Community & Service 4 Feb 2021

Studying at university during COVID? Sayona, alumna 2019, shares her experience

By CIS Communications
Photograph by CIS Communications

Sayona B graduated from CIS in May 2019. She then moved to Vancouver, accompanied by her parents, to start a degree in biological science at the University of British Columbia, with the long-term goal of working in the health and medicine field. But then COVID hit.

What have you been up to since you graduated? How are you enjoying British Columbia?
I graduated from CIS in May 2019 and moved to Vancouver in August with my parents and our dog. My dad, who is a professor of biology and sciences at NTU, took that opportunity to take a sabbatical leave and do one year as a researcher at UBC. I like Vancouver, and, more specifically, the UBC Village. Vancouver, just like all of Canada, is very racially diverse. Overall, people are quite friendly — although there are some areas in the city where I don’t really feel like I belong. I understand that there are lots of racial disparities in Canada that, unlike the US, are not talked about. 

When I left Singapore a year and a half ago, I wanted to become a doctor. Well, one year and a half later... I am in the middle of a faculty change! I realise it may not be healthy to be stuck on just one goal. Medicine is often pursued relentlessly by a lot of students and for good reasons, however, it is not the be all and end all. I felt as if it was important to use my undergraduate years to explore what is meaningful to me and what satisfies me emotionally, long term. I managed to narrow it down to biology, medical research and sports science. 

When did COVID hit Vancouver? How have the city and your university managed it?
COVID hit during the second term of my first year. My dad, who had the privilege to learn about the virus during its earlier stages as part of his job, quickly understood that it was going to be bad. UBC was under pressure to start online learning as soon as the first cases were reported in early March. Later that month, the university was shut down and lockdown was implemented. It was lifted in June, when the city finally managed to get control of the community cases. 

I have to say that I was a bit surprised about how Canada has handled the COVID crisis generally speaking. That is why a friend and I decided to launch an Instagram account dedicated to COVID-19 in Canada, the @thecovidtimes: we want to spread awareness on how to stay safe, bust myths about masks, hand sanitisers, and vaccines, but also share tips on how to stay healthy — mentally and physically. In three months, we counted 200 followers, including UBC and UToronto accounts, some professors, and other health and wellbeing accounts worldwide. 

Why and when did you decide to come back to Singapore?
Around May, in the middle of lockdown, we realised it was time for my family to return to Singapore; my parents’ visas were running out and we needed to get some paperwork for my dog. Overall it was not sustainable for us to stay. So we started to apply to return to Singapore —and it was only in July that we were given the green light. Which is about the time when Vancouver moved to phase three.

How did you adapt to online learning? There’s a 12-hour difference between Vancouver and Singapore, so I need to be very organised. I have to say UBC did a very good job at transitioning [to online learning]. Keeping in mind they have a lot of international students, most of whom have returned home, they accommodated different time zones classes and recorded lectures. However, some of the lab classes timings had to remain the same;so I have some classes from 11pm until 2am! I do enjoy the freedom of making my own schedule, and it’s given me more time to meet my friends and do boxing training as, in Singapore, the gyms are open with implementation of proper social distancing rules. In Vancouver, depending on the number of cases, I counted that many gyms have been ordered to close then reopened five times in six months!

What have you learned about yourself?
During the first half of lockdown, I was able to adapt pretty well. I saw it as an opportunity to do a lot of thinking and reflecting about what I truly wanted to do, my priorities and the people I want to surround myself with;hence the change in degree! I took a lot of time to research, and be as productive as possible. I don’t think I am really missing out on university life. I tasted it, I lived on and off-campus, I made a lot of friends and we still talk regularly. 

What are your plans for this new year? 
I am happy staying in Singapore as the situation in Vancouver feels a bit rocky for a student who lives abroad. I plan to go back when all is back to normal. Maybe September 2021? I also have to decide by the end of April what specialty to choose, and I plan to get my bachelor's degree in three years. 

Any tips for 2020 and 2021 graduates who might be in the same situation?
Try your best to make friends, be disciplined, do your online classes, don’t be scared to talk to others, even if yes, it’s a bit weird to have to do it via a Zoom. Don't be too harsh on yourself, and as things can get quite depressing, remember to exercise, eat healthy... and wear a mask.