Freshpectations vs. Reality – The International Student Experience

By Angel S. Mathew • LinkedIn 

Incoming freshmen have high expectations for an exciting campus experience: dreams of an unforgettable orientation, ever-expansive lecture halls, staying out late with friends, and pulling late-night exam crunches with study groups in the library. But for international students especially, these hopes were quickly dampened by the pitfall of border restrictions, and the realisation that many would not be able to make it onto campus until the middle of the semester – if during the semester at all. 

Be it travel restrictions hindering entry into Singapore, or Safe Management Measures preventing intermingling on campus, student life was definitely not how we envisioned it to be. But how did international students fare with these ever-changing policies? And just how much of it lived up to the idealised fantasy of the ‘freshman experience’?  

Image Credit: Unsplash | Simone Maage

Those who spent the entire semester overseas attending “Zoom University” can tell you that it wasn’t easy to manage at first.  

 “There are a lot of things I’d say I missed out on because of my situation - making friends, exploring the campus, participating in dorm life – simply the experience of discovering and sharing this new environment with other people,” said first-year Bioengineering student Hameed Gani Sarah Minnah, who spent her entire first semester in Dubai. 

As an international student stuck in Indonesia myself, I empathised with Sarah, because it felt like everyone else who could hang out together physically had gotten a head start on university life. The irony was that as physically close as I was to Singapore, a mere 42 kilometres away by port, the suspension of travel made it impossible to arrive on campus before the semester started. Even as I tried to live vicariously through the Instagram stories of my orientationmates, just watching them go on crazy new adventures whilst I sat on my couch alone only amplified the distance between us. 

Even students who managed to snag a flight in the nick of time offered similar sentiments of missed opportunities when NTU announced in mid-October that the default mode of classes would be online. Although aware that this was for their own safety, international freshmen like Vicyie Janvier Rasio from Indonesia could not help but “feel disappointed” at the change.  

She said: “I hoped that I could start physical lessons, [but] things didn’t go as planned. I was hoping I could make more friends too, but [classes] being online definitely didn’t help.” 

Although they were already in Singapore for the in-person experience they had been longing for, returning to virtual classes undeniably exacerbated feelings of returning to square one. International freshmen found themselves cooped up in their dorm rooms, deprived of the meaningful social interactions that they had been looking forward to for months. The difference was that this time, they didn’t even have the company of their family, which only added homesickness to the growing list of reasons for a freshman freak-out. 

Although the digital world made reaching out to loved ones easier than before, and most international students were able to meet their families virtually, Zoom calls could not replicate nor replace the company and the warmth of family on special occasions.  

Veincent Yap, an Indonesian first-year student from the School of Biological Sciences, said that although he missed his family, he made the choice to stay in Singapore. 

He added: “It’s tempting to visit them this holiday, but due to how uncertain the [pandemic] situation is now, I can’t take the risk. I can only hope to see them again the next holiday.” 

Image Credit: Unsplash | Sigmund

Academically, time zone differences during the semester also posed a problem to many overseas students, who found themselves getting up in the wee hours of the morning just to join classes – 4 AM lectures are no joke! For those newly arriving on campus, the reverse adjusting from online to offline school was just as bizarre at first.  

“I was quite shocked during my first on-campus exam, two years after my last offline exam back in high school. I could not remember when I should start flipping the paper, where I should write the answers, and so on, those little stuff. But I managed to get along,” admitted Bryan Noel Salindeho, a freshman currently enrolled in NTU’s Information Engineering and Media programme.

Though untimely, not all hope was lost in making social connections in person too. If anything, it just brought forward the nuance of bigger initiatives to bring newcomers together. While adjusting to an entirely new environment, friendly hall neighbours introduced newly-placed international students to Singlish, the local tongue that could make up a whole language of its own.  

Gabriel James, an Indonesian freshman from the School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, reflected on his own experience after the move. Even though Singapore’s educational system was as rigorous as he had expected it to beGabriel commented that the reality of campus life was “much better” than he had hoped for  

“I met a lot of awesome friends here,” Gabriel said. “The fact that I am a foreigner didn’t bother them and some of them even brought me around Singapore!”   

At the same time, international students could still get a taste of home through participation in national student societies. In hope of bringing international students closer together, events like Indian Society’s weekly befriending Jab We Met Wednesdays were born. Random matches between sign-ups (a fully-platonic Tinder, if you will) provided a fresh way to make new friends with others who may be facing similar plights. 

Jab we met sure was a great platform for me to meet new people, be it local or not, and allowed me to greatly diversify myself,” said Davesh Dayama from Electrical and Electronics Engineering, who wanted to meet more people who share his mother-tongue, Hindi. 

As disconcerting as the thought of unpredictability is, the reality is a lot of the current circumstances are out of our hands, whether stranded inside hall or our hometowns. Overseas or not, the pandemic has not been easy for eager international freshman looking to make the most out of their NTU experience. But amid the chaos, new bonds have been formed in the familiar challenges, and we fostered a greater appreciation for the little things.  

 Though unexpected, this has been a note-worthy first-year experience, and I am thankful for the friends I have made throughout the journey. Even if this semester has not gone according to plan, the beauty of university life is that every new term is another opportunity to ‘refresh’ and take a shot at what you have yet to experience. 

 To all you international freshies out there, we see you! From one international freshie to another, here’s to a better semester ahead, as you navigate your own uniquely-yours freshman experience.