As COVID-19 fuelled shift to online learning, Indian students reflect on how their overseas education experience was impacted

As classes went online, social interactions ceased, and decisions about travel — whether for fieldwork or to one's home or institute — became fraught, Indian students enrolled at foreign universities had to look for new ways to cope.

FP Staff June 22, 2021 13:54:37 IST
As COVID-19 fuelled shift to online learning, Indian students reflect on how their overseas education experience was impacted

Illustration via Shutterstock/Viktoria Kurpas

The COVID-19 crisis completely upended the study abroad experience for Indians pursuing higher education at foreign universities. As classes went online, social interactions ceased, and decisions about travel — whether for fieldwork or to one's home or institute — became fraught, students had to look for new ways to cope. Those enrolled in courses with a practical learning element found online modules lacking, others struggled with Zoom fatigue. Still, there were some silver linings in terms of saving on commute time or having greater space for self-study. Students Firstpost spoke with had a range of experiences and reactions to their situations — even though one of the pandemic's major impacts has been the flattening of our everyday routines and lives. Read on...

Deeksha Rao, 24, studying Medicine in Kazan, Russian Federation:

The online experience has mostly made medical education harder for me. My clinical experience has been compromised, I haven't been able to see as many patients/surgeries/cases as I would have, under normal circumstances. It has made things easier in one way though: online lectures saved me quite a bit of time that I would’ve otherwise spent going from one hospital to another for different lectures. Now I could just sit at home and attend them and spend the rest of the time on self-study. Also, there’s more time for me to relax.

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Baani Singh, 25, studying fashion in Italy:

I enrolled last year but I had to leave Italy overnight because of how bad it got. I opted to restart this year and it was stressful. Choosing to live in a new country when all you want is familiarity and comfort wasn’t easy.

The idea of online classes was unsettling since you invest so much for the experience, don’t you? ‘Am I making the right choice?’ is all I could think of. It has left a perpetual bad taste in my mouth about something I was so excited about — my education. Even now, as the country lifts restrictions, I’d say 50 percent of our classes are online. As much as I’ve gotten used to being lazy about it, the mental toll the whole journey has taken is incomparable.

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Conchita Saldanha, 25, pursuing an MSc in Rehabilitation Sciences at McGill University, Montreal, Canada:

I started my degree in September 2020, and for me it’s been a good experience. I had classes online on Zoom but my classmates have been really good and everybody helped each other out.

The reason I came to Canada in January was because I could not deal with the time difference, I was literally taking classes at 1 am, 3 am, so nothing was really registering. Also I was scared because Canada shuts its borders as precaution [when COVID cases are high], so I wouldn’t be able to come in [if that happened]. So when it was open and I had a chance, I just came in.

Other than the time difference, I don’t think anything else changed because I was still studying online. As such the experience is like it was when I was at home. I didn’t feel there was any change after coming here. My winter semester was going on when I came here and it took me a while to get adjusted.

The reason I wanted to study abroad was the education quality in Canada because mine is a research-based course, and Canada is pretty good for that. And the second thing is, I wanted to learn from a diverse group of people. Basically I wanted personal and professional growth.

While studying online, the main issue that I had was Zoom fatigue. You sit there for four hours and then after your classes are done you have to do assignments online so for me the fall semester was really hectic because I was just sitting at my laptop. It's nothing like when you sit in class. I would say it's harder to pay attention when you're studying online. That was an issue I was facing from my side. From the professors and university side I think they tried to be as supportive as possible.

Explained: Zoom fatigue, languishing, doomscrolling and other mental health issues stemming from COVID-19

My university hasn’t really offered a fee waiver [in light of the online lessons]. These are some drawbacks. But again, they offer scholarships if you score well. And also Canada compared to other parts of the world is not that expensive.

Now the lockdown is easing in Canada. I’ve finished my coursework and I’ve been trying to explore and I’m working. So being in Canada is fun, it’s beautiful.

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Pratim Ghosal, PhD candidate at Oxford University, UK:

I returned to India for my PhD research. However, since the end of March I have had to suspend fieldwork, which involves taking interviews and travelling to my field sites, with the rising number of COVID-19 cases. According to the university guidelines on COVID-19, as India has been classified in the red list prepared by the UK government, my primary field research has stopped indefinitely. I can proceed only after the situation improves and India is moved out of the red list. This has serious implications on the timeline of completing my thesis and my PhD funding.

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Anonymous, studying Computer Science at a Boston institute, US:

I had only one subject left in my course [when the pandemic struck] and it was online anyway, so didn’t really make a difference to me. [But] I used to work at the library and socialise with the other staff. That stopped when the pandemic started. The biggest challenge for me was basically the lack of social life. I had been here since 2017, so I knew a lot of people. I did feel lonely at times but video calls helped a lot. I also got in touch with old friends. But for students who came in September 2019 or afterwards, it was really difficult to be a part of a social group. Finding project partners was a challenge. The whole experience of being here for them was lessened as they didn’t really get to meet other students from various countries. I think not being able to go out and meet other students kills half the experience of studying here.

What took the biggest hit was my job search. I graduated in the middle of the pandemic and a lot of my lined-up interviews were cancelled. Since we only get three months to find a job after graduating, it was definitely stressful. Also, a lot of graduates who had just started working lost their jobs.

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Sanchi Mahajan, 25, studying Cosmetic Management in Canada:

Virtual classes are not bad when it comes to exams and presentations as some people have stage fear. That’s one thing we didn’t have to worry about. But there were more assignments and learning material compared to what we’d study on campus, so that kept us busy.

That said, money is definitely an issue as the fee is still the same. I’m in a cosmetics programme and at least got some products from college to practise with. But there were some students who just paid the full fees even when it was extremely difficult to find work here with everything being closed apart from essential services for over a year. So even though it was challenging to pay the fees, at the same time, I was able to better concentrate on my programme from the comfort of my home, rather than juggling college and part-time work. That would have left me with virtually no time to read and prepare for my classes.

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Raahi Adhya, PhD candidate at SOAS, London, UK:

My PhD, which I’m pursuing in the UK, focuses on archival texts and every now and then, while writing my thesis, I’ll discover a new source, or maybe an already accessed source that I would benefit from looking at again in libraries and archives that I don’t know when I’ll be able to access. I’m nearing the end of my PhD and I do not want to extend my research timeline waiting for things to open up, as this is also tied to issues of funding. The move to online conferences and seminars has also complicated routes for building contacts within academia which is crucial for collaborative work of any kind, be it future jobs or projects.

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Anonymous, studying Architecture in the US:

[With online classes] the screen time increased double-fold and rather than school it felt more like a detention centre. Get up from bed, computer, eat, computer, repeat and bed, times 365 days. The biggest challenge was keeping sane. Even if you wanted to get out, you couldn’t because your life is attached to a desktop. I went through a rough break up with my PC once life returned.

The market will tell how COVID has impacted the job scene, once I graduate this year. [My university didn’t offer any fee waivers or deductions], but I have a scholarship.

Having said that, all of this doesn’t matter now that things are getting back to normal.

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Susanne Rodrigues, 25, Langara College, Vancouver, Canada:

There are several virtual engagement and support programmes at my institute, Langara College, Vancouver. For students struggling to make ends meet during the pandemic, we have a Community Cupboard, which provides them weekly bags of meals/canned food and some essential items.

As for the education experience, the online system is quite comprehensive and mature. We mostly get graded immediately and are able to get feedback from the professors too. I’ve done group projects across three time zones — everyone knows the struggle and has adapted to it well. Though going virtual can make one feel disconnected, there are portals, networking events, online celebrations and a host of support systems from the college, which have made adapting easier.

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Makarand Sehgal, 27, CASS Business School, London:

I started with my Master’s course at Cass Business School in September 2020. Initially I thought the situation would alleviate as we progress through the year and the teaching approach may just become fully in-person by the second term. But having done a hybrid mode of learning in the first term, the second was actually switched to fully online with lockdown being implemented in the UK. I surely feel there’s some compensation that the university owes us — several of my batchmates and I started a petition for the same; however, we don’t see any refunds being initiated.

On a brighter note, online teaching has not been that bad after all, with ease in watching pre-recorded videos or recorded lectures and of course online examinations, which were definitely far less stressful.

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Anonymous, 25, Master’s in Journalism applicant, currently based in Kolkata:

I applied to Columbia’s Journalism school this year and was offered admission with a 45 percent scholarship to fund my cost of attendance — which came to a whopping Rs 85 lakhs for nine months in the city of New York. I unfortunately had to turn it down because it was becoming a financial and logistical nightmare with the second COVID wave hitting us, and then the subsequent lockdowns following close on its heels leading to visa offices shutting down indefinitely. A lot of external scholarship foundations also shut their doors due to the second wave, leaving me with no option but to step back and let go of an opportunity that was really close to my heart as a journalist who wishes to work in an international newsroom someday. There is no way, even with Columbia’s scholarship, that I would’ve been able to fund the remaining amount from my pocket and in this economy, it would be unimaginable to take out a debt that I’d probably spend the rest of my life repaying. I really wish this opportunity was better timed.

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