporary residence, and risks of downward mobility. For Jane – who has yet to graduate or be fully-employed – we observe how her long-term plans reflect the precarity she faces. Although Jane initially desired to remain in Singapore upon graduation, her long-term plans are now instead marked by uncertainty as a result of Covid-19. This is evident in her dilemma; to stay in Singapore or to return home to join the family business in the Philippines? This is a decision that is to some degree, still at the mercy of this virus and only time will tell.

A Little Kindness Goes A Long Way

Jane’s story highlights a myriad of issues faced by student migrants in Singapore; from the financial capital required to study abroad, to the social capital required to settle in comfortably as well as the precarity faced in an unfamiliar environment with little to no network to be leveraged on. It is precisely because we are in a hyper-connected and ever-shrinking world that we ought to care for those around us, regardless of race and nationality. As Jane expressed, one source of frustration when it came to communication was the lack of transparency by the school’s administration. She posited that this was attributed to the fact that unlike her, these administrators were Singaporean and had much stability in employment, housing and citizenship. This seemingly inconsequential act of poor information communication has had an exponentially negative impact on Jane’s lived experience. In conclusion, better global citizenship can be practiced in our highly globalised world; affording greater empathy to those around to build a more cohesive community.


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

Kandel, W. and Massey, D.S. (2002). The culture of Mexican migration: A theoretical and empirical analysis. Social Forces, 80, 981-100

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.

Zhan, S., and Zhou, M. (2020). Precarious Talent: highly skilled Chinese and Indian immigrants in Singapore. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 43(9), 1654-1672.