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When The Screen’s The Limit

International students dream of foreign skies. But because of the pandemic, all travelling is done through a laptop screen.
When The Screen’s The Limit

In the school year 2020-2021, a wifi connection was the ticket to study abroad for many Vietnamese international students. | Source: Shutterstock

Away From Home compiles meaningful little reflections close to the heart of the international student experience.

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about international students? For one, it typically involves hopping on a plane.

With approximately 190,000 Vietnamese pursuing their studies abroad (as listed by the Ministry of Education and Training in Q1 2020), the past few months have been busier times for Noi Bai and Tan Son Nhat international airports amidst the currently ravaging COVID-19 situation in Vietnam. Most destination countries in Europe and North America that are ahead in the global vaccine race have relaxed their borders and are welcoming students back to campus for in-person classes.

But in 2020, this was largely not the case. With under 1500 detected patients and 35 confirmed COVID-19-related deaths throughout the entire year, Vietnam was a safe haven compared to the outside world. Whether voluntary or due to particular circumstances, a multitude of international students retreated back home and finished their school year through a computer screen, surrounded by familiar faces and their old way of life.

For first-year students especially, this meant their professors were reduced to just icons on Zoom and email addresses, their peers some Instagram usernames in a crowded group chat, and their university a website with photos that haven’t been updated for years. And an immersive cultural exchange? Virtually non-existent.

While the experience merited precious and otherwise impossible advantages, navigating a foreign education system in the confines of their childhood bedroom was surely no kid stuff for all international students who spent a year online.

Vietcetera sought out an insider perspective from 19-year-old Nguyễn Khánh Đoan Trang from Saigon, an incoming second-year business management student at Ryerson University in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

| Source: Nguyễn Khánh Đoan Trang

You’ve studied in Canada since 2016. Last year was the first time school was fully online and you could attend from Vietnam. What was the good, bad and ugly of that transition?

I actually found online classes much easier for me. The biggest advantage was probably that everything appeared to be more relaxed, from the marking standards to the studying process. Since you're learning from home, there’s no stress of having your instructors constantly examining your work.

Given my university’s international student body, professors also had to acknowledge that students are living in different time zones, so deadlines were much more flexible. I also didn’t have to take exams in a stressful exam hall, which every student would agree is a good thing, right?

Also, for introverts like me, we enjoy working remotely with people we’ve never met before more than in a classroom. I found it easier to just discuss group projects online and not have to face my peers for now, even though they might eventually become my friends.

But even though studying from home is much more comfortable, I have to agree that there were times I really felt the challenges posed by the distance. There can be so many distractions present at home — if you have pets or siblings, they are bound to bug you a lot.

Online exams can also be terrible, even though you have the comfort of being at home instead of a classroom. The internet at my house isn’t always very good, so if it's buffering while I’m in the middle of an exam then I’m in serious trouble.

I also found it harder to exercise self-discipline compared to when I was studying in person. Many of my friends who study in the States or Europe also came back to Vietnam for online classes, and we were tempted to hang out too much! This unfortunately led to less time spent on doing actual schoolwork.

I didn’t respect deadlines as much as before either. Because meeting your teacher every day and missing your assignments can make you feel so shameful, while if you’re studying online and don’t personally know who he or she is, then the sense of responsibility feels completely different.

The ultimate challenge would have to be the time difference. When you stay up all night, you’d likely be too tired to do any reviewing in the morning.

How did a typical day with online classes look like for you?

Toronto is about 11-12 hours behind Saigon, so this might sound really funny.

My day would begin at 1 in the afternoon, as I get up and have my breakfast. Then if my friends had asked me to hang, I’d go out until 4 or 5 pm. But if I stay at home, I’d be doing homework and looking over my assignments. After that, I’d have an early dinner slash lunch before starting my first class at 9 pm.

First-year students at my university normally have four classes per day maximum. So I would often sleep at 3 or 4 in the morning. But if I have group meetings or seminars afterwards like for my history course, then I would have to stay up a little bit later. In the morning on those days, around 5 or 6 am, I would go downstairs, have a little snack, then go to bed.

Normally I wouldn't sleep until seven o'clock in the morning, though. Because when your head is so worked up after hours of studying, you’d have to read a book, watch a movie, or do something to unwind and condition yourself to feel sleepy.

Once I can come back to Canada and do in-person classes, I think I’d resume the normal pace of my four years of high school there. That means waking up at 7:30 am, making myself breakfast and getting ready. If I’m not too broke, maybe I’ll pass by Starbucks for coffee on the way to school. After school, I used to volunteer at the local museum, but I’m hoping to find a part-time job next year and work from around 4 to 7 pm. The day would close with going back to my apartment, enjoying my dinner and the evening with my roommate.

Trang's desk set-up at home for online studying. | Source: Nguyễn Khánh Đoan Trang

Why did you decide to take online classes from Vietnam instead of within Canada?

The cost of living in Canada is pretty high, and that includes rent in Toronto. It would’ve been hard to convince my parents to keep helping me pay it when I didn’t have to actually live there for school.

Another factor was that even though vaccination is widely available in Canada now, the number of cases in Toronto last year was pretty horrible. The city was under a very long lockdown, and it would've been hard for international students to be able to maintain their regular lifestyle, even if it was just to get food. Since we have a home country we could return to, it was the more feasible option to just go back and live with our parents for a year.

Now that we’re looking back though, if I had a chance to redo last year, I’d prefer I had done it from within Canada. I had so much hope as a first-year. Had there been no COVID-19, I would’ve lived in a dorm and gone to parties with friends, a key freshman experience! Essentially, I was hoping that university would be a little bit more fun. But then because of online studying, it was kind of dull.

The fact that school has been online for a while makes me feel like I'm not even really in university either. I just feel like I'm doing Grade 13, because due to the pandemic, I did not get to attend my graduation ceremony. I haven't seen my diploma that's still at my high school in Canada, so there’s nothing to remind me that I’ve graduated.

I had expected university to be more about the experience rather than just gaining knowledge and getting a degree. It’s supposed to be teaching you life skills as well. But what I'm doing right now is more like just finishing off courses, maintaining my GPA, which aren’t that much different from high school.

That's very interesting, because a lot of people actually say that studying abroad is a chance for growth outside of your comfort zone. What do you think about that?

The past year has made me come back to the 14-year-old child that I was before I went abroad: having my mom cook for me, booking Grab drivers to take me places... I never took an Uber in Toronto, because it's too expensive!

But I do miss life in Canada very much. The country has really toughened me and made me feel more grown up throughout the years, yet I wasn’t that person anymore during the one year I’ve lived at home.

What I like the most about being an international student is the fact that I am more motivated to do well, as well as get to know more about other cultures. Being an international student comes with perks whether you’re in Canada or Vietnam, because you can bring difference and uniqueness into whatever environment that you enter. For example, if I go to a job interview in Vietnam, I can talk about my experience in Canada. And if I go to an interview in Canada, then I would have many interesting stories to tell about Vietnam.

Still, there are advantages to being at home in the past year. I could travel a lot with my family and friends, most importantly spend more time with my parents. I’ve left home to study abroad for a while, so I didn’t live with them for very long. I’m also grateful to be around my grandparents, who are very old. Me being in Canada could mean that they could pass away and I would not be there, so it's good that I'm here to spend more time with them. And I got to reunite with many of my friends who have been abroad for so long and wouldn’t have come back if it wasn't for COVID.

Being away for so long, you’d also miss having the convenience of Vietnam, where you can step out of the house and easily find food places everywhere. You wouldn't be able to get an experience that’s similar to visiting a traditional Vietnamese market in Canada!

A corner of Chinatown in old Toronto, where one can usually find grocery stores that are closest to a Vietnamese wet market in the downtown area. | Source: Nguyễn Khánh Đoan Trang

Your classes will continue to be online for another semester and you’ll remain in Vietnam. What's something you now know about the virtual learning experience that you didn't a year ago?

That I should be more punctual and attend all the classes on my schedule.

Last year, I thought that there was no need to be present for certain electives, just because most people in my class didn’t really tune into Zoom and only watched the recording available after.

But I’ve come to realize that if the professor doesn’t see you very often and doesn’t have a connection with you, then you risk getting terrible marks on assignments.

What's something you’ll do before leaving Vietnam for Canada again?

I would go to Manwah Hotpot for a farewell buffet with my friends. We’re still under lockdown in Saigon, but I’m really looking forward to going out with them again. And I would do a photoshoot at the Duc Ba cathedral too, as a memento of the city I’m from.

And the first thing you’ll do when you set foot on your university campus next year?

I have already been there before for a tour. But the first thing I’ll do next year would be to visit the library and all the cafes that the students go to do their work at, to really study like a Ryerson student!

Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management, Trang's home faculty. | Source: Shutterstock