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 

Higher education for the disabled

COVID-19 and the issues of supposed normalcy

Maitreya Shah

disability, accessibility, virtual education

With the challenges of Covid-19, frequent natural disasters, genuphobia, racism and transphobia amongst others, the world is surely witnessing the most unprecedented times today. What is also being witnessed is a far-ranging conversation on the impact of these manifold challenges on various sections of the society, especially the ones marginalised. The issues that however receive the least attention pertain to persons with disabilities, who ironically constitute the largest marginalised group with close to 1 billion of the world population. From inaccessible healthcare resources and behavioural effects of social-distancing to exclusion in the new (virtual) world order, the challenges for persons with disabilities are too many and too wide-ranging to be included in a single piece. This blog is hence restricted to the impact on higher education of students with disabilities, epitomised by my personal experiences.

To give a brief background for the tone of this blog, I am a lawyer with blindness based in India, having recently completed my undergrad studies from Gujarat National Law University in its 2015-20 batch. With years of doggedness in overcoming some of the most persistent challenges of inaccessibility and exclusivity and after months of strenuous labour in writing those applications, I finally made it to four of the top law schools in the United States-University of Pennsylvania Carry Law School, UC Berkeley, New York University School of Law and Georgetown University Law Centre. The resultant happiness was however only momentary-barely lasting a week or two at the beginning of March, just before the United States (US) had started receiving its worst-share of the global pandemic. Throughout the month that followed, both the pandemic and my ensuing emotions had turned erratic, drawing me into extended phases of haze and uncertainty.

While schools in the US were still optimistic of starting the fall semester on campus, I was particularly unsure if I would be able to make it to the US even with all the safety measures in place. Disability brings with itself some extraordinary challenges, often non-conforming with the societal assumption of normalcy in such situations of crisis. As Lennard Davis (1995) puts it, this normalcy constructs the ‘problem of the disabled’, different from the ‘normal’ or ‘average’ features of the society. For instance, the idea of ‘social distancing’, presented as the new way of life, is far from possible for a person with a disability.

Given the significance of touch-enabled access for a person with blindness, social distancing only opens a can of worms, making it extremely difficult to access even the bare minimum necessities of life.

With the challenges of international travel, increased risk of infection, difficulties in independent living and riots motivated by racial discrimination amongst others, even the hope of ‘returning of back to normal’ seemed to be blurring away.

In such unprecedented times, where some Indian universities are still adamant in administering examinations for their graduating batches, many universities across the world are also reluctant in giving flexible options like deferrals to people, even for those with exceptionally compelling circumstances like disability. Recently, a disabled Indian student with muscular dystrophy stranded in the United Kingdom had to put his wheelchair for sale, since there was no accessible, affordable way of him to come back home. Such deplorable conditions also force parents to become over-protective of their children; often choosing their lives over the prospects of education and learning.

While physical presence for persons with disabilities is already ruled out, the virtual sessions and online examinations are also not of much help. If virtual activities are alternatives to physical-gatherings, what does one do when the so-called alternatives are also exclusionary?

Despite many empowering legislations in place, digital accessibility for the disabled still remains a distant dream; in this pandemic especially, the mandatary virtual education has only intensified this ‘digital exclusion’.

From inaccessible websites to non-availability of reading materials, the challenges are countless. In several Asian countries like India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, millions of people with disabilities do not even enjoy access to accessible technologies. The new-normal of distance-education, both from institutions within the native countries and abroad, thus remain very out of the league for them. Many international agencies like the Educational Testing Service (ETS) also fail to provide adequate reasonable accommodations to students in developing countries in their examinations. Fortunately, Penn Law, my choice amongst the offers received, was much flexible in its communication with the incoming candidates. Having said that, I would still avoid choosing a virtual session for all the reasons explained above, and many more to be thought about.

As an aftermath of Covid-19, the financial stability of people is also adversely affected, given the rampant loss of employment and increased expenses. For a person with a disability, accessible living is a costly affair; something that shoots up the monthly budget by a great extent. From expenses on accessible accommodation and travel to enabling technologies and assistive devices, the expenses are usually a huge toll on the pockets. In developed countries especially, a study has estimated an overall increase of US$1,170 to $6,952 per year only for health and accessibility-related expenses. In times of a pandemic, these expenses are only bound to increase. For a student moving from a developing Asian country to universities in the United States, the United Kingdom, Singapore or Australia, the currency conversion rate will also play its part in worsening the budgetary calculations. In such circumstances, some universities rub salt on these wounds with policies of not deferring the students’ scholarships, or of not refunding the fees in cases where classes are shifted online or deferrals not granted. Again, the assumption of normalcy is apparent; the attitude that the problem is of, and with the disabled, to be dealt with by them on their own.

Given such manifold challenges, the pandemic has surely ruined the dreams of many disabled students both studying and planning to study in institutes of higher education. Where this ‘enforced normalcy’ leaves little room for a disabled body to find a normal for itself, the mind keeps grappling with the rebel tendencies within, creating the inevitable, unwanted tensions between bodily experiences and psychological tremors.

It is hence of vital importance that the Covid-19 response be more inclusive and less normal for people who do not possess the privileges of an average human being.

While I can only hope to realise my dreams of higher education in the United States in the coming year, the pandemic and the social barriers have left scars that will probably remain afresh for several years to come.

References

Davis, L. (1995) Enforcing Normalcy. London, Verso.

Maitreya Shah is a lawyer with blindness based in India. He is a LAMP Fellow in the 2020-21 cohort and an IEF-Internet Law and Policy Foundry Fellow in the 2019-21 cohort. He is on track for the completion of post-graduate studies in law at the University of Pennsylvania Carry Law School on the Dean’s Merit Scholarship. Maitreya has extensively worked for disability rights research and advocacy, in the areas of access to justice, inclusive education, digital accessibility and intersectionality. He is also a technology policy researcher and has previously been a Research Assistant to the National Cyber Security Coordinator (Prime Minister’s Office), India. His core interest lies in technology and human rights. Social media accounts: Facebook and LinkedIn