As a first year international student newly enrolled in an Australian university, I was expecting to have a whale of a time immersing myself in a new world of western culture and exploring its depths, after 3.5 years of busy full-time work. How my first year of university turned out however, was a mix of chaos, worry and relief at the same time, all by the grace of COVID-19. 

I arrived in Australia for my new semester in mid-February. Though it was just three weeks after Singapore had received its first imported case, the COVID-19 situation was rapidly evolving in many neighbouring asian countries. It was then that the highly infectious coronavirus had coined its official name. 

Flying down south and away from the burgeoning concern in asian countries initially made me feel more at ease, also because of Australia’s prompt decision to close its borders from China, the epicentre of the pandemic. In a highly globalised world we now live in; needless to say, COVID-19 still found its way onto the southern shores. 

Despite that, life was per usual though with some additional precautions in place as the rural town I was staying in was only managing a handful of cases. I was hoping to lay low in Australia until COVID-19 blew over, but after just over a month of university life, things took a toll and infection cases all around the world had surged to a new high. 

The extravagant daily increase in cases in Australia’s state of New South Wales (where I was) was my tipping point, and I decided to pack my bags, put my possessions in storage and left for home. The next thing I knew, I was back in Singapore serving my Stay Home Notice (SHN). 

 

All packed up

Packed and ready to leave.

My decision to return was not without constant pressure from my worried parents, an advisory by our Ministry of Foreign Affairs urging us to return, anxiety over Australia’s border closure, emails back and forth with university staff and a cancelled flight by SIA.

Onboard

Managed to get on an impromptu rescheduled flight the following day.

 

Masks were not mandatory at that point of time, but we had them on throughout the whole flight except during meals, just in case.

Homecooked food

Back in Singapore. Being on SHN means I get served food on a tray for every meal!

 

Online study

Zoom tutorial

 

Everyone had to transition to remote learning, which was great as I am able concentrate and learn better in a more enclosed environment. But the most worrying factor at that point was not being able to return to Australia on time to complete my practical sessions and exams that can only be done in the University premises. The country’s strict border control does NOT allow non-residents to re-enter.

 

Australia’s international borders remain closed 

I count my lucky stars to have been able to come home safely and for the natural sense of security Singapore has given us. However, many hands-on degrees have mandatory practical sessions and exams, and not being able to return to Uni means not meeting specific requirements for our degree. Depending on which year we are enrolled in, we will risk deferment and delayed graduation; and as a mature-age student, the thought of being held back further is disconcerting. 

Furthermore, school fees for international students remain the same for many universities despite not being able to utilise the facilities.

Still, many students like myself have chosen to return home as the importance of health ultimately overrides all other factors. Sadly, it has been seven months since my return to Singapore and Australia’s persistent border controls have only intensified the looming uncertainty on when International students are allowed back. At this point, we can only look on in envy as my peers return to the UK and US to resume their studies. 

 

Sentiments of Australia University students 

I spoke to my friends who are enrolled in Australian Universities and they share similar worries with regards to Australia’s travel ban after returning to Singapore. 

“I feel safer being in Singapore right now and would prefer to stay put here until the situation significantly improves, but at the same time I am anxious about my degree, since I am not able to attend practical and clinical sessions. I am afraid this will jeopardize my degree and put me at a risk of delayed graduation.” – S.A.A., Second year student at University of Newcastle.

 

Ashley, who finds positivity in the face of adversity: She faces an unintended deferment although she was due to finish her degree by mid-2021.

“Due to the intensity and nature of my course in Architectural Studies, my final year requires lots of physical hands-on engagement. My absence from University and the lack of support for online facilitation required me to defer a whole year. Although I was initially disappointed, I decided to treat everything I subsequently encounter as a learning experience. That way, I don’t ‘miss out’ or ‘waste time’.

Moreover, it’s just a matter of whether you finish Uni as per normal and start working after, or you take this time to get some work experience, and continue later – You’ll end up going through both anyway. Plus, you’re not in this alone!” -Ashley, final year student at University of South Australia.

 

“Academically, I have not been too affected by the travel bans. The course of my study (aviation management) is more flexible in adjusting to online web delivery as compared to other faculties (engineering, health science etc requiring lab work). Personally, the benefits of online classes outweigh the challenges. 

Online classes allow more flexibility in my schedule – you can save time travelling and attend lectures according to your schedule as lectures are pre-recorded. However, it is difficult to stay focused during lectures and exposed to a lot more distractions as compared to those you face in physical lectures.

If this situation continues on for the following year, it will affect my situation more severely when I commence my research year as it will be difficult to conduct research either through participation or through field testing.” Teo, final year student at University of New South Wales. 

How we are helping ourselves

As this is a health crisis that affects everyone worldwide, besides doing our part to be socially responsible, there is little we can do to help the pandemic blow over faster. I generally keep in close contact with my friends who are enrolled in Australian universities to check in with them and ensure that we are all in a good mental space despite the chaos.

If you are also a student stuck in Singapore and the stress is getting to you, do not hesitate to seek help. It can be in the form of confiding in a friend, a counselor or your university lecturer.

Despite trying times, I have tried to busy myself with internships to gain experience and a part time job assisting a doctor to earn some moolah. If not for Covid-19, I would not have the opportunity to learn as much as I did the past few months. 

Fortunately for Teo, he landed a contract job as an research staff at his university. Home based learning has indeed given him the space to expand on his love for research and it was recognised by one of his lecturers. We are taking this time to acknowledge how much we have gained, instead of all the complications Covid has befallen upon us.

Praying for better days to come

Being back in Singapore due to COVID-19 definitely has its perks as I am closer to my family and am better taken care of here; Moreover, with a lighter schedule with online classes, I am able to embark on this internship with SNCF. But the prolonged travel ban has caused significant inconvenience to our studies and I cannot imagine what the future holds if it were to extend further. 

As Singapore progresses through this pandemic, we can only hope that Australia too emerges stronger to allow us to regain some semi-normalcy. Fingers crossed!


This article is brought to you by Hazel, an undergraduate from University of Newcastle Australia who is currently interning at SNCF (August to November 2020). She is an earl grey enthusiast, caffeine addict, avid reader and passionate about all things health and lifestyle related.

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