Students see coronavirus shatter study abroad dreams

By Long Nguyen   May 26, 2020 | 04:31 pm PT
Students across Vietnam looking to attend or return to international universities may have their plans derailed by the lingering Covid-19 threat.

This month, Tran Thanh Hoang, 24, finally got an offer from Georgetown University to pursue his master's degree in the U.S. this fall. His excitement soured, however, with the realization Covid-19 could well postpone his future ambitions as it continues to cripple many aspects of daily life.

"I am hesitant about deferring my enrollment by six months or even a year since the university may well refuse," he said, adding even if he wanted to, there is still no way of reaching America.

A Vietnamese student has her online lesson in a quarantine camp in Vietnam after returning to the country on March 27, 2020. Photo courtersy of Nguyen Thi Ngoc Lan.

A student commences an online lesson at a quarantine camp after returning to Vietnam on March 27, 2020. Photo courtesy of Nguyen Thi Ngoc Lan.

Many students waiting to start their first semester, as well as those forced to return to Vietnam due to the pandemic face growing uncertainty with the new academic year only three months away.

Senior high schoolers waiting to sit the two-month-delayed national exam on August 8 could risk having their university applications postponed since all institutions require submission of final diplomas.

Le Dang Quynh Anh, a 12th grader at Hanoi-Amsterdam High School, has her sights set on Bucknell University in the U.S., but cannot leave Vietnam before writing the exam.

"I have to attend the exam if I plan on going," Anh lamented, adding she may well have a gap year after requesting deferral from the university in the U.S., one of the most popular destinations among Vietnamese students, alongside the U.K., Japan, Australia, and China.

Ho Thuy, director of Hanoi-based educational firm MRS.VN, said the Covid-19 pandemic has directly hit the study abroad dreams of many students as tightening visa policies etc. retard the process.

Some students, who had already gained admission to foreign universities, worry about the quality of online learning.

On May 21, Cambridge University in the U.K. announced classes for the entirety of the next academic year would be held online. In the U.S., California State University became the first large American university to cancel classes at 23 campuses this fall in favor of online equivalents. Harvard Medical School and Canada’s McGill University both announced a similar response.

These decisions made Le Hoang Hao from southern Ba Ria - Vung Tau Province consider rejecting a $7,150 scholarship from British Columbia University in Canada, worrying online classes would be insufficient amid the lack of access to academic facilities.

Planning to attend an undergraduate course in business, the 18-year-old and his family do not think online lessons are reasonable when they have to pay regular tuition fees.

Worrying online courses would be extended until next year as the novel coronavirus evades containment, Hoang said he would stay in Vietnam and re-apply next year, "but getting an offer is not guaranteed."

"This is the most difficult decision I have ever made," he lamented.

Many Vietnamese students who have returned from overseas due to Covid-19 in the last few months have struggled with online classes operated from different time zones.

Nguyen Viet Anh, having completed his 14-day quarantine at a military camp in northern Ninh Binh Province last weekend, has spent four nights per week joining online classes on Zoom, organized by his school in Toronto, Canada.

"I have not gone to school since April, so I decided to return to Vietnam, but remote learning is such a torture because of a bad internet connection and lack of interaction with my teachers," the 19-year-old student said, adding it took him more than one hour to connect with his classmates for a 15-minute discussion at 2 a.m. last Tuesday.

"I know the difficulties are inevitable, but they may affect my merit-based scholarship this semester," he said.

More obstacles

Not all students are willing to defer or cancel their study plans as the risk of losing the place and financial aid is too great. But travel restrictions and the closure of some embassies and consulates has proven an unavoidable obstacle.

Nguyen Tuan Anh, a senior at Hanoi University of Science and Technology, is looking forward to attending a 6-month exchange program in Sweden this summer. While the university has been supporting him to find accommodation and apply for a visa, the 22-year-old cannot buy a flight ticket with his departure only two months away.

"I have to be in Sweden early August, this is a great chance, and I do not want to miss it, but I do not know how to go," he explained, adding the university has no plan to postpone the coming semester regardless of the pandemic.

With the fall semester approaching, coronavirus travel restrictions remain active not only in Vietnam but also across many other countries.

Vietnam has suspended international flights since March 25 in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

As the pandemic rages, both authorities and educational institutions remain hesitant ahead of the new academic year, while around 190,000 Vietnamese studying abroad can do little but hold on to their dreams.

Most universities, so far, have held off on making definite decisions on allowing students back on campus for the coming academic year.

America’s Georgetown University sent all incoming students an unusual greeting: "We hope to welcome you face-to-face. But should we find ourselves also working in other modes, know that Georgetown's faculty is eager to engage you and ready for your arrival."

Hoang is waiting for his I-20 form (Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status) from Georgetown to apply for a F-1 student visa at the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi, which has been closed since March.

"All I can do now is wait for the embassy to re-open, then wait for international flights to restart. Until then, my American dream is on hold."

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