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


Should I stay or should I go?

Perspectives of an international student in the UK during a global pandemic

Sarah Tan

home, transnational families, international student

On 12 March 2020, my university announced that all teaching activity would be delivered online for the remainder of the academic year, with graduation ceremonies indefinitely postponed.  The atmosphere on campus that day was like no other.  There was a shared gloom of premature farewells, as students prepared for early returns to their family homes.  For international students like myself however, there were added complications. With lockdowns and border controls falling into place around the world, we needed to rapidly decide whether to stay put, or uproot the lives and homes we had made in the UK without a proper farewell – and if so, when.

There was almost a collective fear of the consequences of inaction.  In an atmosphere of intense uncertainty when so much was out of our control, the privilege of still being (somewhat) transnationally mobile allowed international students to in some sense, reclaim agency amidst the chaos. Students made up and changed their minds in a matter of hours.  Messages from concerned family were constant; as parents became serial sharers of ‘Whatsapp’ chain messages detailing how to stay safe at airports and on flights.  Social media was riddled with stories of swift departures and students disappointed about their university experiences abruptly ending.  Where return trips in normal times are carefully planned around academic commitments and visa obligations, limited one-way tickets home were sold at massively inflated prices.  Many were grounded, unable to afford these higher prices.

Where is ‘home’?

The current global COVID-19 pandemic has thrust the topic of international student mobility into the spotlight, with questions about how space is conceptualised and how ‘home’ is understood and experienced posed.  As a Malaysian student in the final year of my undergraduate degree at LSE, like many, watching this pandemic unfold and navigating the unique challenges it has posed for international students has been both difficult and strange.

Immediately returning to Malaysia was not an option for me.

When LSE moved online, my family in Kuala Lumpur were observing 14 days of strict isolation after having direct contact with three friends who tested positive for COVID-19.  To me, ‘home’ has always held strong connotations of safety, security and comfort, as an ‘affective construct’.  In a situation as anxiety-inducing as a global pandemic, intuitively, ‘home’ would be with family in Malaysia.  But when that option became so vividly ‘unsafe’, I was made to (re)configure what ‘home’ in practical terms meant to me.  Migration has been understood as fundamentally, a home-searching process.  Although unusual, unexpected, and extreme, this experience represents just one of the many circumstances through which international students have to negotiate our multiple belongings to multiple ‘homes’ in our everyday lives transnationally.

At the same time, my ‘home’ in London felt threatened, with my landlord trying to conduct rushed property viewings, before his next set of prospective student-tenants left on planes.

Following university advice, I quickly learned my tenancy rights and how to protect myself and my ‘home’ legally and physically from such risks.  University support here was crucial in combatting how scared and alone I felt navigating these multiple foreign circumstances, but it raises questions on who is and should be responsible for the safety of international students?

I also have an underlying breathing condition.  In an already foreign situation, remaining in a foreign environment and if anything should happen, having to rely on a foreign health system that may fundamentally see you as foreign, is worrying.  In those few days, ‘safety’ felt like a distant concept.  Every potential move and decision posed its own unique set of risks.  For those who did not immediately return, we watched as more flights got pre-emptively cancelled, with plans of our eventual returns perpetually evolving.

A familiar distance in an unfamiliar circumstance

For many people, the pandemic has acutely highlighted that technologies can act as a medium to counter physical distance and introduce different ways of connecting with family and friends.  With being away from family forming a defining part of the international student experience, student-migrants have long engaged with these technologies as a means to sustain transnational connections.  Yet, in an era when human connection is especially important, and familiarity amidst uncertainty is longed for, it has become impossible for me to not be perpetually conscious of this physical distance.

This consciousness of our transnational lives was much less apparent when we could immerse ourselves in our ‘student’ roles as student-migrants, similarly independent from our families as other students.  But, in the months since the UK began its lockdown,  whilst adjusting to our new lives indoors, we have also had to adjust to new forms of transnational living. With our ‘normal’ lives put on pause, we more actively engage with our transnational ones. With opportunities to connect prioritised and much less managed around complex schedules of study, these cross-border connections seem to have actually strengthened.  Previous technological barriers, such as my parents’ adamance in insisting they do not know how to operate a video call, were forcefully stripped as they became frequent users of ‘Zoom’. Simultaneously being present and participating in multiple spacetimes has become our new norm.

For those of us who have stayed, our lives ‘here’ have changed beyond recognition; and its new form has been co-constituted by our families and our new shared experiences across space.  With everyone bound to their homes physically, the lines between both spaces of ‘here’ and ‘there’ have been increasingly blurred.  We meticulously track the news in two countries equally, celebrating any good news and worrying about upsetting news in both our ‘homes’. Our feelings are twice amplified.

The geography between both spaces has never felt so defined, but simultaneously, the geography has never felt so obsolete.  I now concurrently occupy both ‘homes’, in one confined space.

As a graduating student myself, the uncertainty that already characterised post-graduate plans has been exacerbated.  Even with an offer in hand, plans for further international study now seem far from concrete.  However, because of this pandemic, transnational families like mine have adopted new and improved means to effectively combat physical distance and maintain cross-border connections.  Unintentionally, this may work to boost international student mobility (or perceived mobility) in a post-COVID-19 world.  My prior understandings of what ‘home’ is and can be has been destabilised, as I have learnt that these are malleable to changing circumstances.  In my lived experience as a transnational student-migrant in the UK during this pandemic, in a bilateral sense – I have brought home my other home.

Sarah Tan is a third-year undergraduate student of Geography at the London School of Economics and Political Science.  She has just completed her undergraduate dissertation which explores how Chinese-Malaysian students in the UK navigate complex decisions about return migration. Email: sarahtanhuiann@gmail.com