Singapore students abroad hunker down for a muted festive season

Northwestern student Sofia Amanda Bening said she is leaving her building as little as possible, while Berkeley student Jerry Lai said he would meet only a very small circle of trusted friends in real life. PHOTOS: COURTESY OF SOFIA AMANDA BENING AND JERRY LAI

SINGAPORE - Singaporean students overseas are facing a muted festive season as Covid-19 cases spike yet again in the United States and the United Kingdom.

Instead of the usual riotous affair with family and friends, this year's Thanksgiving celebration last Thursday has been a quiet one for some students like Ms Sofia Amanda Bening, 22. Concerned about the after-effects of mass travel during the season, the third-year student at Northwestern University in Illinois told The Straits Times: "I am going to leave my building as little as possible."

In the past, even those without family in the US could gather for "Friendsgiving". But Mr Jerry Lai, 22, who is in his third year at the University of California, Berkeley, had different plans.

"Some of my friends will engage in risky behaviour like going to parties or meeting people from out of state," Mr Lai said. "However, I will meet most of my friends over Zoom, and only a very small circle of trusted friends in real life."

Since the start of the semester, most universities in the US have transitioned to online learning or a hybrid format.

The precautions taken by Ms Bening and Mr Lai are on top of measures put in place by many schools to ensure the safety of their students. For instance, the Manhattan School of Music stipulates that all students have to be masked even while singing.

Ms Evangeline Ng, 21, who is in her fourth year there, said: "We also have to switch rooms every 30 minutes for them to clean the room with an air filtration machine."

Meanwhile, students at New York University (NYU) have to be tested every other week to retain access to campus facilities, regardless of whether they live on or off campus.

"If you don't do the test, they will invalidate your card and you can't tap into the buildings," said Ms Dilys Tan Chiat, 22. The fourth-year NYU student called it "one of the most rigorous testing programmes I know".

Despite these measures, worries remain. Many students point out a distinct lack of enforcement or regulation, at least when compared with Singapore.

"You have to self-report (a positive test). The school doesn't get the results back from the lab; you do," said Ms Tan. "I feel like it is highly dependent on individuals and their integrity, whether they will tell the truth and adhere to the guidelines given."

At present, students are carrying on with classes, but adjusted timings and technical issues have made the experience uncomfortable at best. Still, returning home is not an option, with many citing the risk of infection on the long flights back as a deterrence.

The prospect of four weeks of isolation or quarantine for a round trip has also made returning to Singapore for the school break impractical.

This is a concern for Ms Stacia Seetoh, 20, a second-year industrial design student at the Rhode Island School of Design. She had returned to Singapore in March during the pandemic, but it soon became clear to her that "I could not do school at home".

She said: "It was not a conducive environment. We had to make do with whatever we had for a lot of our final projects for spring."

Rhode Island School of Design student Stacia Seetoh returned to Singapore March, but it soon became clear that she "could not do school at home". PHOTO: STACIA SEETOH

Having resolved to stay on abroad, students now have no choice but to hunker down as a new wave of infections is expected after the Thanksgiving break.

Many schools have already started to prepare for the inevitable by holding all classes online after Thanksgiving for the rest of the term.

Over in Britain, students are facing a similar situation with the upcoming Christmas break. Despite a second national lockdown in the country, attitudes remain lax.

"Most people don't wear masks in public," said Ms Jessie Chua, 22, a fourth-year student at a music conservatory in London which she declined to name.

Commuters on board buses in London not wearing their masks. PHOTOS: JESSIE CHUA

Ms Nicole Yap, 22, who is in her fourth year at the University of Edinburgh, elaborated: "A variety of people wear masks in different ways, but not all of them are effective."

Medical services are also scarce.

Said Mr Wilkie Lee, 25, who is in his second year at the University of Bristol: "If you get Covid-19, you will be asked to self-isolate.

Mr Wilkie Lee, who studies at the University of Bristol, said that people with Covid-19 there will only get medical attention if they are in a dire state. PHOTO: COURTESY OF WILKIE LEE

"Medical attention will come only if you are in a dire state."

For now, many cling to the news that a vaccine may be released early next year.

"It feels naive," said Ms Tan. "But there is still a part of me that hopes it might happen."

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