On March 15, the Ministry of Education (MOE) announced that all Institutes of Higher Learning (IHLs) will suspend all official overseas placements, due to the global Covid-19 outbreak.
This included all overseas internships and exchange programmes, and students who were currently on such overseas placements were recalled as soon as possible.
For many of these students, this sudden turn of events was more than a mere inconvenience.
Beyond having to return back to Singapore abruptly on such short notice, many also grappled with the possibility of graduating late, hefty financial costs and copious amounts of uncertainty regarding their situation.
Mothership spoke to several exchange students who were affected by the sudden announcement, and learned more about their plight.
Everything happened within days of notice
For many of these students, their lives were turned upside down after their respective schools contacted them, and told them to return to Singapore as soon as possible.
NTU undergraduate Chloe, who did not wish to reveal her last name, was on exchange in Amsterdam when she received the dreaded news from her school on March 16, informing her that she needed to return to Singapore immediately.
She had to act quickly in order to make the deadline given, which was on March 20, a mere four days later.
A second-year NTU undergraduate, Sean (not his real name), faced a similar situation while on exchange in Texas.
"I remember I was on a spring break trip to Miami on March 15, when I received the email from NTU to be recalled, and the initial deadline of arrival was March 20. We were surprised at the relatively short notice, but we now recognise that it was to avoid a potential lockdown of international flights," he said.
For NUS undergraduate Cheryl (not her real name), the experience was even more harrowing, as she had to return back to Singapore less than two weeks after arriving in South Korea.
Exchange programmes to South Korea was suspended earlier on, due to the early outbreak of Covid-19 in the country.
Students had to spend thousands of dollars to get home
It was also not cheap for these students to get back to Singapore on such short notice.
One-way flight tickets are often more expensive, and last-minute ones are even more so.
Insurance policies that were purchased before the advent of Covid-19 also made it difficult for some students to claim their expenses.
Cheryl described how she bought three separate insurance policies (two personal ones, and one that she purchased via the school), but is now facing difficulties claiming from all three policies.
The first policy was not valid because she had already safely arrived in South Korea, while the second policy stated that she could not claim for circumstances under Covid-19, which falls under an excluded category.
The policy that she purchased via the school was also problematic.
She was told that she had to submit her refund request to the school, after which it will be put "under consideration".
According to her, this meant that there was a certain level of uncertainty as to whether the thousands of dollars she spent on her accommodation and last-minute flight tickets could be claimed.
This was a view echoed by Sean, who managed to return to Singapore without much trouble, although he is unsure whether he will be able to claim all of these expenses, despite having bought NTU's Group Travel Insurance Policy.
"Rental was an issue, since my leasing agreement with my apartment states that I had to pay for the full duration of the stay. Whether there will be reimbursement of those costs (for April and May rental) has not been confirmed yet as of now," he said.
Some students continued their exchange online, but others were not as lucky
These students also face potential academic woes upon their safe return to Singapore, as they have to scramble to ensure that they get enough academic credits for the semester.
If they fail to do so, they risk having to repeat a semester in Singapore, and possibly having to delay their graduation.
For Sean, he was lucky that his overseas university made arrangements for students to complete their modules online, with classes being held on Zoom, a video-conferencing tool.
However, he said that the group of students most affected by the exchange cancellations are those who did not have the opportunity to begin their exchange in the first place.
With the semester in Singapore already past the halfway mark, the unfortunate timing of these changes mean that these students will not be able to participate in lessons either abroad or locally.
"They could not rejoin the rest of the NTU students, and hence had to take an LOA (Leave-of-Absence), which means that they either have to overload on their remaining semesters, take a Special Term (classes during the Summer Break), or graduate later," he said.
Cheryl is one of these students, who had to sign up for summer lessons after returning from South Korea, although this was not the most optimal solution for her either.
According to Cheryl, she could only take three modules during the summer semester, which is two to three modules less than what is normally required per semester.
This meant that she would still have to take on a heavier workload during her remaining semesters, despite going for summer lessons, if she wants to graduate on time.
Glad to be back in Singapore
Currently, it is uncertain when such exchange programmes can resume in the future, due to the ongoing Covid-19 crisis.
For Cheryl, she expressed her disappointment that the current situation meant that she could not go on a “once in a lifetime experience” overseas.
She acknowledged that the schools were facing uncertainty themselves, but said that clearer communication would be appreciated.
This view was echoed by Chloe, who is currently facing problems with her host university in Amsterdam.
Chloe described the information given by her overseas university as “vague”, as she has yet to receive notice of her examination dates, despite being allowed to participate in online learning.
She said that there was a possibility of the examinations being delayed into the summer months, although she has not received clear information on this as of yet.
Despite all these problems, there was a general consensus that the decision to cancel overseas exchange programmes was a correct one.
“As the number of Covid-19 cases is increasing back in the U.S., I do feel grateful for being back in Singapore, where the situation is stabilising,” said Sean.
Top image from Unsplash.