The Covid-19 pandemic robbed me of a long-awaited SEP (Student Exchange Programme) experience...
By Edmund Leong (Guest Writer)
...However, I am fortunate to have received support from NUS, friends and family. And I am glad to be back home in Singapore during these trying times.
The beginning of an end
When I had left Singapore for Munich in early March to embark on my SEP at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (LMU), Italy had only begun to see a rise in COVID-19 cases.
But the numbers were high enough for me to cancel my travel plans to Italy. In addition, the ease of movement between European borders had also prompted me to cancel other travel plans due to the high risks of widespread Covid-19 transmissions between European countries.
As the number of new cases in Europe started rising over the next few days, I was mentally prepared for a suspension of my SEP. My friends, however, were reluctant to acknowledge that possibility as they insisted that things were still relatively fine as Germany had not hit 1,000 cases.
A few days after I arrived in Munich, Hafidz Siddique, a representative from NUS GRO (Global Relations Office), sent out an email addressing various concerns from SEP students. The email mentioned the possibility of SEP suspension and various other questions.
Against a backdrop of increasing cases in Europe and Germany as well as the heightened measures taken by the Singapore Government, my friends eventually conceded that it was only a matter of time before NUS would pull the plug on SEP.
With realistic expectations in mind, we reworked our itineraries in the following days to maximise our remaining time.
We spent a lot of time planning for the administrative procedures that we had to follow, such as state de-registration, retrieval of money from the blocked account, and early termination of rental agreements, etc.
By the time the official suspension email was sent on 15 March, the number of Covid-19 cases in Germany had risen to 7,272.
I wanted to return to Singapore fast, but I faced a problem: I was unable to bring forward my scheduled return flight because Singapore Airline (SIA)’s website would not issue new tickets online.
Neither did they respond to calls to their Munich and Singapore offices. I eventually bought a ticket from Qatar (A passenger on my flight back was a confirmed case of COVID-19, which “promoted” my SHN to a QO).
The German system
Germans love organised systems, and this is reflected in almost every aspect of German living - appointments have to be made in advance for even the simplest of services like going for a haircut at the barbers.
This organised system worked against me when I had to leave Munich within a short notice.
I could not secure a slot to de-register my rental address at the citizens’ office due to time constraints set by my flight and fully booked appointment slots.
Worse still, I faced another problem when I tried to terminate my rental agreement: It required proof by my host university that the SEP was cancelled. But at that point in time, my host university had not declared any suspension of exchange programmes.
Furthermore, the Bavarian state started issuing orders to stop a wide range of services in an attempt to reduce social interactions, which led to the closure of many offices, including the aforementioned citizens’ office and the rental office.
Fortunately, these bureaucratic conundrums were solved once the offices started closing and applications were allowed to be submitted via post.
With administrative processes out of the way, I proceeded to clear out my apartment. It was heart-breaking to leave behind newly bought household items and the apartment which I had already made my second home.
It was only during my train ride to the airport did I then realise how fast the events unfolded.
Barely two weeks after arriving in Munich, I had to return to Singapore.
The flight from Munich to Doha was so empty that each passenger had the entire row of seats for themselves.
However, the exact opposite was observed in my next flight from Doha to Singapore. There were hardly any seats and almost every passenger was a Singaporean student.
As the situation in Europe had become dire, most of the passengers wore masks throughout the flight back to Singapore.
And just like that, as the plane touched down at Changi Airport, a year of planning and anticipation for SEP ended within two hectic weeks.
Support from NUS
The abrupt interruption in my SEP was made more acceptable thanks to the help of NUS GRO.
Throughout the entire ordeal, Hafidz had been very helpful in responding to our queries and taking the effort to compile and address a list of FAQs.
Among others, Hafidz shared with us information regarding claimable expenses and corresponding conditions, mostly involving air tickets and accommodation.
This was later formally introduced as the NUS Resilience Fund Claims Portal, and instructions on using the portal to process our claims were made available.
Following the SEP suspension, FASS’ SEP office offered SEP students the opportunity to enrol in Special Term modules with Singapore Management University (SMU). NUS has also explored the possibility of opening more slots and providing more modules in the upcoming Special Term 2.
Additionally, NUS Centre for Future-ready Graduates (CFG) also provided us with a constant stream of internship and career opportunities.
Personally, I think NUS has delivered sufficiently during the COVID-19 situation. I am thankful to NUS for the NUS Resilience Fund, and the partial reimbursement of expenses.
It is not feasible for us to expect companies to take up new interns offered by NUS or for NUS to waive any academic requirement just so that students can graduate on time.
However, one thing that I think NUS could have done better was providing greater transparency about the conditions that would trigger SEP suspension. An early sharing of these conditions with SEP students would have pre-empted us better, instead of leaving us students in uncertainty.
Before we received the suspension notice, my friends were comparing the number of cases in Germany to that of South Korea (SEP programmes to South Korea were cancelled).
Without sufficient information, my batch of SEP students could only look back on the cancellation of the South Korean SEP as a yardstick for SEP suspension in view of Covid-19.
As such, a possible recommendation would be for NUS to actively share the conditions in which a SEP suspension will be triggered (e.g. threshold levels), as well as daily updates on the University policy on SEP.
Even a simple discussion with us SEP students during the consideration period would have given us more time and better prepared us for the return to Singapore.
Support from host university
Compared to the multifaceted support I have received from NUS, my host university provided far less personalised support to incoming exchange students.
Email blasts to exchange students only included a weblink to state government websites. The information provided did little to explain the contingencies put in place or provide updates regarding matriculation and module enrolment .
We even had to constantly ask in our Telegram group for updates as information disseminated through emails were scattered. Worse still, some emails were only sent to a select few, and not the rest.
As I had not been formally matriculated into my host university, I was devastated when my friends from other host universities had informed me that their university would not be conducting e-learning for their incoming exchange students. This meant that they would have to withdraw from their SEP and take a Leave of Absence with NUS, which would lead to a delayed graduation.
For a long period of time, I was unsure if the summer semester was going to proceed, and if I should take some Special Term modules in NUS to avoid a delayed graduation.
Thankfully, three weeks after the SEP suspension, my host university confirmed that the semester was going to be conducted through e-learning.
Academic and (possible) career disruptions
Covid-19 has certainly brought disruptions to my academic plan. But I am not particularly worried because my host university has put in place some e-learning in response to the SEP suspension.
Nevertheless, I do have some minor academic concerns. First, there is the need to replace certain modules that are not on offer due to the lesser variety of available e-learning modules in my host university. Second, I am unsure if those modules would be recognised by NUS.
I am actually more worried about the potential disruptions to my future career plans brought about by Covid-19.
The current state of the economy, mass adoption of work-from-home arrangements and the struggle of major world powers trying to cope with Covid-19 make me feel uncertain about the world economy and the job market.
I fear that hiring patterns, as observed from the work-from-home model, may be quite different even after the pandemic and starting salaries may be lowered due to slow economic recovery.
Although I have more than a year until I graduate, I am anxious about the potentially long-lasting implications of Covid-19.
However, in these trying times, we must remember that Singapore has braved many economic storms, and the city-state has the capacity and tenacity to weather through many more.
In the meantime, we must be resilient and not falter. And in keeping with Singapore’s forward-looking spirit, we must also seize opportunities to upgrade ourselves during this period. For example, we can try to pick up a new skill or language. This way, we can stand ready to contribute more to our economy when it enters the recovery phase.
Edmund started serving his Stay-Home Notice (SHN) on 20 March. His SHN was later changed to Quarantine Order (QO) on 31st March and ended on 4 April. Edmund is currently healthy and in good spirits.
Edmund Leong is a third-year NUS undergraduate majoring in Economics. In his free time, he enjoys traveling, hiking and photography.
Views expressed here are strictly those of the author(s) and not of the organization.