CC0001: Transitioning into university life from high school is never easy, especially for international students: Inquiry and Communication in an Interdisciplinary World Report, NTU

From Social-Distancing to Social-Life Distanced

Transitioning into university life from high school is never easy, especially for international students. The COVID-19 pandemic, a global health crisis that turned lives upside down, only complicated matters. There was lack of clarity regarding the re-opening of universities, and moving to campus seemed a distant event.

Travel was riskier and in-person meet ups were unimaginable. When asked about their concerns, a group of international students who had arrived in Singapore in 2020, responded that they had anticipations about mingling with a multicultural crowd, moving into hall life and exploring new clubs of their interest. In this scenario of uncertainty and lack of physical interactions, how was it possible to meet and make friends?

“It was time to break the perception: strangers online are dangerous.” An international student explained, on sharing how she was adapting to the pandemic-driven student life. Social media was the only platform for meeting her first college buddies.

However, students reported that it was no easy task to build relationships on social media due to difficulties in understanding one another. Even after arriving on campus, they had to hang out in groups of eight due to government restrictions for maintaining social distancing. In the months that followed, filled with apprehension and hope, it became clear that the new normal was here to stay.

The routes for meeting new individuals had become limited. Organised bonding meets and recreational activities, which are often considered to be the best way to meet new people in university, were virtual or cancelled.

Did all groups of students in general feel like they were moving apart? “Not really. Smaller groups also mean we can reinforce existing bonds,” they say. With more time available to spend with each person, understanding between the students had improved. It also helped students to work on and strengthen their existing relationships.

The common feeling of apprehension itself had established a link amongst students, wiping away differences. Whether one studied a different course or came from a different city did not matter. All the students were experiencing the uncertainty looming over their student lives together and that itself brought them closer to each other. Students continue to manage vibrant conversations and an optimistic attitude that things will get better.

However, their responses highlight that the online interactions were no substitute for the in-person experience. With people often masking their true identity behind their gadget screens, it was much more difficult to judge people on social media. Thus, students are to make the best of what they have.

Fewer opportunities to meet new people means that they are forced to move with diverse people and not be choosy about their interactions. In many ways, such experiences will make interactions more enriching. Large gatherings are no longer taken for granted and people who have been a part of them have become more important. Thus, the inperson meet-ups of the current scenario are different from those of the pre-pandemic world.

They have become much more complex and have two dimensions to them. This raises the question: how has the pandemic impacted social relationships among students?

An article from The Washington Post noted many respondents admitting that during the pandemic, they preferred to maintain a smaller social circle (Bonos, 2021). “Some who once tried to maintain dozens of friendships are realizing they’re more fulfilled while keeping up with just their nearest and dearest” (Bonos, 2021, p.6).

The pandemic had also led to people prioritizing certain relations. “After over a year of living through an extended state of emergency, it’s clear who’s in your ride-or-die crew, who you can call if you need a walk, a talk or some help” (Bonos, 2021, p.6). The author Bonos (2021) also cites friendship expert, Shasta Nelson, who explains that smaller, closer circles have also been more helpful in this pandemic.

They might even make people hesitant about having an active and vibrant social life if and when the pandemic ends, Nelson adds. Bonos (2021) brings to light the fact that the pandemic might have not distanced students as we assume it has. With fewer opportunities to socialize, students find themselves spending greater time

valuing their current connections and focusing on deepening them. They are grateful to those who supported and helped them during the pandemic and consider them more important. These behavioural changes may also last beyond the pandemic.

But can we generalise this kind of impact across people of all natures? Outgoing individuals may still prefer to move with larger groups and meet more people; that is, social nature of individuals may not necessarily change and even if it does, the change may not necessarily sustain.

In an article from the BBC, journalist Ribeiro (2020) elaborates on research conducted by Dr. Marlee Bower, a loneliness researcher from the University of Sydney, and sociologist Dr. Roger Patulny from the University of Wollongong.

The research pointed out that during the pandemic people had begun to interact with fewer others and were more focussed on their existing relationships. Dr. Bower adds that, “They (respondents in the survey) would socialise with not as many people as before, but rather a very particular sub-group,” (p.5). Additionally, only certain kinds of relationships could be sustained through online platforms, such as those built on the basis of similarities or ones that were already deep and personal.

But, with increased online interactions in the pandemic, online platforms had also facilitated the connection between people who weren’t in physical proximity. However, Ribeiro (2020) also cites a second loneliness expert
Michelle Lim according to whom, “for most people, both the loss of micro-interactions and the narrowing of their social networks are temporary, tied directly to the public health emergency (pandemic), and are unlikely to outlast it” (p.18).

Finding Space in Singapore’s Public Space

Nestled in the north-eastern tip of Singapore lies a charming row of old shipping containers that make up the Punggol Container Park. The rustic shipping containers line the dining street and house seven unique eateries offering a large array of different affordable cuisines. Picturesque lights hang over the alfresco dining areas, perfectly complementing the view of the lush foliage that lies behind the park. On a Saturday night, it’s no surprise that the park is bustling with people, but it might not be the kind of crowd you’d expect.

Unique photogenic social spaces in Singapore are often clustered in the Central Area near the likes of Orchard Road and Marina Bay. Events and restaurants in this area tend to carry a hefty price tag and hence are typically reserved for more special occasions such as date nights or birthdays. At Punggol Container Park, this wasn’t really the case. The beautiful park was filled with families and friends dressed in casual home attire or even exercise gear. For them, it felt as ordinary as a casual night out at their neighbourhood hawker centre or coffee shop. For me, I felt almost like a tourist, overdressed with my clunky DSLR camera in hand.

There was something to be said about how ordinary the Punggol Container Park was to the average

Punggol resident, despite how special its infrastructure was. The Park essentially embodied what Francis Tibbalds, author of “Making Peoplefriendly Towns” (1993), thought a successful public place should be, “a rich, vibrant, mixed-use environment, that does not die at night or at weekends and is visually stimulating and attractive to residents and visitors alike.”

It’s not very common to find public spaces like this in Singapore that present a unique and pleasant experience outside the Central Area. In his journal entry titled “The problem of public space: Singapore as case study” (2016), Joshua Comaroff described Singapore’s national landscape as a laboratory of “willed ugliness,” where “aesthetic and social banality is designed at a micro-level.”

Considering the importance of a community-centric approach in placemaking, Singapore could certainly stand to benefit from more vibrant public spaces like the Punggol Container Park that foster a unique sense of place. This left me to wonder: What kind of placemaking efforts contribute to the vibrancy and conviviality of a place?

In her working paper, “Creative Placemaking” (2018), Yulia Pak attributes the “sterility” of public spaces in Singapore to a few factors. Some of which are the government’s “domineering” role in

developing spaces and their heavy emphasis on private stakeholders’ engagement through (co)funding placemaking efforts (Pak, 2018, p.17). Pak (2018) recognises that these efforts have been successful in bringing global recognition to Singapore’s architecture and infrastructure as evidenced by iconic landmarks like the Marina Bay Sands and the Gardens by The Bay. However, she believes that there remains a crucial lack of community-centric engagement which has left our public spaces feeling over-regulated and too carefully manicured (Pak, 2018, p.10).

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CC0001: Transitioning into university life from high school is never easy, especially for international students: Inquiry and Communication in an Interdisciplinary World Report, NTU
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