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Should I Stay or Should I Go? (COVID-19 and Study Abroad) Transcript

Chris Welcome to a special episode of Home on the Dot. I’m Chris McMorran, recording in my office at the National University of Singapore

It’s Friday, March 20, 2020, and we are all living in a COVID-19 world. Countries have closed their borders and placed their populations on lockdown. In fact, in the past few hours the Governor of California issued an order for its 40 million residents to stay home. Never in the history of the world have so many people been at home at the same time. Home has become our last line of defense. 

I am fortunate to be in Singapore. On January 23rd, we were one of the first countries to report a positive case of COVID-19. Luckily, we’ve largely been able to flatten the curve. As of yesterday, there were only 345 reported cases in Singapore. That’s remarkable for a densely-packed city-state of over 5 million, with extensive connections to the rest of the world. 

Despite this good news, though, I felt helpless as this new coronavirus became a global pandemic. I have been unable to peel my eyes away from the tidal wave of news; and unable to do anything to change its course. I wash my hands more often than before, and I try to practice social distancing. I call my mom almost every day, and I cheer on my sister and my niece, both of whom work in hospitals. I know those efforts are important, but every day the scale of the disaster grows and I don’t know how to help.

One thing I can do is support my students in these stressful times. In the past week I started reaching out to students on exchange: both my NUS students studying abroad in places like Japan and France, and exchange students from around the world who are in my classes at NUS. Their lives have been upended in dramatic fashion, as their once-in-a-lifetime educational experiences have been cut short or threatened by COVID-19. 

This episode of Home on the Dot features an interview with two such students: An and Kaela. Both are from California, and both are studying for a semester in Singapore. How are they coping with the slow disaster swirling all around us? And will they abandon their exchange program and return to a home that is now in virtual lockdown? Stay tuned. 

An I’m An. I am from California. I go to school in Arizona, the University of Arizona.

Kaela I’m Kaela. I am from California, and I go to school in Northern California, at UC Berkeley.

Chris Ok, so this is a bit of an odd episode of Home on the Dot. I’m speaking with some students who are on exchange in Singapore but have been told in the last few days or last week that they have to go home. How did you first learn that you have to return home?

An So I first learned that I have to return home when I got an email. They were saying like first they sent an email saying “Take care of yourself, take all the precaution seriously, use hand sanitiser. Do all this, do all that” At the end of the email it says “Hey, we strongly recommend you go home like now.”

Chris Who was the email from?

An The University of Arizona.

Chris Ok, and when was that?

An It was last week.

Chris So Kaela how did you first hear that you have to return home?

Kaela What happened was when we found out that An was actually getting pulled, we all sent emails proactively to the advisor being like “Hey, would you pull us? What’s gonna happen, do we need to be concerned?” They sent us a reply email and they said “We are pulling students out of Europe, but at the moment we see that there is no reason for you to come out of Singapore, we viewed it to be a low-risk area.”

And honestly, we sometimes wonder if it is because California is more dangerous right now than Singapore. So we were all, we were all very confident of that, we thought it would be no problem. We were still in contact. Then, a few weeks ago we got an email saying, “We are now giving you the option to return. You can cancel your program or you can transition your classes to online, if that is what you want.”

So I replied an email saying, “Please please, whatever you do, don’t send the California kids home, we don’t really have a place to go right now.” That was two, three days ago and this morning I got the email that they want me to come home.

Chris So what was your feeling when you read the email?

An My heart dropped, I was so sad. I don’t know, it feels so weird for someone to tell you that you have to go home when, when you already built such like a sense of home here. And I feel like I haven’t even felt like a 100% home here, not yet but I’m working on it. But the fact that like through my progress of trying to build a home here, someone immediately cuts it, it just breaks my heart. I just felt so confused, so sad. It’s March right, it’s only been 3 months since we’ve been here. We built so much, like relationships, so much close ties. Even though it’s been 3 months I felt like I’ve been friends with everybody forever. These are lifelong friends that you will never forget, and like the really worst, the sad part is like we won’t like, see each other everyday like we are now.  So having people leave, like “Hey, my flight’s on Wednesday, my flight’s this Sunday.”. It’s like, oh like I probably won’t see you in like forever, like I probably won’t see you for the next couple years and…

Kaela It would be the rest of your life. You might never actually see these people.

An Yeah, exactly.

Kaela And because of the virus, you might actually never see them again.

An Yeah, seriously.

Chris That’s dark, but true.

An It’s only been 3 months, but I felt sooo like. Like I have told you I’m on the process, the process of building like… I’ve been starting to feel home here. Like I have, like maybe since like after a couple weeks, like maybe February. We felt it, we all felt it. Like, there is not one time when anybody eats lunch alone. Somebody is always willing to eat lunch with you at UTown, like you just text in the group chat. It’s like “Hey”, ok well if you eat lunch at 1 somebody will eat lunch with you at 1. And if you text at 3, there’s always gonna be someone at 3. You are never alone and we build such such close relationships and I was starting to feel like home here but I am really doubting that now. It’s not Singapore’s fault obviously, just with everything going on, like is it really my home if I am being asked to just…

Kaela Yeah… It’s not even that, it’s not even the friendships that you made here which are amazing. It’s just like the little routines you get into. Getting to know like, what lady, what lady is gonna at the juice stand at this hour. When can you, which store has the best, like noodles at 4PM. You know, it’s those little things and being able to explore and really just like walk around and see what there is to see here. It really just makes it seem like a real place. I still can’t even believe I’m in Singapore. I still can’t really, I haven’t really fully absorbed the fact that I can’t go home in half an hour, I can’t just drive back to my parents’ house. You know and so, being able to internalise that and realise that wow this is an opportunity that you will literally never get again. It’s amazing, it’s just amazing. You can make like, out of the communities, how safe you can feel in a place like this. Yeah.

Chris And you can learn a lot about yourself too.

An and Kaela Yeah

Chris And you’ve been looking for flights and it’s been…

An It’s been ridiculously insane, it’s been like 1700 to 2200 — just one way. That’s the worst part, I paid 1300 for a round trip, so I would have, I have a return flight on May 10th, the last day we could move out. Yeah, literally that’s about some 600ish per flight.

Chris How would you cover that difference?

An I don’t know, that’s the thing

Chris Does family or…

An Yeah, probably through family.

Kaela Family or the rest of the money that I have saved up for being here.

An It just like really sucks that we have to think about like not only like, what are the next steps… But also financial part, the academic part. Like there are so many things we have to think about. I appealed, over and over again, sending almost over 50 emails and staying up like during the timezone over there and yet just so… I’m so exhausted, even today I’m still exhausted, from recovering from that, you know like you know like [laughs]

Kaela We wrote some emails together…

An Yeah, over 50 emails just saying “ Ok we understand the consequences, like I understand.” I appreciate like the school taking us into consideration, like our health, our safety and wellbeing. But they should, they should give us a choice. Like I felt like when they sent all those emails to us we got no choice whatsoever and it just feels like, like everything was just stripped away from us, versus having a choice.

Kaela Many of the students here, neither of us had this experience. They were told to return home on threat of their enrolment. They were said, “If you do not return home within the time frame we’ve given you, you will not be allowed to enrol next semester.” 

An Like it would be suspending…

Kaela They would suspend you from the university, which I find to be really unethical. I think that’s, I don’t know how you could say that to someone who’s worked so hard to go to school, then to go abroad, and then to tell them, “Oh come back you’re not going to get any credit. We’re not going to help you at all. And also, if you don’t do this now, you can’t be a student here any more.”.

Chris And you were mentioning all the stress of the travel and the money, but you didn’t mention the stress of the virus itself. I mean, are you worried about your health?

An I feel like we are, like we are very worried about our health (Kaela Not here); however, not here, as compared to back home. 

Kaela Yeah, so. My parents are from the San Francisco Bay area, so there are seven counties right now in the San Francisco area that are under “shelter in place.” My parents are in one of those counties, they are in “shelter in place.” So, they’re basically locked in their house for the next three weeks. And, I… when asked to return home, my mom said. “You should consider staying there [in Singapore] for the summer, if possible, like it’s OK if you don’t come home right away, but you need to be safe.” And I personally don’t feel comfortable putting my parents in the position where they would need to go pick me up from the airport. I don’t feel comfortable going to SFO (San Francisco International Airport) right now, and then potentially exposing my parents to that… yeah or the stress that would put them under–financial, illness, otherwise.

An Yeah. Many of the students like that have left already… Like these past weeks have just been filled with tears and hugs and anger. Like, allll throughout the exchange community… and I’m sure the world. To be honest with you, it’s not just us, yeah. But the priorities like, of going home, back to our family – our primary family, is the fear of getting our primary family sick. Like, I have friends, like I’ve talked to them and they are so scared that they are renting hotels and for two weeks. And renting Airbnbs. Really trying to live.  And some, like it’s not an American thing. Like, our grandparents don’t really live with us, but a lot of grandparents do live with, like, the family. Like, in Europe, a lot of the Europeans [exchange students] said, “Yeah, my grandparents live with us, and I’m sooo scared, I’m so afraid. I, I can’t even go home–knowing that. So, how are you going to kick me home, like, right now?”

Kaela I have a friend whose father has cancer, and he was supposed to go abroad and he ended up not going. His program was canceled beforehand, but his worst fear was actually going and then being sent back after a few days or a few weeks. 

Chris Was his program in China? 

Kaela Japan.

Chris In Japan, yeah.

An I don’t know. It’s been such a sad week for everyone. Like we’re all just so heartbroken.

Kaela Every day is another… literally, every day is another going-away party. Like every single day, someone is leaving. And it’s (An It’s sad)…I think people are not understanding why a lot of us don’t want to come home.

An Yes.

Kaela I mean, first of all, there’s the panic that we’ll be in more danger if we do. There’s the panic that we might be endangering our family if we do. But furthermore, we just feel, we just feel safe here. And, I don’t know. I guess I’m just kinda tired of being nervous all the time. 

An Yeah, me too. 

Kaela I’m tired of being nervous and sad. I’ve been nervous and sad, like at least part of every day for at least the past two weeks. I’m just tired of feeling that way, you know?

An We’ve been basically living on the edge. Like, really not knowing what to expect tomorrow. Waiting for, like, the news to come out. Like the borders closing. Like that whole topic. We don’t even know if the borders are gonna close, but, you know, it’s on the news, so it’s like yeah, like, everyone is fighting — like I appealed four times — everyone is fighting so hard to stay here, because they feel home here. However, there’s always that fear of not being able to go back in May. 

Chris Or in June, or in July. And I’m sure that makes a huge difference as well. 

An Yeah, especially because we’re like, a like, a six-month, student pass holder. 

Kaela If our student pass gets cancelled… (An Yeah we) And Singapore’s pretty strict on people who aren’t in the country, like, legally. Once our student pass expires, we don’t really know what our options are. So if we do choose to stay [now], we don’t actually know what would happen in that situation. 

Chris Right. If your student pass were to expire, but there were no flights out of Changi Airport, I’m sure the government would make an exception for you, right? But I think a lot of people like me are worried… so we’re essentially, potentially, trapped here for the next year or year and a half. I mean, in a worst-case scenario, not only would it [Singapore] close down the borders, but there would be no flights anymore. So, I’m sure that some of your institutions and your families are worried. It’s one thing to say you want to stay until May, but what if, in May, there is no way to get home? And then you’re just trapped here indefinitely? 

An It’s just so unfair.

Kaela We were actually just talking about this on the bus here. We were like, alright, well we know we could probably afford to eat [laughs], but we don’t know where we would live. So we were actually talking that in the event that, say, our parents don’t want us to come home because they’re worried about us flying, or they’re worried about our safety… if we have to spend the summer here, what are we gonna do? 

Chris So how are you managing the stress?

An Are we managing the stress? 

Kaela I don’t know, actually…

An It’s really really… really rough.

Kaela Everyday, it sort of feels like… If it’s not one thing it’s the other, like something is happening every single day that will…

Chris Like what?

Kaela I mean, for me I had to take my friend to the hospital a few days ago because she broke her foot, and it’s like, if someone’s not getting… And that morning, we found out one of my friends is getting sent home. So if it’s not an emergency, or someone getting sent home, or having to write petition letters to getting sent home. A professor from home wants to get in contact and then is upset that I haven’t emailed him back in a few weeks or something like that. Or my parents are stressed because they are locked in their house, so I don’t know. For me at least, I feel like every day it’s just been something else is going, just on always…

An It’s kind of like what I said, like not only do we have to worry about this, we also have to.. We are still a student here at NUS, so we are still doing assignments and… I’m so behind on all my classes, I have no time whatsoever to even look at like… I have… Everyone’s been saying… Everyone’s been asking for extension dates like… We are just really trying to really figure this out. Like make it clear before we do anything else. Like it’s just really really stressful on us and like, like is this what it’s like to be a grown-up? [laughs] Like I don’t know, like do you all like [laughs]

Kaela Everything happening all at the same time (An Finances, academics, like…)

An Really, everything. Ah.

Chris I don’t know if it’s really that extreme, to have everything… (Kaela Ok, that might be good to hear) washing over you like this as a grown-up. I’ve been a grown-up for a long time. I think these are extreme circumstances. (An Yeah…) I mean, just to wax a little bit… You know, when I was an undergrad, I also studied overseas. I thought it was the most important thing I could do, it really helped me mature. I used it to travel and to meet new friends around the world and to find more about who I was as a person, but I was never put in these kinds of extreme situation like you guys are now.

I just have the utmost respect for you and I… I am so torn apart inside that your experience is being cut short. It really hurts. But seeing how you are helping each other and trying to get through this, restores my faith that maybe something good will come out of this. I have to say, you know I’m worried about my mom, I’m worried about my family members but also… I’m worried about you guys. Because, you are now going to potentially go through these airports that could expose you and I’m worried about, like you taking something home to your families. Yeah, I don’t know I’m obviously not dealing with this stress very well either but…

An My mom is a psychiatrist back at home and she’s saying like… that it’s like… the whole mental health community is really… They really need help, like right now. And it’s in need of more psychiatrists as of right now, because like the panics. Yeah, that’s also something that’s not talked about, like a lot of people are like, kind of focusing on the physical health, but no one is talking about the mental health of this crisis.

Chris And that will last a long time.

An Yeah, oh that will yeah.

Chris Because there will be some people who do pass away (An Yeah) and there will be some people that suddenly have to deal with the loss of a loved one (An Yeah).

An It’s just really…like…

Kaela I’m just worried about like everything happening… Even back in the.. Like so when schools are being cancelled, in California the schools are cancelled until August. What about the parents who work full-time and can’t afford childcare? (An Yeah) What are you gonna do, like what’s going on for them? What’s the situation that they are being put in? I feel like especially in countries like the US it’s a little worse, like say like I feel like, at least in Singapore or in.. I know in Vietnam schools are closed, there tend to be more intergenerational households, so there are more people in one household, there are a little more options.

Chris There’s a built-in support network (Kaela Yeah)

Kaela There’s no support network in the US. I think, maybe just at the stage of life we are in I feel like in general, the support network from like higher-ups tends to not be there. But I don’t know if I am saying this, out of like, a very self-centred view but I do feel like as an American; you are on your own. (An Yeah you are) And it’s reflected not only in the situation that we are in but also in the situation back home. I feel like not a lot of consideration has been taken to what people can afford and what’s feasible for them.

An I’ve never felt this way ever, in my life. And it really makes you think about people who actually do feel like this. Even you know, when there’s no COVID. Like everybody, you know, the immigrants…

Chris Refugees.

An Refugees. It makes you really think about it about something that’s not as talked about as it should be (Chris Yep) Like as a first-generation immigrant, like you know, even I’ve never felt so extreme like this, like ever.

Kaela Never. And I feel bad for all the people, their home situation is worse. I know someone, he’s Italian, but he goes to school in California. There is no good situation for him once he gets back home. He can’t go back to Italy, a lot of the Polish kids — they can’t go back. So… we are being put in a situation, I think a lto eat, not being able to have a place to sleep. We have that, I mean we even have air-conditioning. But a lot of people, they don’t have that situation, so it’s [pause] I don’t know, I think the crisis mindset is really going strong and it’s… To an extent, a little bit enlightening. I just wish it wasn’t enlightening at the.. to the degree and the cost that it is.ot of people around the world are in all the time, this situation is… It’s like crisis but in a very comfortable way (An Yeah…). We aren’t at danger of not being able

Chris And to the physical and emotional stress that you have to feel all the time. But yeah of course it will make you more aware of the fact that some people do live under that sense of… of fear and insecurity 24/7. And I really appreciate you amid this incredibly stressful time when you are saying goodbye to all your friends on a daily basis, taking a little time to speak with us. When will you go home?

An My appeal is approved, so…

Chris So you will be staying until May?

An Yes, yes [laughs]

Chris And?

Kaela I don’t know so I’m going to be sending a lot of emails today and calling my parents and calling my advisors back at home and ideally I should find out in a few days, we’ll see.

Chris What do you want to do?

Kaela I don’t know, that’s a really good question. Yeah, I really really don’t know. I don’t want to stay here for a year. No offence Singapore, I love Singapore [laughs] but I really don’t want to have to stay here for like 6 months, 8 months, 10 months but I really don’t want to go home. Yeah, I mean it’s dangerous and also… I really like it here!

Chris Yeah

An This is a good new home.

Kaela It is! This is my new home!

Chris This episode was produced by me, with sound engineering work from Johann Tan and David Chew. My deepest thanks go to An and Kaela for taking the time to meet with me and to share their experiences. They give me so much faith in the future. I wish them well. 

To learn more about the Home on the Dot project, please visit our blog, which has episode transcripts and links to news and academic articles on every topic. It’s at You can also find us on Facebook. Just search for Home on the Dot.

Please take care of yourselves and your loved ones. And as always, thank you for listening.

Published in Transcripts S2


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