Story | Shikhar Yadar, Contributing Writer
Photos | Shikhar Yadar
UPDATE: This article was written and edited before Jan. 28. The Dean of Students Office has since updated The Octant that all international students have received necessary approvals to re-enter Singapore.
Editor’s note: As campus life resumes, international students would usually head back to Yale-NUS College a few days before the semester starts. However, in this COVID-19-stricken academic year, they have to secure entry approval from the Ministry of Education (MOE) before they are allowed to fly back to Singapore, which is not always granted in time. In this piece, Shikhar muses on his mixed feelings about the ongoing, long-winded journey back to the college.
If one were to make an accurate list of the largest mammal migrations in the world, the 5.3 million international students making their way to their home countries and back to their schools would likely be featured somewhere near the top, right between fruit bats and wildebeests.
As an international student who has followed the rhythms of the academic calendar and made the pilgrimage a few times, I can safely say that the journey means a lot. It is a pit stop in an otherwise endless circuit of assignments and classes. It’s a chance to pause and reconnect and, when the calendar dictates, come back with renewed vigor.
Over the past few months, most of us international students applied for our entry approval into Singapore, got it, and completed the pilgrimage with a minor halt in the form of a Stay Home Notice. A few, like me, found themselves in that much dreaded state of waiting.
How exactly the MOE determines that one gets an entry approval is unknown, but it is reasonable to assume that the COVID-19 situation in one’s place of departure has something to do with it. Applying from New Delhi, I found my applications rejected week after week a total of five times.
The intense sense of anticipation that accompanied me was something that I wasn’t ready for. If anything, these migrations in the past have been the opposite of waiting. There was always something demanding my immediate attention. I often found myself writing essays or filling out course evaluations right until the moment I boarded a flight.
But this time, there was nothing to do but wait. On weekends, I would update my Overseas Travel Declaration, which declared my intention to apply for entry approval. Then, for the following week, I would just wait. If the application was rejected, rinse and repeat.
During those weeks of waiting, I was neither really home nor at the college. It didn’t make much sense to make plans for the coming semester as I would remind myself that I might not get the approval. It also didn’t make sense to make too many plans for home on the off-chance that I might have to leave. The clockwork-like rhythm of the academic calendar went straight into the trash can.
I couldn’t even spend too much time speculating about why I didn’t get in because there was no information, nothing I could do to help my situation. All I could do was wait.
Once the college semester began, however, I was occupied by a very familiar feeling: fear of missing out (FOMO). It was as if I was in line to ride a roller coaster and the entire roller coaster just grew wheels and took off without me. But I wasn’t the only one feeling this way. Niall Shah ‘24,who finally got an entry approval after repeated rejections, says, “I was planning to play in the [Inter-College Games (ICGs)] and I didn’t expect [my entry approval to get rejected]. I thought [I’d] easily get there in time.”
The experience of missing out is not just limited to ICGs; I personally had to let go of modules that I really wanted to take, either because they couldn’t be offered online or because the hybrid experience was just painful.
However, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that there are joys of waiting as well. Waiting forced me to rethink my priorities: What do I want? What is important to me? What am I running away from and what is it that I’m chasing? This entire gamut of banal questions suddenly became all too real and urgent when I had nowhere to go and no calendar to tell me when to get there. It’s in this period of painful and forced introspection that I feel I am beginning to make any progress in my journey of self-making. Ironically, it was to face these questions that I came to college in the first place.
Angela Hoten ’23, who spent the holiday season navigating the bureaucratic maze to resolve her visa issues, was also faced with dejection when she couldn’t secure entry approval in time. She describes how this difficult time has helped her learn more about herself. “It was a big learning curve for me, and it just made me very aware of how I react to situations I don’t plan. I know that in the future, I’m going to face a lot of difficulties. It’s just about learning and growing.”
While the whole process of waiting is deeply isolating, especially since there was little the college could do, Angela did point out that someone from Student Services was regularly checking in with her. A Facebook group consisting of online learners was also helpful for students like Angela and me, as it allowed people in similar situations to share information and provide support.
I still find myself worrying about all the things I am missing out on by not being on campus, but there’s so much here that I would’ve missed out on if I were there. The waiting has given me the chance to engage much more patiently with my family and friends. When I find myself witnessing my nephew’s first steps or spending serious amounts of time with a loved one, things which would have been hard to cram within the beats of the academic calendar, I honestly cannot say for sure that I mind the waiting too much. That is, of course, until the alarm goes off for the 6 am online class.