Interview: virtual mobility at USI during Covid-19


Servizio relazioni internazionali e mobilità

21 Luglio 2020

Back in February, when the Covid-19 started to appear in most European countries, our students had barely left for their exchange semester, and a good group of incoming students had just arrived at USI. Little we knew that in a matter of days, mobility, as we have known it for so many years, would dramatically change.

Since then, universities have been on a roller-coaster of discussions and decisions on how to best adapt to this new normal. But how did our students live this experience?

We asked one outgoing and one incoming student on virtual exchange during the Spring Semester 2020 how they have dealt with virtual mobility during this particular time of Covid-19 pandemic.

Vera Lim, exchange student at USI from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

Please tell us something about yourself and your educational background

Hello, my name is Vera Lim, and I’m an exchange student at USI hailing from Singapore. I am a second-year student from Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information (WKWSCI) in Nanyang Technological University (NTU), and I am studying Communication Studies with a second major in Business.

What was your initial expectation when you signed up for an exchange period abroad in Lugano? 

To be very honest, I’ve never heard of Lugano until I signed up for an exchange semester at USI, but when I did my research, I was first really excited by the views that Lugano promised – the lake, the mountains and the picturesque city itself. I was excited to go on hikes, experience four seasons (because it is summer all year round in Singapore), and learn conversational Italian. Compared to Singapore, Lugano is a calmer, more scenic and more walkable city, and I was thrilled to be able to explore and gain independence in such a beautiful place.

Furthermore, after learning that USI is a relatively small, young and promising, I was also looking forward to meeting peers and faculty members from different cultures and walks of life and learning from them new perspectives in a lively and close-knit environment.

The Covid-19 pandemic changed your arrangements for your semester at USI quite dramatically. What was your first reaction, concerning your academic plans? 

In light of the worsening COVID-19 situation worldwide back in March, the Singaporean government had decided to recall all Singaporean students who were doing their exchange semester abroad. As such, I was notified that I could no longer stay in Lugano to continue my semester at USI. When I first heard of this decision, I was worried about whether I was able to carry on my exchange semester at USI remotely. At that time, USI had not officially announced their plans to carry out online lessons, and hence I feared that there was a possibility that I may not be able to complete my courses. If I were not able to complete my courses at USI virtually, this could potentially delay my graduation, and it was a major concern for me.

I was also very disappointed to have had my overseas exchange semester in Lugano cut short. I had lots of plans to travel in the region made, and classes had only begun and I hadn’t fully gotten to know my classmates and fellow friends that are also on their exchange semester. I was thus sad that my exchange semester had been very unfortunately short-lived.

You decided to carry on your exchange semester at USI from home. What factors did you consider making this decision? 

Apart from the fact that it was made mandatory by the Singaporean government and my Singaporean university to return to Singapore, another factor that encouraged me to return home was the fact that I would be with my family during this crisis. I knew that if I had contracted the coronavirus, I could be more easily taken care of. This is because I was aware that even though Lugano has been so welcoming, I would still face certain difficulties such as language barriers and concerns about insurance. Returning home would thus be more reassuring for both me and my family, who have been very worried about how I am coping alone halfway across the world.

I also considered how returning home might affect my academic plans. I was worried that if I returned home, I would not be able to continue with classes in USI and would miss out on the full exchange and cultural experience. However, I was also cognisant of the fact that due to the lockdown imposed by Switzerland and the travel restrictions across Europe, my experience, should I continue to stay in Lugano, would have been greatly limited. I also weighed this against financial considerations and concluded that going home would have been more financially savvy.

Can you share positive and negative aspects of your almost 100% virtual mobility? 

One positive aspect of taking virtual classes is that I am still able to complete my classes at USI despite being across the world. I am very grateful for how quick and flexible USI was in implementing remote lessons for all their students because this really quelled my fears of not being able to complete my classes.

Another positive aspect of taking virtual classes was that for some courses, lectures were pre-recorded and I could watch them at my own time and pace. Even live lectures were kindly recorded by the professors so that we can go back and watch the lectures again if we wanted to. I found this super helpful because if I missed something important that the professor said, I could go back and replay the video lecture again, and I could go through the lecture however fast or slow I wanted, depending on how familiar I am with the lesson material.

However, one difficulty in attending virtual classes was that it was more difficult to carry out group discussions and activities. There were sometimes technical difficulties, and it was just in general more difficult to organize. As such, classes had less group work opportunities, learning became more independent, and I had fewer chances to talk to and interact with my classmates. For some classes that only started after USI went online, I only knew my classmates’ names, and sadly never got a chance to meet them face-to-face or in-person.

Another negative aspect was that I did not get to fully experience and enjoy the USI buildings, facilities and programmes, such as the sports programmes offered. I really fell in love with how modern and open the USI buildings were, and I wished I was able to spend more time learning in the classrooms.

Did you have the opportunity to be confronted with a different culture, or was this a limitation of virtual mobility?

I think with the virtual mobility, there is definitely a limitation in the opportunities I had to interact with peers of different cultures. This is especially because, with online classes, we had less shared physical experiences, and with online mediated communication, we might observe stimuli like tone and body language less accurately, and that could limit the cultural exchange.

However, through different activities, I was fortunate enough to still be able to learn from friends and peers that hail from different cultures. USI is extremely unique to have a really culturally diverse student body, given that it is situated in Lugano, which is strategically close to the Italian border, and also in Europe, where there is freer travel across borders. In Professor Michael Gibbert’s Critical Consumer Behaviour class, we worked in groups every week to write a blog post, and this gave me the opportunity to interact with friends from different countries. We would share how quarantine is like in our home countries or share about the food we ate or any holiday we celebrated. In the class, we sometimes had to analyse advertisements from different countries, and we would help each other explain the different cultural contexts that the advertisements are based on. I also took the class Intercultural Communication taught by Professor Jolanta Drzewiecka, where we discussed how to view and approach different cultures and communicate between cultures. Through the readings and class discussions, I was still able to be confronted with different cultures despite being at home.

Can you tell us how a typical day of classes was organized? 

Due to time differences, my daily schedule and routine were definitely affected. Lunch is usually my first meal of the day, after which I would prepare for my first class of the day which is held at 2.30 pm in the afternoon here in Singapore. After my first class, I would either work on my readings or take a break, after which I would have dinner. Afternoon classes at USI would occur at 7 pm in the evening, and classes would end latest at 11 pm or sometimes close to midnight. Because of how classes are held later in the day for me, I tend to sleep later and also wake up later. Hence, even though I am in Singapore, I sometimes feel like I am still living in the Swiss time zone, and I sometimes surprise my European friends by replying to them at odd hours in Singapore.

Overall, are you happy with your choice? 

I still wish I could stay in Lugano longer, and returning to Singapore left me with some regrets. However, looking back at the circumstances that were presented back then during the peak of the coronavirus outbreak, I think I would not have changed my decision. I am still very grateful for all the experiences I had and the friends I made in Lugano, and I am very blessed to have had this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Do you have any interesting anecdotes to share? 

During our last week of classes for Intercultural Communication, we broke out into groups to complete a group activity. I was grouped with two of my classmates, and as we were discussing the class activity, we also chatted about how the quarantine was like, whether the borders were opening up, why I chose to come to USI and other aspects of our lives. Despite not being in the same classroom and not being able to see them, I felt a sense of closeness and acceptance just from hearing their voices. That interaction showed me that despite the limitations of virtual lessons, we can still make the most of it and still share and exchange cultures and perspectives with each other.

I also had classmates tell me that they might be coming to Singapore for exchange or internship opportunities in the future, and that made me really excited, knowing that there is a chance that we can cross paths again.

Are you planning to come back and visit Lugano, in the future? 

I would really love to come back to Lugano! I was touched by the hospitality and friendliness the people I’ve met in USI and in Lugano have shown me, and there are so many places in Lugano that I wanted to visit but did not get a chance to, such as hiking up Monte Boglia, visiting the village Gandria, and going for a dip in Lake Lugano, so I will definitely come back again as soon as I can. Lugano holds a special place in my heart, and visiting Lugano again is not a matter of if, but when.