Until barely nine months ago, we were all living in what seemed to be a blissful paradise. That was, of course, before the pandemic swept the world and altered our lives forever. From how we spend our weekends and how we work to our day-to-day travel, the very way we live and interact with one another has been upturned.

While daunting for everyone, there is one all-consuming worry that dominates college-bound students and their parents – the rules for this academic year. This is because ever so often universities and countries provide new directives to adjust to the ever-changing reality of Covid-19.

Big name universities on both sides of the Atlantic such as Harvard, U Penn, MIT, Stanford, Oxford and Cambridge have totally banned face-to-face study and offer only online teaching for the present. On the flip side, UNC-Chapel Hill opened its campus to 30,000 students only to shut down undergraduate studies within two weeks. Similarly the surge in Covid infections has compelled Notre Dame to close its campus. These decisions seem to be following a familiar pattern leading to increased confusion and uncertainty amongst the international student fraternity.

If you are looking to study abroad this year, then the tumult has left you understandably confused and frustrated. Here’s a look at what to keep in mind when considering studying in an international university overseas:

Should you defer enrolment?

This is the million-dollar question. If you’ve been accepted to a programme for the forthcoming academic year, and are still trying to decide what to do – it is understandable that the choice is not an easy one. Speak to fellow students and see what the consensus is. For example, it doesn’t make sense to not defer if you are the only one. However, if your programme has moved online and the experience would be much better through in-person classes, it would be wise to defer. This would be relevant to courses which involve laboratory experience, field studies and networking. If your degree is time-sensitive and you’d like to finish it as soon as possible to move on to the next stage of your life, then deferring might not be the best choice.

These choices are only applicable if you’ve been accepted.

If you’re applying for next year, there are a few things to be mindful of. First, delay in applying because “things will be better” next year isn’t the wisest of choices. None of us know what will happen next year – will there be an effective vaccine, etc. So we must operate as if what is happening now is what we know.

Secondly, there are a lot of students deferring their admissions – this means that 2021 will be one of the most competitive cycles in a while. So, if possible, go ahead and apply for Spring 2021 or Summer 2021 – it is highly recommended to avoid competing with the influx of candidates for Fall 2021.

Online vs hybrid

Like many students, you may be facing the prospect of having to decide between online-only or hybrid instruction (both online and face-to-face). There are many ways to approach this decision. Online allows you to start immediately and not delay your education – thus you will not waste valuable time. Online also allows you to study from the comfort and safety of your home, thereby not having to deal with health hazards of traveling during these uncertain times when lockdowns can happen any minute.

Online also means you are not physically interacting with other human beings and the risk of getting infected is minimised. Today, Safety and health aspects are of paramount importance and unfortunately the current uncertain environment does not help or infuse confidence. In such circumstances, online studies, if available, seems to be the prudent way out. 

However, an online experience for some will be lacking as they wish to have more interaction with fellow students in social activities, as well as the fact that they genuinely prefer classroom instruction. This is very much dependent on your preferences. Hybrid classes have the benefit of being a flexible ‘have a bit of both’ experience that lets you start with online and then progress to physical classrooms depending on the situation.

Many colleges have declared this coming semester to be online-only, and then hope to move to a hybrid model the next semester. Thus, you will get the best of both worlds – starting your education on time, while also having a classroom experience when the time is right.

College education is more than merely academic leaning – it is a holistic experience that encompasses social interaction with students from other parts of the world, getting to know their points of view, solving problems, doing community service and playing sports with friends.

No one size fits all

Eventually your personal choice or decision will be subservient to the rules of the university or the country you intend to travel. Complicating matters, quarantine rules also depend on the country from where you are travelling from. Unfortunately there is no one size that fits all.

America, the world’s most popular study-abroad destination, with over 1 million international students, has had minimal government intervention on college campus plans to reopen. The US government has decreed that if you are an incoming international student this fall, your classes must be in-person and cannot be online – otherwise you shall not be permitted entry to the country. It is important to note that this doesn’t apply to international students currently residing in the US who have already begun their studies.

Issuing of student visas by the embassy is among the most important attributes in your decision making. While Canada, the UK, Australia and Ireland have commenced issuing student visas, USA and Germany are accepting applications but are non-committal on interview dates and issuance of student visas.

Health concerns

Universities that have opened campuses have gone the extra mile in trying to ensure safety and health of their students. This would include reduced occupancy in residential accommodation, strict protocols to be followed for social distancing in class, food halls and activities outside the classroom. Most universities are offering hybrid models wherein core modules are being taught face to face and electives are online and for that they expect students to be on campus. Even here the hurdles faced by international students are acknowledged by some universities who tend to offer online teaching as an option. Every University has its own rules and variations. Check which option your choice of university is offering.

In short, we’re all in the dark – and the best decision is making a decision. See what attracted you to the course, and if it is better to do it in-person or online, and see your comfort with traveling to help make such choices. Remember: the entire world is in this together, so no choice is the wrong one.

Sanjeev Verma is managing director of Intelligent Partners, a leading education consultancy based in Dubai.

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