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Sleepless Nights, Sleepless Flights: The Trials of Pre-Departure

(December 30, 2021)

Although I haven’t yet physically commenced my journey to Singapore, preparing for this trip has been quite the journey in itself. As I lie here in bed at 1AM on Thursday, December 30, the first day of the long 31-hour journey ahead, the reality is beginning to hit me – I’ll be starting off the new year in a new country, 9,500 miles away from home. 

And I can only hope that all my hard work to get there pays off, and that everything goes according to plan.

For a quick introduction: My name is Andrea Eleazar and I’m a third-year junior studying Public Health, with minors in Bioinformatics and Asian Studies and a certificate in Technical Writing. I’m also a 2021 Gilman Scholar and Freeman-ASIA Scholar, as well as a recipient of the Diversity Scholarship from Drexel Study Abroad. I’ll be spending this spring semester/winter quarter 2022 as a Biomedical Sciences major at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore through their GEM Trailblazer Exchange; I can’t wait to share my time in Singapore with you all!

Why Singapore?

Coming into college, I felt quite resolved in my intention to study abroad. In fact, going abroad was one of the very first goals I had made for myself. I’ve always been keen on learning about different languages and cultures, which further developed through an exchange in Germany and a summer service learning program in South Africa during high school. Though I became a Global Engagement Scholar at Drexel and have had the opportunity to participate in a few globally-oriented events and courses, I still craved some sort of actual global experience, whether through an intensive course abroad (ICA) or a whole term abroad. I attended a Study Abroad 101 session during Welcome Week of my freshman year, where I initially decided that a short-term ICA would suffice to achieve this goal. However, as the pandemic struck and pressed through 2020, I began to entertain the idea of going abroad for a whole semester. While I enjoyed the structure and familiarity of my routine at home, I found myself beginning to crave for something new, like experiencing life in another country. After months of being cooped up at home, straining my eyes in online classes for the foreseeable future, it seemed like the most opportune time to take a leave from Zoom University.

With two experiences in Europe and Africa under my belt, Asia was next on my radar, specifically Southeast Asia. I’d been wanting to return there for a while since visiting the Philippines in 2007 to see family. As the only Drexel program offered in Southeast Asia, Singapore particularly caught my attention because of its rich cultural diversity. As the heart of Southeast Asia situated just south of Malaysia, the tiny city-state lies at the crossroads of East and South Asia, with Chinese, Malays, and Indians comprising its major ethnic groups. The dynamism of being surrounded by different cultures was something I really appreciated on my South Africa trip, and I anticipate a similar experience in Singapore. I hope to guide my learning through immersion in the various cultures, as well as simply observing the day-to-day coexistence of these communities in Singaporean society – the foundation of their young nation. Finally, being Southeast Asian myself, I felt that Singapore would be the perfect place to begin diving into the history of my own roots. Ultimately, at its core, Singapore is an amalgam of tradition and modernity with its reputation as a technologically advanced city. When researching Singapore, I felt that the city reflects the creativity and curiosity that propel society forward. From urban planning and architecture to sustainability, they are constantly engineering solutions to a large range of problems in society. They do this while maximizing their resources in the rather small area of land at their disposal – an impressive feat. 

So, when the time for applications came around in fall 2020, I applied to several Asia programs – Singapore as my first choice, followed by Hong Kong, then South Korea. My study abroad advisor, Young-Min, did warn me that the Asia programs were among the most competitive. Heeding this warning, I applied with lowered expectations. In about late February/early March 2021, to my surprise, I received notification from Drexel of my official nomination to study at NTU for Fall 2021. Though I accepted that I probably wouldn’t have the same experience as past exchange students (e.g. traveling to nearby countries in Southeast Asia during term recess, experiencing the Singapore nightlife), I was more than happy to get to thoroughly explore all that the city has to offer. Perhaps most of all, I was happy that I would get to move on from the stagnant course of life in the US and make the most of these otherwise unprecedented times by fulfilling one of my long-time college goals.

The Journey Before the Journey

The excitement of leaving the pandemic-stricken states to go to Singapore was short-lived. About two weeks after receiving my official decision from Drexel, I received word that NTU had canceled inbound and outbound exchange for the Fall 2021 term – about five months in advance of the semester.

A bit hasty, isn’t it? was my initial reaction to the news. A lot can change in five months… 

I promptly met with my study abroad advisor Young-Min over a Zoom call, where he presented me with two options: to withdraw my application or to defer my program to the winter term. As a 4-year student, the latter option would be my final opportunity to study abroad, but would also have a major trade-off: it would abbreviate my one and only co-op, as NTU’s semester does not exactly align with Drexel’s quarter system. Despite this predicament, I figured there was nothing to lose by waiting out the situation a bit longer.

As for the remainder of 2021…it was filled with uncertainty, as if driving through a thick fog, unable to anticipate any obstacles ahead. I was just in it for the ride. Over the spring and summer, I tried not to concern myself too much with case counts, Singapore’s COVID situation, etc., but with the waiting game having been the longest phase of the process, I found myself already exhausted by the time the real work began. NTU hadn’t made a decision to resume inbound exchange until October (which was also around the same time Singapore was seeing a sudden spike in cases – another cause for concern). Due to the ever-evolving nature of the pandemic and the recent emergence of the omicron variant, my trip actually hadn’t been finalized until the beginning of December, i.e. only a few weeks ago. Every step of the process of preparing to go to Singapore has been one worry after another: gathering all the necessary documentation for entry; not knowing if I was allocated on-campus housing until 12 days ago (and to be assigned the presumably worst floor plan at that, a double room with no A/C); finding a co-op employer who would be willing to accommodate my adjusted timeline when I return; even limiting my social gatherings with friends and family this holiday season so as to not possibly expose myself to COVID, which would instantly undo all of the work I’ve done to get here. With such last-minute arrangements, I find that much of my excitement has dissipated, mostly overtaken by nervousness and stress. Not to mention, this trip will be different from my previous trips, where I had traveled with groups. This will be my first time weaving through an airport, flying over the seas, and navigating an unfamiliar country alone. Quite frankly, I haven’t had the time to give much thought to what I want to see and experience in Singapore, nor process the fact that I’ve just started to adjust to living back at Drexel but now leaving again for 4 months, nor plan everything out like I usually do. At this point, I’m simply desperate to make it into the country with no issues.

There have definitely been times where I felt discouraged, wondering if I should just give up on this pursuit. The pandemic is unrelenting and out of my own individual control; I wasn’t able to claim the two substantial study abroad scholarships I had been awarded due to COVID/logistics issues; the co-op process had only begun, and having interviews on top of study abroad preparation AND a full courseload made the fall term, to put it simply, a pain. This semester, I’ll also be the lone Drexel representative at NTU – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I do anticipate having to do a bit more work in terms of socializing and making friends, which is already one of my personal weaknesses as one who’s fairly introverted and shy by nature.

Regardless, I was/am determined to eventually find myself on the other side (literally- of the world). When I recall the excitement I felt upon reading my acceptance email, admiring pictures of the Singapore landscape, browsing through the NTU website, and watching “a day in my life” vlogs by NTU students, I’m reminded of my motivation to study abroad in the first place. Revisiting my application essays for the program and the study abroad scholarships I earned rekindled my desire to see the Lion City. And a large WhatsApp group chat with over 100 fellow incoming exchange students from around the world served as an additional support system, collectively commiserating over this lengthy process and helping each other out. But perhaps one of the biggest motivators for me in the final stretch was the fact that I began this whole process in fall 2020. Having plowed through 5 consecutive quarters of classes, I felt that I’d involved myself so deeply in the process and endured so much to drop out now.

The Itinerary

I leave from New York tonight, 12/30/21, and will arrive in Frankfurt, Germany on the morning of 12/31. After a 12 hour layover, I’ll finally depart for my final destination, where I’ll be ringing in the new year: Singapore. And though all of these factors and unknowns have put a damper on my excitement for now, I also feel determined to make the most of this long-anticipated experience.

Besides, there’s always the comfort of having a two-way ticket.

A Message from the Office of Global Engagement:

The safety and security of Drexel students is a priority for the University. As part of the efforts to support Drexel students that are studying abroad during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Office of Global Engagement has conducted a rigorous review of programming and provided additional support to participating students with customized pre-departure orientations and regular check-ins during the required self-isolation period and the term.

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