COVID-19’s Effect on a Semester Off-Campus

22 May 2020

Elizabeth Yim and Alvin Bierley, both juniors at Carleton, embarked for Singapore at the beginning of 2020 to enroll in the National University of Singapore as exchange students. What should have been a semester abroad in an exciting new country was cut short due to the unprecedented circumstances of the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, which they have reflected upon below.

What were your feelings about arriving in Singapore? Can you describe the initial study abroad experience?

Elizabeth: When I first arrived in Singapore, I did not know what to expect. I had heard how strict and serious the Singaporean laws were which made me all the more afraid of what was to come. However, after a couple of days following my arrival, I was finally able to relax and see how wrong my initial perceptions were. While there was indeed a culture shock that prevented me from feeling completely at home, I found Singapore to be completely different from how I first imagined it. Everything about Singapore was so clean and welcoming; nothing like I had ever experienced before! Along with this, NUS was an exciting and diverse hub of many different types of people and cultures from all around the world. I would be able to learn so much not only from the school itself but from the people inside of it as well.

Alvin: I was extremely excited when I first arrived in Singapore. It was my first time in Southeast Asia, and the initial study abroad experience was wonderful: the country is highly organized, efficient, and technologically advanced, making it really easy to travel around the region. Singapore is also very culturally diverse, and I was able to meet lots of different people with really interesting backgrounds.

At what point was it clear that COVID-19 would have a direct impact on your program? 

Elizabeth: At the beginning of registration before classes began (around the beginning of January), each student was given a thermometer with a note that said something about staying safe and healthy. At this point, the virus was virtually nonexistent in Singapore and a majority of the people had no idea what it was. I most certainly did not and just thought that they were giving us these as some strange welcoming gifts. However, about a month or so later we were told that we would have to use the thermometers to take our temperatures twice a day and record our temperatures in an online system. There were heat sensors also set up throughout Singapore so that people would be monitored and questioned if they appeared to have a fever. If someone were to have traveled to a place with confirmed cases, they would be quickly put into quarantine. Around this time, all our in person classes that were more than 25 people were switched to online and we would no longer meet in person. While I still had a couple of classes that were still in person despite this new restriction, I think this is about the time that I knew that the virus was going to be a growing concern. Eventually, all gatherings that were more than 10 people were cancelled and everything was switched to online. Most of the foreign exchange students were being called back by their universities so I made the decision to return home as well before things escalated.

Alvin: Singapore was actually one of the first countries in the world to confirm cases of the virus, and briefly had the second highest number of cases globally following the outbreak. It was pretty clear by late January that school work would be impacted in some way over the course of the term.

What happened in the country?

Elizabeth: There was an initial spread of the virus during the earlier stages of the virus when it was impacting China mostly; however, it was predominantly contained and the few people who were infected were in stable condition. The virus appeared to be under control and many people even began to applaud Singapore for their proactive actions that they took to curb the spread of the virus. Unfortunately, when the virus began to spread to other parts of the world and grew rapidly, Singapore also began to be affected more seriously and is now suffering major influxes of cases to this day.

Alvin: Singapore was extremely proactive in temperature screening and monitoring conditions of travelers. No lockdowns or store closures were initially necessary, and the country still ran as usual. While the COVID 19 situation in Singapore has unfortunately rapidly increased over the last few weeks, the virus situation was rather stable when I was there, with around 300 cases (50 active cases, 0 deaths) by the time I left in late March.

What did your program do?

Elizabeth: My program is continuing; however, most of the foreign exchange students have returned home and the local students have been asked to either go home and stay there or to stay on campus and not move. NUS is somewhat on a lockdown at the moment and people are only allowed to leave to get food. All classes have been moved to online and the school actually extended the finals week by two more weeks to give their students more time to prepare.

Alvin: The Singaporean government raised its DORSCON level (Disease Outbreak Response System Condition) to orange, which is the second highest level, in early February. This did not impact Singaporean life other than increased temperature screenings and some minor restrictions for visitors (ie. hospitals), but my university made the decision to stop all planned events with over 50 students. Most classes at my university have over 50 students, and these classes were thus moved online. Smaller classes and group work remained the same. Due to the transition to online learning, many professors canceled in-person midterms and final exams, instead opting for projects.

Did you have to end your program early?

Elizabeth: While I was not required to return home, I decided for my own safety that it would be smart to leave while I still could before travel became more tricky later on. Looking at how things are now, I am glad that I did or else I could have been in a difficult spot had I stayed.

Alvin: I did have to end my program early. I had originally planned to leave Singapore after the first week of May upon completing final exams, but ended up returning to the United States on March 22nd.

Where are you (location-wise) now? What is it like to be “studying abroad” from wherever you are?

Elizabeth: I have returned home to Southern California. While being home is safer, I would say that this form of remote studies cannot be considered studying abroad. Not only is my learning experience being hindered as I am not able to see my professors face-to-face, but I do not even have the opportunity to travel around Singapore and to learn about its cultures or about the cultures around it. I am extremely disappointed that this is the outcome of my abroad experience and I wish it could have turned out differently.

Alvin: I’m currently back home in Southern California. Finishing my off campus studies program at home has been fine; it’s the same thing that all university students are experiencing, with online classes and coursework.

How are you finishing up the program? What is it like in terms of structure and content? How does it compare to the way the program was being run before?

Elizabeth: I am finishing the program completely online. While the content was not changed at all, some of my professors had to change the format of the class in regards to certain projects and tests. A couple of my finals were cancelled and replaced with a substitute and all my presentations were moved to Zoom rather than in person. It is very different from how the program was run before as I am unable to meet with my professors face-to-face and all the lectures are pre recorded which means that I would have to watch them on my own time. In my opinion, this is not an ideal form of learning and I would have prefered how it was before.

Alvin: The COVID 19 situation has drastically worsened since I flew home, so the university has fully transitioned to online learning. I am finishing up the program the same way as the rest of the students. Due to the virus, many professors have altered their course schedules, with many final exams being substituted for projects or essays. While coursework has changed, classes remain the same, with professors either choosing to have interactive, live Zoom lectures, or uploading recordings of them lecturing in an empty lecture hall.

What has been the emotional impact of your study abroad experience being interrupted by the coronavirus?

Elizabeth: While I am sad and disappointed that my study abroad experience had to be shortened and was a little bit strange even from the beginning, I try to stay positive keeping in mind that I am healthy and that my family is also safe and healthy. The online classes will stress me out every so often as they are not like anything I have ever experienced before but I cling to the fact that this dark time will pass and missing a couple of months from my abroad experience is not the end of the world! For the short time that I was there, I got to see so many new things and meet many people who I will remember for the rest of my life. I do not regret my decision to go abroad and while it was not what was expected, I enjoyed every second of it!

Alvin: The impact of the coronavirus has given me time to think and reflect about the situation across the world, and for now, all I can do is hope that the virus will be eradicated as soon as possible and that all of our health workers can remain safe (along with everyone else, of course). I’m extremely grateful for the time that I had in Singapore, and although it was shortened, I can only look back upon it fondly.

Would you sign up for an OCS program again?

Elizabeth: As long as there isn’t a global pandemic, 100% for sure would do it again!

Alvin: I will be a senior next year, and am not planning on signing up for an OCS program again as I would like to spend my last year on campus. However, I had a wonderful experience with studying abroad and would highly recommend any Carleton student to consider an off campus studies program. I think studying abroad offers an invaluable cultural and educational experience, and the opportunities for Carleton students to study abroad are endless.

How do you think this OCS experience will impact you (personally, educationally, professionally) going forward?

Elizabeth: I think this experience has helped me to grow as a person and to deal with adversities that may come my way. Education wise, I personally do not think I learned a great deal from NUS as this was a rather unorthodox time, but I do firmly believe that my time in Singapore has greatly helped me to see the bigger picture in life. For most, studying abroad is one of the most important and exciting times in one’s college career; however, as I was unable to fully experience this given that my classes were put on hold and there were travel restrictions put in place early on, I believe that it is safe to say that my experience was not what it could have been. My one college study abroad experience that I got was ruined by a global pandemic. What are the chances! And honestly, how many people run into this problem really. Despite this set back, I cannot sit and complain about how my experience was ruined and how unfair it was because when I take a step back, I realize how lucky I am to be healthy and safe with my family. There are so many worse things that can happen in the world and this was simply an inconvenience that I would have to brush off and forget. Throughout my life I will encounter so many more adversities like this that will make me feel frustrated and sad or feel like the world is against me but in the end, I have to realize that there are more important things in the world and that I just have to keep going.

Alvin: Studying abroad in Singapore was eye-opening as it exposed me to a completely different culture and way of life. Living on my own in a foreign country was a new challenge for me and was certainly important for my personal development, and studying at a new school offered a fresh academic perspective; I’m grateful for the opportunity to have met my fellow Singaporean classmates and professors. Upon leaving Singapore, I would like to think that I have matured both academically and socially, and have certainly broadened my worldview. My experiences abroad were enlightening, and I have no doubt that the impact of my OCS experience will be nothing but positive as I wrap up my senior year at Carleton and enter the work world.