Published on 23 Aug 2022

Working Our Way Out of the Shadow of “Zoom University”

by Tay Xin Yi

covid-19, pandemic, lockdown

The pandemic has changed the world as we know it. The copious number of social commentary pieces centred on the social impact of COVID-19 is evidence of its seeming irrevocability in our lives. The life of university students is not exempt. While having classes held online is now a staple in the hybrid model of learning today, the campus’ shift from conventional in-person to online activities has required the tremendous collective effort of many players.

For one, at the peak of the pandemic in 2020, major school events such as Open House and orientation programmes had to be wholly shifted to alternative platforms like Tawk.toGatherTownZoom, and Microsoft Teams. Initially, seniors and freshmen who organised and participated in orientation programmes struggled to maximise the functionalities of virtual platforms to connect. And yet, despite the logistical challenges, the organisers and participants of events such as the Open House and orientation programmes managed to successfully engage the intended audiences. Pearlyn, a Year 3 Sociology undergraduate, echoes these sentiments. She shares the logistical limitations in her year of orientation did not hinder her experience significantly as she still managed to create lasting bonds and make good friends despite the situation.

Similarly, most of the lessons on campus were also forced to transition from in-person classes to virtual ones. In the instances where the class size met the maximum capacity of 20 people in a classroom at a time, students were allowed to come onto campus for classes. In some cases, they were given the option to join the class virtually. Safety measures such as safe distancing, mask-on policies, maximum group sizes, temperature and travel declaration were all in place. With the abundance of QR code check-ins, SafeEntry gantries and other safeguards peppered all over campus, it was difficult not to feel suffocated by the new way of life we’ve been forced to embrace in a short time.

For nearly two years, overseas exchange programmes such as GEM Explorer and GEM Discoverer were also suspended. For many students, going on an exchange programme marked the highlight of their university life. However, with no end to the pandemic in sight at that point in time, it was indeed a bleak time for staff and students alike. Thankfully, the Singapore Universities Student Exchange Programme (SUSEP) provided students who arel keen on a semestral exchange with an alternative. Year 4 Psychology undergraduate Cleon describes his SUSEP experience with the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) to be smooth, fun, and fulfilling. “I have met several awesome people in SUSS where we collaborated on learning and encouraged each other on our assessments. We exchanged our university experiences and had meals together after a tiring day. I often got to hear interesting stories from part-time students who were in the workforce too!” he shares. SUSEP is indeed a great alternative to GEM Explorer and Discoverer, whereby students can meet people from different walks of life and enjoy learning at another institution — at a much lower cost as well.

Without the presence of students on campus, the campus was a ghost town and merely a shadow of what it used to be. For students and especially so for the international students staying on campus, this can be incredibly isolating. Hence, NTU and the organisers behind student life events persisted in adapting and utilising novel ways to engage, create, and collaborate with students to make up for the lack of face-to-face social interaction. For example, the NTU Student Affairs Office and Student Union regularly hosted activities that promoted well-being such as yoga, craft classes, and cooking classes, as well as retained regular events such as job fairs, albeit in different modes. Even as Singapore strives to take an endemic approach to the COVID-19 pandemic and the outlook begins to look more positive, it is critical to address the lasting effects of the abrupt changes we have made overnight. While safe distancing measures have been reduced in accordance with the COVID-19 situation and some even lifted completely, the adhesive residue left behind on sofas, tables, and the ground — by the tapes used to ensure safe distancing — are everyday reminders of the chokehold that COVID-19 once had on us all.

Associate Professor Andy Ho’s research emphasises exactly that. In his study, he examines the impact of social distancing on the psychological well-being and development of youths in Singapore. The changes that students have had to adapt to in a short time could lead to a myriad of issues. Many students’ social support systems hinge on the accessibility and interactions enabled by an open campus. However, these safe havens were suddenly not an option and alternatives such as online communication had to be stepped up to replace these experiences. Jia Yun, a Year 4 Psychology undergraduate, shares, “it was tough for me to adjust to online classes in AY2020/2021 as I feel that I can focus better when in a physical classroom. Besides that, I was disappointed when my exchange to the Netherlands was cancelled as the semester-long exchange programme was one of the highlights of university life I was looking forward to.” The hybrid mode of learning also meant that there was no clear demarcation of work and rest as students and professors alike put in more hours when these lines are blurred. However, Jia Yun emphasises the importance of a strong social support system that has kept her going despite the obstacles that came her way.

Beyond these disjointed everyday experiences, Professor Andy Ho emphasises other concerns such as the “disruptions in academic life, uncertainties about examinations, graduation and internships, and diminishing career prospects with a looming recession”. University students are especially vulnerable to mental health issues such as loneliness, depression, and suicidal ideation even in normal circumstances. With the pandemic and its accompanying challenges, it is instrumental to ensure that the psycho-socio-emotional wellness of university students is well-supported.

Graduation is perhaps the most monumental part of every university student’s journey. It affirms the efforts, achievements and hard work of students, educators, and other supporting staff to bring the education journey to a close. It is also a time of joy that brings together loved ones to celebrate the occasion. However, conventional convocation practices were not viable in 2020 and the next best option was a virtual celebration. Despite the many restrictions imposed on that year’s ceremony, the same spirit of joy and celebration of students’ valiant efforts shone through. In 2021, the changes that allowed restricted attendance to the ceremony signal the positivity and optimism that follow these batches of “Zoom University” graduates as we trudge forward towards a brighter future and away from the shadow of the pandemic and its darker days. 

The university journey is one fraught with plenty of uncertainties, anxiety, and stress. With a global pandemic thrown into the mix, it surely is a recipe for perhaps one of some students’ greatest challenges as they are faced with unpredictable changes to their family, mental well-being, and social and school lives. However, it is also one of the most fulfilling phases of one’s life where one is faced with plenty of opportunities despite the circumstances. With the new academic year just around the corner, it is paramount to applaud the resilience, sacrifices made, and the different ways we have adapted despite the drastic changes we have been forced into. And most importantly, to celebrate the wins as well as reflect on the losses we have faced in the past two years.

Tay Xin Yi is a Year 4 Sociology undergraduate. She's been part of the team of student writers with the SSS SLOC Office since 2019.