As universities in Hong Kong resume face-to-face classes amid the COVID-19 pandemic, international students who are abroad are adapting to the new normal of studying abroad from home.
According to the University Grants Committee’s annual report for the year 2018-2019, Hong Kong has 18,060 non-local students, where 68.22% of the students are from Mainland China, with 31.77% are from other parts of the world. For some of these international students, the COVID-19 pandemic has made international travel difficult, with some making the choice to stay home, while others are finding ways to return to Hong Kong. This reporter spoke with 5 students to understand what their experience was like.
Alex Lee from South Korea, 24 years old
Alex Lee is a final-year University of Hong Kong student, he is studying for a major in politics and public administration, with a minor in journalism.
The University of Hong Kong is the first among Hong Kong’s eight universities to resume face-to-face classes, operating under a hybrid teaching mode, the university is conducting classes both online and face-to-face at the same time.
Alex takes his online classes in his room. Compared to his room at the residential halls at the university, he thinks it is much more comfortable. This comes at a cost, he finds it hard to concentrate in his own room. “I think that’s the problem, it’s too comfortable.” He complains.
Alex has decided to stay in South Korea for the current semester, citing housing costs as his primary concerns, he also felt that the quarantine arrangements were not worth the trouble of coming back. On the topic of online classes, Alex thinks these classes are more convenient, allowing him to take his classes anywhere and anytime. However, he has some concerns about online classes, he thinks that the learning quality is not as good compared to being there in-person.
“The whole purpose of university life is having fun times with friends, what’s the point if all my friends are staying home and not coming back to Hong Kong.” Alex Lee
Alex admits that despite the benefits of staying home, not physically being there has affected his university experience. “I miss my friends, the facilities and the food, surprisingly.”Alex said. He adds that his friends were another factor behind his decision to stay, he laments that a lot of people are not going back to Hong Kong and the experience there will not be the same.
“The whole purpose of university life is having fun times with friends, what’s the point if all my friends are staying home and not coming back to Hong Kong.” Alex said.
Alex thinks that the university should have picked either online teaching or face-to-face teaching, as hybrid teaching has made it difficult for him to follow the class. For example, he would not be able to hear questions raised by students attending the class in-person, as he is attending the class online. Despite this, he remains grateful that the university is offering classes for international students who are abroad.
Asked about whether he would return to Hong Kong for the next semester, he says he will see if the university will continue online classes, if not, he will head back to Hong Kong.
Sophie Vongkhamsao from Laos, 21 years old
Sophie Vongkhamsao is a final-year student at the University of Hong Kong studying for a double major in marketing and information systems.
Originally taking this semester off for an internship in Europe, Sophie’s internship was cancelled due to travel restrictions. She then decided to return to Hong Kong for university, hoping to attend face-to-face classes, but a flight ban in Laos has left her with little options to leave the country. She was hoping to leave by purchasing a ticket for privately organized charter flights, but limited tickets and soaring ticket prices have stopped her from doing so. “I’ve thought about it, I really want to go back, I maybe could, but it’s going to be a huge investment to go back to Hong Kong for a couple of months.” She said.
Sophie takes her classes in her study room at home, but she finds it hard to spend so much time in one spot. She feels that an environment like a lecture hall is better, where she can also interact with other people. Her internet at home is also an issue, disrupting her classes several times. “I would try to ask a question and the internet connection cuts out and I can’t get my message through.” She adds.
For Sophie, having classes online has its challenges, but she thinks it gives her more autonomy and independence. Although she appreciates the convenience, she thinks online classes are lacking in terms of social interaction, finding it hard to connect with the professor and socialise with other students. The hybrid teaching method in the University of Hong Kong has also brought her confusion, as professors may not notice the rest of the class that are attending online.
“I’ve thought about it, I really want to go back, I maybe could, but it’s going to be a huge investment to go back to Hong Kong for a couple of months.” Sophie Vongkhamsao
Her courses in information systems have introduced some complications as well, as she was not able to access required software from her home. Sophie thinks that taking her classes online makes it easier to slack, where she is sometimes tempted to multi-task during class. One area that Sophie finds interesting about online classes is group work, instead of approaching people like she would regularly, she found that people will message her privately inviting her to their group after she answers questions in class.
Besides taking online classes, Sophie works part-time at a nongovernmental organisation. She feels that it is hard to set up boundaries between her work and studies, which she experienced when she had to do a class presentation at work. “Sometimes, establishing that clear line gets a little difficult.” She adds.
Being away from campus, Sophie keeps in touch with her friends who are back in Hong Kong, but she feels a slight sense of missing out. “We still do calls here and there, but it’s definitely not the same as being there in person.” She said.
Sophie faced some difficulties with her residential hall, as she could not clear out her room properly and return her key as she was abroad, she felt that they could have been more understanding of her situation. Despite this, she thinks her professors and the university have handled everything quite well.
Sophie has decided to come back in the next semester, as it is her last semester in university. She hopes to spend time with her friends and look for employment in Hong Kong. Most importantly, Sophie wants “just to have the feeling of ending a chapter, closing off properly on that part of my life.”
Tanishka Pillai from India, 22 years old
Tanishka Pillay is a final-year University of Hong Kong student studying for a double major in psychology and counselling.
Originally on exchange in Madrid, Tanishka returned to India due to the COVID-19 outbreak earlier this year, she was supposed to return for an internship in Hong Kong in June, but a lockdown in India since mid-march has kept her from leaving. Despite limited flights and tickets selling out within minutes, Tanishka was able to secure a ticket for 21st September, but a two-week flight-ban by the Hong Kong government in response to imported COVID-19 cases meant she had to stay in place for another two weeks.
Tanishka is no stranger to online classes, having spent her two previous semesters taking classes online. At first, she was a bit hesitant about the idea, since it was a while since she studied from her room, but it has now become a routine. “Initially it was very strange, but I got used to it.” She said.
As a double major in psychology and counselling, a large part of Tanishka’s classes involve case studies and practical activities that are interactive. Although she recognises that everyone is trying their best to make do, she feels that there is still a distance that hampers these activities. She thinks that the learning of knowledge is not affected, but the overall experience is. “The whole experience of university, being able to go to class, being able to meet your friends, actively engage yourself with the study material, that is why I prefer face-to-face.” she said.
“Situations and experiences like this make you realise how privileged you are, but I think it’s a very human emotion to feel frustrated and anxious about the future” Tanishka Pillay
Tanishka wants to return to Hong Kong as soon as she can, listing multiple reasons. She finds it hard to study at home, finding it difficult to get into a studying routine. The COVID-19 situation in India and her history of asthma has meant she spent long amounts of time at home, which is starting to affect her mental health. Lastly, as a final-year student, she would have to complete a capstone project and a thesis, which she prefers to complete in-person.
Tanishka describes having a mixed bag of emotions, at times feeling angry, anxious, and frustrated, but the experience has also made her realise how privileged she is compared to others in her country. “Situations and experiences like these make you realise how privileged you are, but I think it’s a very human emotion to feel frustrated and anxious about the future” she said.
Besides classes, Tanishka thinks her overall university experience has been affected, as she can no longer study on campus, meet her friends, or go to a bar with friends. However, she thinks not being able to see her friends impacted her experience the most. “They are kind of like family, they take on such a huge role when I think of my university life. Now being separated from them, it has become a very different experience.” She adds.
Tanishka is keen to return to Hong Kong for class, as of the writing of this article, she was able to secure a flight to Hong Kong, but was not able to send an image as of publishing.
Arina Gurevich from Russia, 21 years old
Arina Gurevich is a final-year student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong studying global studies.
Currently in Russia, Arina was meant to go to Germany for her exchange, but her host university has switched to online classes and her home university does not recognise exchange programs done online. Her exchange is now postponed and she has decided to stay in Russia for the meantime, as it would be cheaper and easier to fly to Germany for her exchange.
Arina decided she will not be coming back for this school year, even if her university resumes partial face-to-face teaching. As her program is mainly composed of international students, many of whom are in their home countries due to travel restrictions, only one of her classes has partial face-to-face teaching. In August, her program has also sent emails to students who have returned home, asking them to stay in their home countries.
Arina cites travel as another concern, as there are no direct flights to Hong Kong. There are also complications in her accommodation, as she is considered as a local student, her residential college will not grant her accommodation and she cannot stay with her parents as they are moving back to Russia. However, Arina still needs to complete one more semester at her university, she has decided to return in September next year, hoping that situation will be better by then.
“I love Hong Kong, it became my second home, I have been there for five years. I really miss it being in Russia, I would definitely prefer to continue doing something in Hong Kong, whether it is work, whether it is my masters, but it depends on what will be happening.” Arina Gurevich
Like most students, Arina is taking her classes online, but she thinks it is harder for her to concentrate. Arina thinks taking her classes in her bedroom makes her lazy, as she feels comfortable and would be reluctant to get ready for class, whereas on campus she would have to physically go from one class to another. “In this nice comfy environment, you don’t really want to work.” She adds.
Arina prefers face-to-face teaching, she thinks online learning has affected her grades negatively. At first, she found the concept was convenient, as it allowed her to take her classes anywhere, but she found that she needed to be in a “study mode” and engage with the professor to facilitate her learning. As a final-year student, Arina would also like to meet her advisor in person to discuss her project.
Being away from campus, Arina misses her friends and classmates, but being back at home has allowed her to spend more time with her family and her boyfriend. “I am spending so much more time with my grandparents; I haven’t seen them in four years and we barely keep in touch.” She said.
Arina thinks her university handled the situation “ok”, but she felt the school should not have asked students to stay in their home countries and should have arranged accommodation for returning students.
Arina says she will return to Hong Kong in the future to complete her studies, but she would decide whether she wants to stay depending on Hong Kong’s future political situation. “I love Hong Kong, it became my second home, I have been there for five years. I really miss it being in Russia, I would definitely prefer to continue doing something in Hong Kong, whether it is work, whether it is my masters, but it depends on what will be happening.” She said.
Alex Huang from Taiwan, 24 years old
Alex Huang is a final-year student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong studying global studies.
Alex is in Taiwan, where she feels the conditions are better than most places in the world, as life there has mostly returned to normal. She has decided to stay for the semester, as her semester has already started and moving back to Hong Kong would disrupt her mindset. “Since school has already started, I’m mentally and physically ready for school, I don’t want to go through the process of moving again, it would mess me up mentally as well.” Alex said. As a final-year student, Alex must complete a thesis, which has already made her quite stressed.
Unlike other students, Alex does not take her classes at home, instead she goes to an office space that belongs to a family friend for her classes. Originally taking her classes at home, Alex found that spending long periods at home was making her depressed, but it was not economical and practical to take her classes at a café. Eventually, she was able to find an office space owned by a family friend, which is where she goes to everyday for classes. “If I didn’t find this office space, I would have gone back (to Hong Kong).” Alex adds.
Taking her classes online, Alex prefers face-to-face classes, she thinks that it is easier for her to have interactions and discussions with her classmates. Alex thinks that her lectures have not been affected, but her class discussions have been, either by internet connection issues or other factors that keep them from running smoothly. As an international student, she also feels that she is not getting her money’s worth by taking online classes. She thinks that being on campus is much better, as there is a better study environment with less distractions, along with access to campus facilities. “I feel a little weird that I’m paying the same amount of money, but there are resources like the library, that I can’t access.” She said.
“Since school has already started, I’m mentally and physically ready for school, I don’t want to go through the process of moving again, it would mess me up mentally as well.” Alex Huang
As her university will resume partial face-to-face classes, Alex has some concerns about this, as she is not sure how the university will handle both the online and face-to-face hybrid teaching.
Besides her classes, Alex thinks her social life and her overall experience at the university has been affected. She has not been able to see her friends and access the resources provided by the university, even though she is paying the same amount of tuition fee as before.
Alex thinks her university could have handled the situation better, especially for international students who are still abroad. She thinks the university arrangements are too vague and arrive too late for international students. She thinks the university should make their decisions more swiftly. “So we international students can plan, instead of waiting for university announcements every day. I also have to make a decision for myself.” She adds.
Alex has decided to go back to Hong Kong for the next semester, as this will be her last semester in Hong Kong, and she has not been back for a year.