Chris Welcome to Home on the Dot. I’m Chris McMorran.
I admit it. I’m obsessed. I’m obsessed with the seismic shift the Covid-19 pandemic is having on higher education. In particular, I’m obsessed with how Covid-19 has transformed what I consider a central element of higher education: leaving home.
For me, at its heart, going to college was always about leaving home. I loved my family and I was nurtured by the small community in and around Greenfield, Iowa, but when I graduated from high school, I looked forward to leaving home. College became that next safe space where I could challenge myself and eventually feel comfortable. But college also meant studying overseas, and thus, leaving another home. Step by step, I moved farther from home, and closer to a different me.
I think that’s why I’m obsessed with the impact of Covid-19 on my students, especially those who were overseas when the pandemic raged out of control. I’m obsessed with the stories of these brave, confident young people who left home to learn something profound about themselves, only to be dragged back home, not only to Singapore, but to their childhood bedrooms.
With the new school year looming on the horizon and the near-certainty of online learning, these same students may not even get to leave home each day to go to class, play sports, meet friends, fall in love, or fall asleep in the library with their head in a book. How soon before home feels like a prison?
For the past few weeks, I’ve been talking with these students who ventured out into the world to find themselves, and were dragged back home by this global pandemic.
In this episode, I talk with Shaun, Tiffany, and Zack. All three major in Japanese Studies, and all three planned to spend part of their junior year in Japan. In fact, I’ve been pushing them to study there since they entered my department as first-years. It was not going to be their first visit to Japan — they had all traveled with family or done study trips of a week or two — but this was to be their first long-term stay. Six months of living on their own. Surviving in a new place, far from their parents. It was supposed to be a time of exploration and growing up. Covid had other plans.
On this episode of Home on the Dot, a global pandemic erases six months in the lives of three young people. Stay tuned.
Chris Okay, it’s great to see your faces. I haven’t seen you guys in months and it is very weird in these Covid times to be so far away from people we know very well and we used to spend a lot of time, you know passing in the hall and seeing and teaching of course.
So the reason why I’ve asked you guys to join me today is because you’ve all had your study abroad experiences cut short and impacted greatly by the coronavirus this year. I mean, we’re talking now in late June and I would like to kind of take you back or let you take me back to your preparations for study-abroad. What you expected to do and learn and enjoy while you were overseas. And then to tell me a little bit about what it was like when you were first learning about the coronavirus and its potential impacts and then suddenly to have your SEP cut short. So Zack, can you start us off by telling us a little bit about why you were going overseas, where you were planning to go and what you were hoping to get out of it.
Zack Right, so like all of us in this current meeting I was planning to go to Japan on exchange to Kwansei Gakuin University and you know naturally we’re Japanese Studies majors, so it’s almost like a right of passage, almost, kind of to do an exchange in Japan. So I was definitely looking forward to that a lot, you know, talking with the students there, seeing the place, traveling all that.
Chris So Shaun, how about you? Can you tell me a bit about your journey? Your desire to go overseas to Japan and where you were going to study.
Shaun I was going to study at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto. Naturally, I was quite excited to go over to Japan because this would be my first long-term stint in Japan and I have actually spoke very long with my parents in detail about where I was gonna go, what I was gonna study, how was I gonna go about doing it.
Chris And how about you, Tiffany.
Tiffany I think I’ve been planning for a very long time. The application for exchange was in Year 2 Sem 1. After my exchange application was accepted, I’ve been literally sitting for 1 whole year waiting for the exchange to happen…
Tiffany And so, it was quite tragic when the news came out and it was cancelled because it was a whole year’s [worth] of anticipation and it all went down the drain.
Chris Tiffany, can you tell me a little bit more about what were you hoping to do when you were in Japan? What were you excited about?
Tiffany Because my exchange was supposed to be to Ritsumeikan, which is in Kyoto, I was actually quite excited to learn more about the traditional culture in Japan because it’s not something that I could easily experience in Singapore. Such as like visiting, like watching plays, which can only be truly experienced in Kyoto. I mean, it is one of the, yeah the old capitals… So, not being able to watch all these like plays and stuff which is not something that I could experience in Singapore is quite sad.
Chris Yeah. So you actually did get to travel to Japan. Which day did you leave Singapore to fly to Japan?
Tiffany We left on March 10th, which was almost, I think, two weeks earlier than the planned date for everyone else because of the orientation period at Ritsumeikan.
Chris Right, so you left on March 10th. And you arrived and you moved into a dormitory and as you were moving in, what was the feeling like in Japan as far as the coronavirus was concerned?
Tiffany I think at that point the fear of the coronavirus wasn’t very prevalent. But we overheard a lot of the international students actually discussing the situation because just like us, many of them were actually getting recalled back to their countries.
Chris Well, that must have been a very strange feeling. Landing, meeting people and then two or three days later they’re suddenly leaving. Zack, how about you? Did you make it to Japan or were you?
Zack Yeah, so, so me and another friend of mine, Umairah, who was gonna go with me to the same university, both didn’t get to go at all because the notice was about one week before we were scheduled to fly over there. 15th March, it was a Saturday or Sunday, sometime around like 5 p.m, or… 3 to 5 p.m., [the] Ministry of Education sends out an, sends out the doomsday notice, the death sentence. Basically saying that all overseas programs will be cancelled and students will be recalled.
Chris The “doomsday notice” in question was titled “Institutes of Higher Learning to Suspend All Official Overseas Placements”. This impacted all students at Singapore universities currently outside the country for both study and internships in places like Silicon Valley. The Ministry was compelled to act, in part, because of the growing number of international borders being closed or restricted. Understandably, the Government did not want to strand any of its citizens overseas, particularly in places where the coronavirus was out of control. For Zack, it meant no departure for Japan. It also meant a lost semester, since he hadn’t taken any courses in preparation for the semester abroad. For Tiffany and Shaun, the notice meant an abrupt end to their orientation at Ritsumeikan and going home just weeks after leaving.
Chris Okay, so Tiffany and Shaun, you guys were in Japan. You got the notice, you also got the notice. Can you take me a little bit through that, those few days when you were planning to suddenly return? Shaun?
Shaun For our case, traveling back wasn’t really a problem, the school was very good in trying to help us, in trying to get us back as soon as possible. In my case, it was a bit difficult because my family was actually overseas in Taiwan at that point in time. So traveling back posed some form of difficulty for me because when we returned we had to serve a 14-day Stay Home Notice which is essentially a form of quarantine where we are not allowed to leave our homes at all. So being alone, home alone without any family help, in terms of getting food or getting necessities was a bit difficult but I actually managed to negotiate with the school to return slightly later so that I could time my return together with my family.
Chris I see, I see… How about you Tiffany?
Tiffany I guess it was the same as Shaun. We were actually in the dorm when the notice came in. So we went to find each other to complain about it [laughs], in a sense. But I think that there was also like a sense of resignation, like I kind of knew it was coming because you could see many other students getting recalled. Prior to the final notice coming in, actually several other different exchange programs within NUS were also cancelled, such as to Korea or to China. So we just went through the motions of settling our return back to Singapore, which the school did negotiate with us and like attempt to help us to come back earlier, but we were quite limited by the fact that along with the school canceling all the exchange programs, the airlines were actually also canceling their flights at the same time.
Chris That’s right, that’s right…
So in the end, what was student exchange for you [laughs]? I mean, Tiffany and Shaun, it sounds like this was just… I mean, did you learn anything? Did you take any classes? Did you get to experience any of the plays that you wanted to experience?
Tiffany The biggest experience we got with the school was that we managed to actually go to the school to settle the documents and stuff. And then, we never actually made it to the class part of it so we got to meet some of the administrative staff, and of course, our fellow students because we were staying in the dorm but that’s as far as the school experience went.
Shaun I still recall this actually very fondly, but I remember the day after we got the cancellation. And me and Tiffany, we actually went out to get some necessities and we were traveling to the supermarket. The supermarket was actually like a 20-minute walk and I actually turned to her and I said: “I’m actually kind of in a state of shock right now”. Like, [laughs] I don’t know how to process this like… I’m not angry, or not, like sad per se, but I’m just really numb at how the whole thing turned out.
Chris Hmm… Zack, is that how you would describe it for yourself too? Do you feel numb? What’s… How do you think philosophically about this ordeal?
Zack Numb is a pretty good word, the moment that you are just reading that notice. Not a very long notice but you’re just reading that notice and you’re thinking “what’s happening next?”
Chris Hmm… So, Zack, does that mean you haven’t been taking any classes for the last three, four months?
Zack Yeah, basically. Although before I was going on exchange, I was dropping in on some classes at uni with a couple of professors.
Chris So how have you been spending your time?
Zack [Laughs] Well, the first, first month or so after the news it was really just nothing. I mean, I can’t even, I won’t even defend myself, really was not in the mood to do anything really.
Zack Yeah, and well after that, started picking up whatever hobbies I had, books, doing Animal Crossing.
Chris Playing Animal Crossing, OK, yeah.
Zack And I mean, I can’t remember when all that circuit breaker stuff started but in the end, I couldn’t go out anyway, so we’re sort of like…
Zack “OK,” then I guess I’ll just keep doing what I’ve been doing anyway, so yeah.
Chris Do you… I mean, I, I don’t want to throw around the word depression because that’s this very serious term, but I suppose you felt blue? Or you felt… I mean, you can’t help but take it personally and feel like it’s something that’s really, you know affecting you personally.
Zack Yeah, yeah I’m not too… I don’t mind the word depression being thrown around, I think there’s a lot of levels of depression too and people definitely suffer from, many people suffer from a low-level of depression I think. And yeah, I think that’s, that’s fair to say, it’s very depressing and I was depressed to some level. I don’t know what level, medical speaking.
Chris Yeah, well you guys are all really outstanding students and I know I have been part of the machine that has been encouraging you to go overseas for the last few years, so you know, I… I’m not gonna, I wouldn’t apologize for that, of course.
I would still hope that everyone would, would have that opportunity, but certainly, Covid has put us in a strange position and it has impacted you guys all very personally in ways that I… You know, I think no one could, could foresee.
Of course, I’m happy that you’re home and safe and healthy. And one thing we haven’t talked about in any of this is, did you feel any fear of the virus? I mean, Shaun and Tiffany when you went to Japan it was on the news, you knew that airports were potentially sites for the spread of the disease.
Did you, did you fear the virus when you were in your dormitories? Did you worry?
Tiffany I would say that actually, I was, I was actually quite afraid of Covid and in that sense because even before we left, there was already starting to have some news. Like I said, even before we left, departed for Japan, like the exchange programs to like Korea and China were getting cancelled.
Tiffany And so, I actually departed with a mild sense of fear. I actually heard that certain products were running out such as like masks and sanitizers. And as such, I actually brought quite a large stock of masks and hand sanitizers and cleaning stuff all to Japan so that I could properly protect myself. And when I was there, such as moving into the dorm, I actually wiped everything down with sanitizer.
Chris Oh wow, yeah…
Tiffany And when going around, like on a day-to-day basis, I would actually wear a mask every day. I had like an underlying sense of fear. Not everyone seemed the same way even though the dorm did prepare and make changes to accommodate the situation such as preventing visitors from entering the dorm as well as providing sanitizers for us as well.
Chris So the dormitory was taking precautions to help you but you still felt some underlying sense of caution in your preparations and in your daily life, okay.
How about you Shaun?
Shaun I wouldn’t say I was overly worried about the virus, but I did, I did knew that I had to take proper precautions such as utilizing hand sanitizer, making sure that I was masked up when I was going out, and sort of having more care in my personal hygiene as well.
The concern over Covid actually came more as I was returning home because when… As I was in the dormitory, as we are all students around the same age so even if the infection does come, I guess the, the chances of any fatalities would be much lower compared to if you are back home with your family.
Chris Yeah, right, right.
Shaun And that was what my family was also more concerned with as I was coming back because, when I came back from Japan, my mom actually made me sort of seclude myself in my room. Until at least she deemed it safe, like 7 days or so. Yeah, I was more concerned about the danger it could post to my family coming home rather than when I was in Japan. Of course…
Chris I see, I see.
Shaun I could see that there was a heightened sense of worry among the people in Japan not only with our dormitory but also… The school actually informed us, not to go to the city office to do our documentation because apparently, the office has closed due to a confirmed case that had occurred.
Chris Oh wow.
Shaun And me and Tiffany just straight away looked at each other because we actually had went the day before.
Chris [Laughter] Oh, right, right.
Tiffany Oh yeah [laughs], we went one day before.
Chris And they had a confirmed case there.
Shaun Yes, yes.
Chris Oh my gosh.
How about you Zack? I mean, were you, was there any part of you that thought okay, maybe I shouldn’t go to Japan [laughter]. This is going to become a serious issue. I should stay here. I’m worried about my health. I mean, did you, did you feel anything like that?
Zack For me, definitely no actually [Laughter]. Like Shaun said, if we’re going away, I got no, you know, concerns for my family. I won’t be around them and the second part of it was, of course, this is all pre, you know pre-Circuit Breaker all that. Like, the virus could come from anywhere and if you’re gonna be living with that fear all the time then you might as well not go out. But at that time, you know, it’s like, if you were going to be so worried, I don’t know how you can live normally. So at that time, there wasn’t really much of a fear for me.
Chris So Shaun and Tiffany, you guys have lost the whole semester?
Shaun and Tiffany Yes.
Shaun All three, all here [laughs].
Chris And Zack, and Zack too, right? All three of you have lost the whole semester,
Tiffany and Zack Yeah.
Chris Oh my gosh, so it’s not just the lost time overseas but it’s also the lost — no credits — basically.
Chris Oh my gosh…
Tiffany And our delayed graduation and all that.
Chris Right, right. I mean, you got your tuition back, I hope. That must be really…
Tiffany Yeah, yeah we got it back, we got it back.
Chris But yeah, you can never get these months back and I suppose there’s some temptation to be productive and learn a hobby and there are some temptation to hole up in your room and play Animal Crossing [laughter].
Zack Plenty of temptation [laughter].
Chris Tough, tough decision.
Shaun So, the conversation works a bit differently versus my friends that were coming back from the UK and US. They still had e-classes and for us it was just, completely nothing [laughs] for the past 6 months.
Tiffany Like, the moment we returned it was just to rot at home.
Chris Oh my gosh, just to rot at home. We have to include that line Tiffany, it’s terrible! It’s so true though [laughter], it feels that way, I’m sure.
Tiffany No, it’s especially bad because so, so you know that when we return from Japan we had to serve a 14 days Stay Home Notice.
Tiffany And just nice I believe, either the day before or after my Stay Home Notice ended, they announced the Circuit Breaker.
Chris Right, so it was immediately after your time stopped you had to then, then everyone in the country had to stay home!
Tiffany Yeah, I believe I went out for one day. I bought food and a bubble tea and just as I was buying the bubble tea, they announced that the Circuit Breaker was starting [laughs].
Chris And that there’s no more sales of bubble tea.
Tiffany Yeah, and I was just staring at it in my hand like oh… this is the last one.
Chris You must’ve been wondering how many bubble teas can I drink today to make this worth it [laughs].
So, I wanna ask you guys how has this changed your university experience? In five years or ten years, how will you look back on this time in your life?
Tiffany I think it definitely puts a damper on my university experience. Because so much of university, it’s been built up since we entered, that like, oh exchange is such a vital part of your university. You have to go and experience the culture somewhere else and I don’t think it’s something that I could possibly replicate in the future? In my case I don’t see any chance for me going on exchange in the future years as I am reaching Year 4 and exchange is not allowed in Year 4.
I think maybe five years down the road, I can still look back on this time fondly because while I didn’t have a proper exchange experience to say of, I guess this whole Covid situation is like a unique experience as well. Like not many people can say they flew there and were there for like 10 days before they got cancelled and brought back.
Tiffany Overall, I guess I still did get to experience Japan for, however short amount of time and so I can look back on those few days fondly.
Chris Okay, thank you. Thank you. How about you Shaun?
Shaun I would like to see it as a character-building exercise [laughter], if it is possible.
Yeah, I was talking to my friends about it like throughout, like there’s quite a bit of setbacks here and there throughout this first half of the year. Overall it’s really a character-building exercise, but hopefully, we’ll look at it as a good experience to tell, I guess, future generations about what we went through, how we deal with it, yeah.
Chris Yeah, how about you Zack?
Zack Well I think, you know, there’s no avoiding it being a shadow over your undergraduate life, at least. But yeah, you know, at least for me I’m planning to do a postgrad as well. Hopefully I can make up for that and go overseas and spend some extended time there, it won’t change what happened but maybe I can sort of pick up what was supposed to be.
Chris Well, thanks for your time today [laughter] and thank you for sharing your experiences both under lockdown, and of course when the coronavirus was impacting your SEP.
Chris Brilliant, adventurous young people in the prime of their lives, rotting at home. How sad. Plus, because the Japanese school calendar starts in April, Zack, Shaun, and Tiffany have lost an entire semester. Zero academic credits, delayed graduation and delayed first jobs.
As schools in the U.S. and elsewhere struggle to plan in-person classes for the upcoming semester, educators have focused a lot of attention on the academic losses among young children in particular. And rightly so. But Shaun, Tiffany and Zack demonstrate the losses piling up at the other end of the education timeline. Their laughter hides the emptiness they feel when reflecting on the gap caused by coronavirus. It’s a survival mechanism to cope with something that had been built up for so long, being suddenly taken away: the chance to leave home and in doing so, grow into someone different.
This episode was produced by Shaun Tan and me, with sound engineering by Johann Tan and David Chew. If you liked this episode, please rate us on Apple Podcasts, and keep listening for more Covid-19 episodes. To learn more about the Home on the Dot project, please visit our blog, where you can find transcripts and links to news and academic articles on every topic. It’s at tinyurl.com/homeonthedot. You can also find us on Facebook. Just search for Home on the Dot.
Thank you for listening.