Chris What will university look like this year? How will universities keep students, staff, and faculty safe amid the ongoing pandemic? And how will they protect or replace the in-person learning, extra-curricular activities, and just hanging out with friends that define the university experience?
Everyone wants to know, but no one has a clear answer. All plans can change in the face of the coronavirus. When the National University of Singapore begins classes in a few weeks, I’ll be working from home, teaching entirely online. Those students and faculty who do visit campus will be limited to specific zones, all in an effort to limit interactions and possible spread of the virus. And this is in a country that has largely controlled Covid-19.
What will university look like in the US, where things seem to be spiralling out of control? Jared wants to know. Jared is taking my summer class at NUS, but he is actually a rising Sophomore at Brown University, located in Providence, Rhode Island. Like many young Singaporeans studying overseas, he returned to the relative safety of his family home last March, as the coronavirus spiralled out of control and his university switched to online learning. Now, with the start of the school year only weeks away, he’s not sure if he can — or if he should — go back.
This is Home on the Dot, the podcast about the everyday lives, hopes, fears, memories, and dreams of Singapore’s young people. I’m Chris McMorran. As we all look ahead to what comes next with the global pandemic, we at Home on the Dot have been sharing stories of stolen hopes and shattered dreams; stories of the sudden evacuations from France and Japan that brought students back home to Singapore in March, just as their student exchange programs were underway. I even spoke with a student whose journey ended before it began, with NUS canceling his program a week before he flew to Japan.
In this episode we hear from Jared, whose educational dreams have been disrupted not only by Covid, but by political games in the U.S. What was it like to rush back home to Singapore, how much longer will he be stuck at home, and how does he feel about returning to a country where racism towards Asians and Asian-Americans has been a common feature of this pandemic?
Chris So when did you first learn that you were going to have to come home?
Jared I think that was about the beginning of March or like the end of February. So, my friends and I have been seeing it coming because you know, all the other schools are like announcing that they’re going to shut down.
Chris So, it was like a wave of schools. Do you remember which ones you heard from first?
Jared For me and my friends, I think it was Penn and Harvard, like UPenn and Harvard. And we were like “oh crap they are shutting down” [laughter] And so we were like, “ok I think Brown is going to shut down,” like just give them a few days you know, and sure enough they did.
Chris So, when you say they shut down, you mean they what, they switch to all online or they actually just close the campus and kick everyone out? What was it?
Jared So I think it was a whole suite of measures. At first, the announcement was like, a very heavy one and when our president sent it over, we were like… The things entailed: we have to first move out of the campus physically so no one could physically be on campus because of the risk of the pandemic and then after like we all moved out.
The school moved towards online instruction, but I think there was one thing that I really wanted to commend the school on was that they were pretty preemptive with all their measures. Actually, all the classes started taking online precautions about one to two weeks before the announcement. So there was enough time for like professors to test out Zoom, which was really new to all of us back then, no one knew how to use that software.
Chris Had anyone heard of Zoom 7 months ago?
Jared Nope, none of us did, none of us did [laughs]. So we had about one or two weeks to try and after that, the announcement came. So like my American friends just packed their bags up and they could leave a bit earlier because they have people to pick them up. Or it’s a bit easier for them to go back home. But I think the international experience was a little bit different. I’m very fortunate to have a home that I feel safe enough to go back to.
But I do have international friends from some countries who either don’t feel safe going back to or they do not want to pose a risk to their family members who might be immuno-compromised.
Chris Oh, really!
Jared And some of them stayed precisely because they didn’t want to go back to their countries just in case they are not able to go back to the US again for the fall.
Chris Compared to many of his friends, Jared was fortunate. He had a safe home to return to. He had his own bedroom, where he could study in peace, even when his classes were held in the middle of his night. He could also afford the international flight home since it was generously included in his scholarship. Most importantly, he was confident he could return to the U.S., unlike some of his friends, who worried they might be denied entry because of their nationality or sudden policy changes by a mercurial administration.
These fears nearly came true earlier this month when the Trump Administration suddenly announced that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would bar holders of student visas from entering the country for online-only classes. And ICE would have canceled the visas and deported any international students who refused to leave. This would have forced the hand of university administrators throughout the country, pressuring them to hold in-person classes regardless of the safety of doing so, and regardless of what Covid infection rates might be in a few months.
When I spoke to Jared, this news had just broken two days before. He was still trying to wrap his head around the implications for himself and his friends.
Jared I just really want to acknowledge the amount of like, luck and privilege that has been on my side, you know with this whole situation. And I am really thinking for my friends who made the decision to stay in the US, precisely to avoid these visa issues, because I was talking to some of them like, yesterday and like, it’s quite a hard place to be in. They are really caught in quite a bind. And I think it’s even worse for students whose schools have announced that they are definitely going to go fully online because for Brown, you know, we’re still a hybrid school so in a sense…
I mean, I do not have to give up my Visa status if I just made the decision to go back in the fall no matter how unsafe I feel it might be because I have the option of taking classes in person, like the exemption state[s], but there are schools like Harvard which announced that even if you move back to campus all classes will be held online. Then that’s just going to unfairly affect all the international students because they can only take a set number of classes, like one class online, which really kind of just defeats the purpose of the whole semester, right. So yeah, I think that’s quite a difficult place to be at this point in time.
Chris So can you speak a little generally about some friends who are in particularly difficult situations?
Jared I have a good friend. Instead of heading back to his home country, he decided to go bunk up with a relative in, I think New York or New Jersey. He wanted to come back in the fall, right, it’s precisely to avoid this Visa issue. So when this news hit, within our friend groups we’re all texting, I was very concerned about him because he has to make very tough decisions. And either way, it’s going to be sucky right because you either go back home and do like fully online courses but that means that your Visa is going to get canceled and with the amount of backlog that US embassies across the world have with Visa applications right now, there’s no telling when your visa re-application is going to get processed.
Chris Oh, that’s a good point so even if they opened up for regular classes in January, you may not have enough time to process a visa application to get back to campus.
Jared Yeah, exactly.
Chris Oh, I didn’t think about that. Can you say what country this person is from? Or you’d rather not?
Jared It’s somewhere in the Middle East. Somewhere in the Middle East. It’s a big concern for all of us with the VISA re-applications, right. And especially for him, because if he has to go back home then number one, there’s the visa application problem and number two… I don’t remember every single clause of the exemptions from ICE but there might also be restrictions as to the number of online classes that he can take.
Because Brown is operating on a hybrid model. If I remember correctly, all schools adopting a hybrid model requires the students to be on campus for fall or if not, they can only take a maximum of one online course. It’s going to be a tough decision for him.
Chris So what are his choices?
Jared He can return to campus and go ahead as usual. But of course, that brings with it certain risks — of infection especially with communal life — or he can choose to do fall online but lose the Visa status and have to go back home. And be uncertain as to when he can physically set foot in the United States.
Chris …return to campus? Yeah.
Chris Fortunately, the visa issue has been resolved for now. After Harvard, MIT, and several dozen other universities began to sue the government the Trump administration dropped its threat on July 14th.
Just a week before, Brown University’s President, Christina H. Paxson, had announced its plan for the upcoming year. Called “Healthy Brown”, it included a new third term in the summer that would create a less dense living and learning environment on campus, since students would be spread out over any two of the three terms. This was a flexible solution to the problem, but it would have put Brown at odds with the Trump Administration and placed many students in a dicey visa situation. Jared had just learned of the Healthy Brown plan when we talked.
Jared What I really liked about Brown’s plan, different from a lot of other universities, Brown is going to roll out a trimester plan. So instead of a regular fall-spring semester, they divided the semesters into fall, spring and summer where everyone just needs to be on campus for two out of the three semesters.
Jared At any one point in time, about half or only three-quarters of the cohort is physically present on campus and that’s assuming that no one’s taking gap years and no one’s like opting for online classes. For sophomores, we are arranged to be on campus on fall and spring and if the situation gets worse or doesn’t improve by spring, we might get moved to summer instead. I think one possible solution is to sit out of the fall semester and instead opt to begin your academic calendar in the spring?
Chris But that would mean remaining in Singapore until December. Right?
Chris How would you spend your time?
Jared I honestly have been extremely lucky in this situation because I’m on a scholarship to go study in the US. Under the stipulations of my scholarship, I will have to return to Singapore during the normal summer of 2021 to do an internship with the organization. One of the ways that we can negotiate is if we really do have to do a spring and summer sequence. My plan is to try to see if I could do the internship this fall, that means at the end of the year as well.
Chris I see
Jared Of course, that’s depending on manpower restrictions and scheduling can allow.
Chris Depends on what company as well.
Jared Definitely. Yeah, I think at least that’s an option because right now the directive given to all of the scholars under this scholarship is that we are actually highly discouraged to return to school in the fall.
Chris I see. So are you glad you returned home when you did?
Jared To be honest, It was the wiser decision for us all to come back because we would naturally feel safer. For me, it was an easier decision as well because my flight back was also sponsored by my scholarship provider.
Chris I see.
Jared But I would say that most of my Singaporean friends that I know, from Brown, are actually back in Singapore right now. They eventually made the decision to come back. I feel that this speaks a lot also to the amount of safety that we feel back here at home. Yeah.
Chris What do you miss most about being on campus at Brown?
Jared It’s a very cliched answer. I miss the people [laughter]. Definitely, as in you know, I left spring with a kind of hope that we would still be able to return in the fall. There were lots to look forward to, you know, my friends and I grouped up to get a room together. So you’re going to room with people who you’re familiar and comfortable with. We have like a lineup of events planned with the clubs and societies that I’m involved in. We were beginning to look at proposals for like you know what musicals to stage for our production board next semester before this whole situation hit. So I was really looking forward to seeing the people again.
And I think one thing I do miss about being in the US is that people there are very willing to discuss things. It’s great in that academic environment, right? Cause when you are in kind of like a bind, you can just talk things out with people and it’s also a very good place for you to start clarifying your own morals and your own values because there’s always someone who’s willing to debate this for you, with you. That’s something I miss in isolation but also I miss in Singapore. Our culture is a bit more, leans towards reserving ourselves, stifling a little bit of debate here and there because we are scared of rocking the boat which I mean you know fair, you know, stability is a very important thing. But I do think that having more constructive discourse and discussions is good for our society moving ahead and I miss the US for this because it was a place where I could polish these skills, but also like reconsider a lot of positions and values.
Chris so, how did studying in the US change you?
Jared I think a very noticeable change is my philosophy towards studying has changed a lot, you know, because the academic system is very different in the US than it’s in Singapore. I spent 10-11 years going from Primary school to Secondary School to JC. It’s always about the hard work, it’s always about studying, it’s always about doing well in the test. I have great memories of those years right but that’s owing to the fact that I was able to thrive in that environment.
But, this is a system that’s not made for everybody and I think going to the US has really opened my eyes towards the possibility and the benefits of a broader-based system of education as well. One very big observation I made at least with the people at Brown, I heard it’s different with the people in the other universities but more so for Brown because there’s a reputation for it, but like…
People really are laid-back, not saying that they are lazy, but they are more laid-back and chill when it comes to their studies. They put in the requisite hard work, but they know how to balance, you know, between having to study for their classes but also doing things that are productive for their own interests and their own mental health.
And that’s something I feel that as much as I really appreciate the amount of rigor that Singapore’s education system has built in me. I’m very well prepared for classes in the states because I have the skills built up, but I do think that there is value in looking at slowing things down a little bit and allowing people and incentivizing people to start pursuing what they’re actually interested in, in our education system. I think this was a very good lesson that I learnt in the US.
Chris Okay. Last question is a bit darker. What do you fear most about returning to the US?
Jared The most immediate concern if I have to go back in the fall would definitely be like, you know, me and my friends’ health and safety. Although Brown has a lot of measures like they really did have a lot of measures to try to mitigate that. For example, we are all going to have single rooms if we go back on campus. But there is a real possibility right, that comes with any kind of communal or dense living situation and lately, I have been reading about how even amongst the young, Covid-19 does have, can have very long-lasting effects and damages to your health, like in your brain, I heard, and that’s like, really scary.
Right, so I think it’s time that our generation stop[s] being conceited, having some sort of misplaced sense of confidence over our ability to survive this virus, you know.
Chris You’re not indestructible, yeah.
Jared Yeah, definitely. So my first concern would definitely be me and my friends’ own health.
A broader concern that I have which might not be that worrying because of the nature of my University and the political nature of the state that I’m in right. But whether as someone of Asian descent or as an international student, I would face any form of discrimination.
Yeah, this is a very new experience for me. I think I would also need to acknowledge that there is a big difference of oh, a privileged Chinese Singaporean who has never ever experienced any form of discrimination or othering here in Singapore and like going overseas and suddenly like facing, microaggressions or like discriminatory actions. And like coming back to Singapore to complain and talking about how we learnt our lesson. There’s a lot of privilege that I hold in my identity here but I must admit that it is still a creeping worry for me and some of my friends, but less so because I feel that Rhode Island and Brown especially, is an extremely, extremely accepting place and there’s a lot of diversity there. But yeah I think that is also another worry.
Chris A concern. I see. I know that racist remarks against Asians and Asian-Americans have been a serious problem in the US since the coronavirus emerged. Did you experience any overt or subtle racism while you were there?
Jared Luckily, I would say no because like I said, Brown has a super welcoming environment and to be very honest like the level of diversity there is quite stunning because like I do see a lot of fellow Asians on campus as well. In fact, if you are being discriminatory towards someone, you would be the one getting flamed by the entire school population, so I feel very safe at Brown.
I can’t help but think about some of the articles that I have read in the U.S. where Asian Americans, not even immigrants, actual citizens face so many threats just being a certain skin colour. It did also make me reflect what kind of society I want to help build in Singapore when our generation eventually grows up and takes over the fort.
I mean there has been a lot of conversations about the issue of race in Singapore lately and you know, whether it’s a thing or not and whether it’s something that is worth bringing up or even discussing. I’m of the opinion that it is, it certainly is and since I’m in a position of extreme privilege here back at home. I think it’s also, my own obligation, to listen and not dictate but listen to the voices; anyone who might feel marginalised here, have to say and try to do my best to support them as well.
Chris What will universities look like when they start in a few weeks? How many well-laid plans will be torn up amid new clusters in dining halls, classrooms, and dormitories? How many thousands of students will have to return home, where they may worry about infecting their families or struggle to find a space where they can learn? For now, students like Jared wait at home for answers, caught between the desire to return to campus to get the full university experience and fear of infection, confusion, and maybe even racism.
This episode was co-produced by me and Shriya Sharma, with sound engineering by Johann Tan and David Chew. Special thanks go out today to Jared for taking the time to talk to me.
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. And if you would like to suggest more Covid stories about home, please send us a message through Facebook.
As always, thank you for listening.