When Ms Pham Ngoc Mau Tam first arrived in Hong Kong last September, she felt lost and alone.
The 19-year-old almost wanted to pack her bags and fly home to Vietnam, but a chance encounter with fellow students from Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) changed her mind.
She recalls: "It was a random encounter; a group of local students were promoting some extracurricular activities they were organising. However, they started to ask how I was coping with college life and my time in Hong Kong - they even shared their contact details so I could reach out to them if I needed friendship and support."
Though small, the kind words and actions meant a lot to a newcomer like Ms Pham.
She further eased into her new life through PolyU's freshman orientation programme, as well as through initiatives such as the Host Family Scheme and hall activities. Her host family took her out for sightseeing at Hong Kong tourist attractions during the Mid-Autumn Festival and Lunar New Year. At the hall event, she showcased her country's local cuisine through a small workshop that she conducted - expanding her network and enjoying these homely dishes with her newfound friends.
Ms Pham decided to pursue her degree overseas as she was inspired by her high school senior's experiences as an international student. She picked Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) because it offered the most generous scholarship among her other choices. As someone who has always been very focused on putting in effort for her studies, she managed to clinch the scholarship, which means that her tuition is fully paid for.
PolyU's good ranking alongside other top-notch institutes in the world, coupled with verified teaching methods, also won her over.
Being situated in Asia, PolyU would be less of a drastic cultural change for Ms Pham. The living costs are much more economical compared to other countries that offer the same experience, she notes.
Poised for success
In her view, PolyU offers a moderately competitive yet not overly stressful environment for students.
She explains: "PolyU suits me in many ways. Here, I have many opportunities to strengthen both my leadership and discipline skills that prepare me for my future career.
"Here, I only need to focus on my studies, taking necessary steps one at a time when the opportunities present themselves. Even better, there are opportunities for students with different strengths and education backgrounds."
A second-year student in Applied Biology with Biotechnology, Ms Pham participated in a mentorship scheme offered by the Hong Kong Life Science Society to gain more practical insights into her field. There is also a PolyU Job Board, which lists available paid internship opportunities for the school's compulsory Work-Integrated Education programme, she notes.
Her faculty - the Faculty of Applied Science and Textiles - also offers exclusive programmes such as a summer research internship, in collaboration with global top universities such as Harvard University, McGill University, the National University of Singapore and the University of Tokyo.
Outside of her core subjects, Ms Pham also took up "The Evolution of World Cuisine", a course that sent her to a training facility for cooking classes.
She returned to Vietnam in November 2019 but her education with PolyU continued via online learning platforms and remote lectures. For international students who chose to remain in Hong Kong during the pandemic, PolyU set up a task force as well as a first aid station and temporary clinic to safeguard their health and safety.
Ms Pham is also deeply appreciative of the hard work the teaching staff have put in to ensure that her studies were not disrupted.
The teaching staff went above and beyond their call of duty, offering mental health consultation during the remote learning period to provide emotional support for students.
A place to call home
Though Ms Pham is currently in Vietnam, she is missing her time in Hong Kong, adding that she feels like the Hong Kong people are like "family members who are around to protect, take care of and to love (her) in the most natural way". She plans to return to Hong Kong in January, when the second semester of her second year commences.
Hong Kong may seem like home for her now, but she has not forgotten how lost she felt in the beginning. As such, she wants to pay it forward. She has signed up as a PolyU Attaché, a student ambassador that acts as a conduit between the school's Global Engagement Office and existing or prospective students in their home countries.
As an attaché, she would be able to tell them about PolyU's standing as one of the top 100 universities in the QS World University Rankings 2020. She can also share more about the compulsory Work-Integrated Education and Service-Learning programmes, as well as credit-bearing courses offered through PolyU's Leadership Programme and Global Learning Opportunities.
Even though some of these programmes have been put on hold because of Covid-19, Ms Pham is looking forward to her Service-Learning trip and other overseas exchange opportunities once the crisis blows over.
Like hundreds of millions of students worldwide, Ms Pham's education was disrupted this year by the pandemic. But she remains positive about the future.
"I aim to be more proactive in the next semester to seek out professional and academic advice from my advisor, as well as PolyU's career placement office. It would be a waste not to utilise all of these available opportunities and resources - I want to make the best of my university time in such an amazing place as PolyU," she says.