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Pursuing a university degree overseas during COVID-19

The pandemic might have put all of our lives on hold but it didn’t deter these three Singaporean youths from following their dreams of studying overseas.

Amanda Tan
Amanda Tan

Skills include buying the same jeans in different colours.


Published: 25 October 2021, 2:12 PM

When the COVID-19 situation worsened, universities worldwide were left with no choice but to suspend physical classes. 

With everything conducted online, it seemed like choosing to study at an overseas university wouldn’t be the wisest decision. After all, the students still had to pay the full price for only half the experience.

Despite this, many Singaporean youths stood firm on their desire to move abroad for university. Three of them shared their experiences with Youthopia, adding that they did not regret their decisions.

Taking the leap of faith

Megan Widjaja is a 19-year-old Sociology student from Yonsei University, Korea. But just eight months ago, she was just like every other JC graduate, stuck at a crossroads, unsure of how she should continue her higher education.

Upon completing her A-Levels, Megan was hit with the sudden realisation that she didn’t have any concrete plans for her future. Staying in Singapore also didn’t seem appealing anymore.

“​​I wanted to study Sociology no matter what but I felt that by staying in Singapore and doing a degree with less technical skills, it would limit my ability to find a job. Especially since there’s the stereotype that arts and social science degrees bring low job prospects.”

That was when she decided to pursue the idea of studying abroad.

To most, going overseas during a global pandemic sounds like a far-fetched idea, let alone moving one’s entire life across the globe just for the sake of a university degree, which can be attained in Singapore. However, Megan felt attending a local university felt like a safe choice and it wasn’t a route she wanted to take. 

“I think what spurred me to make the decision to go overseas was the idea of challenging myself with a crazy decision so that I wouldn’t have any regrets,” explained the first-year student.

She began to do her research and narrowed down her choices to a handful of countries. She already had her heart set on choosing a country which spoke a different language from hers (English and Mandarin) and so after careful consideration, she settled on Yonsei University as they had a more inclusive international programme.

“Going overseas to speak a different language was more of a bold choice to actually push my boundaries and to learn more. Yes, it’s definitely a huge risk but it’s a programme that’s been around for a while now and people have done and graduated through it so it felt possible.”

 

Yonsei-University-Korea
Yonsei University is one of the top three most coveted universities in South Korea, often dubbed by locals as part of SKY. PHOTO CREDIT: YONSEI UNIVERSITY

 

Naturally, like every concerned parent would, Megan’s parents questioned her decision and were hesitant to give her the green light. They were worried she was biting off more than she could chew. Then, there were also the issues of travel restrictions, which meant that her parents wouldn’t be able to travel with her and help her settle down in South Korea. 

However, she was quick to assure them that she was going to be okay.

“I am not usually an independent person, so it was a huge leap out of my comfort zone, but one that I genuinely wanted to take.”

Fong Wen Xuan, 19, shared a similar sentiment. Currently enrolled in the University of Dundee, Scotland, the Neuroscience major said: “I wanted to experience the world. I felt like I was too comfortable in Singapore.”

Wen Xuan had actually given up on her dream of going overseas due to COVID-19.

Due to travel restrictions back then, attending a local university seemed like her only option. The lack of alternatives pushed her to study harder for A-levels as she feared that she wouldn’t make it into the highly competitive local universities.

“My family was quite worried that I wouldn’t be able to take care of myself or adjust to the lifestyle here. They were also doubtful of my decision to study Neuroscience as they didn’t think it would be a degree that could easily get me a job in Singapore.”

But after hearing that she wasn’t keen on any of the courses offered by the local universities, they relented and let her apply to the University of Dundee.

Jumping over the hurdles

Like everyone else, Wen Xuan had her fair share of doubts and troubles. Even on the plane to Scotland, she was questioning if she had made the right decision. The first few weeks in Scotland weren’t easy for Wen Xuan either.

“Since I’m not the closest to my flatmates, I felt quite lonely.”

She shared that when she first moved in with them, they ordered a pizza each instead of sharing as they were unable to break the ice and feel comfortable with each other. This just made Wen Xuan miss her friends back home even more.

Oral Roberts University student Jolene Tay experienced the same painful longing for home during her first few months in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She shared that it was hard to adapt and adjust at first, leading her to not being able to enjoy her studies abroad.

Some problems she encountered were getting used to the lingo used by the locals as well as overcoming the difficulty of understanding their heavy accents. Additionally, moving from a country like Singapore where it’s summer all year round, to the US where there’s all four seasons, was a huge jump and it took a while for her body to adjust.

An unexpected challenge she met with, however, was the stark contrast between the two education systems.

“In Singapore, we’re so used to rushing and stressing over grades but over here, everyone is so laid back. I had to take time to change my mindset and learn to have more fun instead of constantly mugging.”

Unlike Megan and Wen Xuan, Jolene had actually moved to the US before COVID-19 hit. She dropped out of JC in her first year and began her international studies in August 2019. However, when the COVID-19 situation worsened, returning home was exceptionally troublesome.

 

Online-Class-University-COVID
To curb the number of COVID-19 cases from rising, educational institutions worldwide shifted classes online. PHOTO CREDIT: STARTUP STOCK PHOTOS VIA PEXELS

 

She recounted: “It was very frustrating arranging my trips home. In March 2020, our school went completely online so we had to fly back last-minute. We stayed in Singapore till August 2020 before leaving for the States again. When I came back to Singapore again in May 2021, I had to be quarantined for 21 days.”

While Jolene admitted that the pandemic posed a lot of inconveniences for her, she doesn’t regret choosing to study overseas.

“It was actually so interesting to learn about the cultural differences. It made me realise how narrow-minded I was previously. It’s really a growing experience.”

 

Overseas-University-International
Studying abroad has broadened her horizons and allowed her to connect with students of different backgrounds. PHOTO CREDIT: JOLENE TAY

 

She also enjoyed how much freedom and independence studying overseas granted her. Being able to explore new places and meet new people in such a vastly different environment is definitely a huge selling point of going abroad.

The COVID-19 measures in America were much more lax as compared to Singapore, and Jolene shared that she was able to visit most places of interest. 

“I think in America, it’s hard for them to balance so many different views on (COVID-19) so disagreements often lead to protests. It’s very messy but I understand why it’s difficult for there to be blanket rules like the ones Singapore has.”

Enjoying the challenges

For Megan who has had to build her Korean language foundation from the ground up, she takes the challenge in stride, “The language barrier is definitely present, but it is not unwelcomed, because I appreciate the opportunities to improve my speaking and confidence.”

 

Korean-Language
Megan is currently spending her first year in university mastering the Korean language. She’ll then proceed with doing her major fully in Korean. PHOTO CREDIT: ISRIEN SUHARTO VIA FLICKR

 

“I find it exciting to force myself to converse in Korean to students who are unable to speak English or Mandarin — languages which I’m able to speak. I wouldn’t say that I am fully integrated yet, but since the circumstances have made me more open, I think I am on my way to familiarising myself with it.”

Like Megan, Wen Xuan has also made progress after settling down. In the beginning, struggling to assimilate into Scottish culture wasn’t the only challenge Wen Xuan faced.

She recalls: “When I went grocery shopping, I wanted to save money, so I ended up buying cheaper ingredients. When I got home, I realised the reason why they were so cheap was because they were expiring in the next two days. To make matters worse, I forgot to cook. But yeah, for the first few weeks, all I had were leftovers and expired food.”

Thankfully, she’s now gotten the hang of managing herself and her finances after being in Scotland for more than a month.

She even met a great group of friends whom she’s now really close to. Additionally, over at her university, they even have a Singaporean Society where fellow Singaporean students mingle with each other and organise get-togethers.

 

Singapore-Community-Mahjong
The Singaporean students over at the University of Dundee often come together to play mahjong and share a meal. PHOTO CREDIT: FONG WEN XUAN

 

“Everyone there is super sweet and it’s very nice being able to speak Singlish when I go to their gatherings. The committee members will actually “open house” and invite us over for dinner. They’ll cook Asian dishes and stuff so it really makes me feel quite at home whenever I go for their socials,” she mentions fondly.

While COVID-19 has caused a lot of inconveniences in our lives, it shouldn’t continue to hinder us from living the life we want to live.

Studying abroad, albeit expensive and challenging, is definitely an experience more youths should consider. 

Megan herself attests to this: “I have grown to become much more in charge of my life choices, since there is no one else to look out for me but myself.”


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