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The 'Z-SMU' Experience: An International Perspective

Are international students booming on Zoom? Writer Rishika Gupta speaks to three fellow international students to find out just how different online learning is for them.

It took a lot of back and forth for me to decide to sacrifice one of my last physical semesters at SMU to attend lectures remotely from my home country. So far, Zoom SMU (“ZSMU”) hasn’t been all that bad for me – but I was curious whether other international students feel that the remoteness of it all has encroached on their work-life balance or diminished the general university experience.

I reached out to three others to find out how attending ZSMU is like from their home country and their online learning semester so far. Information Systems student Akshi Narang and Business students Kashvi Bansal and AJ have all kindly agreed to share with me their thoughts on several aspects of the online SMU journey.

The Productivity

Many of us would all agree that the allure of one’s bed often outweighs the drudge of schoolwork and deadlines. Kashvi likewise concurs – she finds that ZSMU has decreased her productivity and caused her to feel ‘stuck’ at home in Gurgaon, India, with difficulty concentrating for hours on end. I’m sure we can all relate to the time management issues she is experiencing, and wish that we can adapt to studying in our new environment.

Akshi elaborates on an additional difficulty that local students may not have thought of. Students attending morning classes in Singapore all understand the fatigue and exhaustion of dragging oneself to campus at seven or eight in the morning. But with the time difference between Singapore and Delhi, India, Akshi has had to wake up at a mind-numbing 5 a.m. on multiple weekdays just to attend her morning classes. Even though she has found the online experience to be rather seamless thus far, the morning class accommodations cannot be anything less than painful, especially from the perspective of a night owl myself.

The consensus thus far appears the be that ZSMU has put a damper on one’s productivity levels. But on the other hand, AJ reports otherwise. He found himself very unexpectedly productive whilst at home in Thailand, as the reduced travel time has allowed him more time to allocate to schoolwork. Throughout the interview, he was in high spirits and appeared the most content and happy to be at home. Perhaps it boils down to self-discipline, time management, or a matter of general outlook, but I can definitely say that many of us are envious of him!

The Group Projects

Oh, group projects. A mainstay of the SMU curriculum which comes with a whole array of unique difficulties of its own, be it troublesome groupmates, finding common meeting timings, or facilitating productive discussions. One might think that ZSMU complicates things further, pushing everything to the online sphere – but is this really so?

Kashvi recounts how physical group meetings were sometimes never-ending. First, there was the finding of common timings. Then, there was the booking of the room. Next, waiting for everyone to show up. And even then, more time would have to be spent to get the group into the productive zone, and inevitably in this process, someone would leave to get coffee or food, and when they returned, the group would have to get into the zone again. And then more discussion would occur – until the next group casually knocks on the Group Study Room window and kicks you out.

Exhausted? Me too.

Well, Kashvi adds on, all of this is now avoided via online meetings. She quips that nowadays, a quick 30-minute meeting can achieve what a typical 3-hour physical meeting would have. Akshi also agrees that group project meetings are more productive. But, she laments, this comes at the cost of building spontaneous connections and friendships within group projects. This is especially so since group meetings are oft one’s only outlet in SMU to meet new strangers and engage in consistent interaction with them, and missing out on a whole semester of such opportunities undoubtedly stagnates our social lives.

The Extracurriculars

CCAs are also another large part of the SMU student’s life. With social distancing measures in place, CCAs have been forced to go virtual, compromising the hands-on aspect of many CCA activities. But our interviewees elaborate that the online movement has led to some very unique opportunities and efforts. Akshi is part of the SMU Ambassadorial Corps (“ASMU”).

With no physical tours to lead, they have tried to be innovative in embarking on many virtual initiatives. Kashvi too conceptualized an e-vent (get it?) by organizing Virtual French Baking Classes and engaging SMU students in unique, unprecedented ways. It is certainly commendable to see students making the most of what they have and trying to ensure that the CCA experience isn’t diminished for their club members and for the community as well – even if their members are located hours away in another country.

The Sensitive

When I prodded more about the drawbacks of the online semester, Akshi, Kashvi and AJ tell me more about the issues they faced in moving back to their home country, and the obstacles they expect should they return to Singapore. The reality is that a lot of students have been forced to let go of their rented spaces, and if they come back to Singapore for the new semester, it is likely that they will have to start their lives in Singapore from scratch all over again, fussing with basic requirements such as finding accommodations, replacing their prepaid phone numbers, and getting used to the ‘new normal’.

A more finicky aspect has to deal with school fees. Sensitive as finances are, the general opinion amongst the three is that international students continue to pay almost four times the fees that local students do, despite the lack of access to school facilities and being in the midst of a turbulent economy. They wish that more could be done to consider the shortcomings of their situation and to give them more financial leeway in this trying period.

The Verdict

Despite the troubles and bad experiences, overall, the interviewees find the classes themselves enjoyable, engaging and educational. All three of them really appreciate SMU’s efforts taking care of international students and helping them adapt to the new ZSMU arrangements.

Hopefully, Akshi, Kashvi and AJ’s experiences have shed more light on the experience of someone attending SMU from a different country. Ultimately, a word of advice is that in these times, if you find yourself in a group with international students, it does not hurt to be sensitive and try to accommodate the time difference, internet connection stability and mental stability of students stuck at home. Chat with them a bit and find out more about their experience thus far, and you may find yourself learning something new about their culture and outlook – and perhaps even come away with an enriching friendship!

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