The Uncertainty in Education Abroad | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, July 09, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:38 AM, July 09, 2020

DREAMS ON HOLD

The Uncertainty in Education Abroad

As the coronavirus crisis unfolds, educational institutions are left disrupted and students stranded. While those starting university this year worry about having to start such an integral part of their lives in mediocre online classes, high school students worry about the hurdles they'll have to face during the admissions process this year and how the pandemic will affect their applications. Students who were once confident about getting that acceptance letter from their dream universities now find themselves grappling with an uncertain time that seems to get worse with every passing day.

As international applicants, one of the biggest challenges that Bangladeshi students are facing is colleges in the US waiving the mandatory SAT requirement for Fall 2021. Although most students are celebrating the cancellation of this dreaded standardised test, what they fail to understand is that it will only adversely affect international students. For the many students relying on merit scholarships to fund higher education in the US, this may serve as a disadvantage. Since the test is designed to assess students' college readiness, colleges will now be put in a tough spot when deciding whether an applicant is a good fit for their community. With such an important part of the admissions process being eliminated, admissions officers will now be placing more emphasis on school transcripts, official examination grades, extra-curricular activities and essays: parts of the application process international students, especially those from Bangladesh, often seem to overlook.

Instead, we place more importance on our board exams, ensuring that the results we get in our HSC, A Levels and other external exams are top-notch. For years, the college admissions process in the US has been praised for being a holistic one, so when the standardised testing part of it is taken out, students who have weak grades in school or lack sufficient extra-curricular activities worry they will not be able to boost their application with a high test score to make it as competitive.

On the other hand, there are those worried about whether universities will be sympathetic when assessing students' school performances. With classes being shifted online, teachers not being able to cater to students' needs and board examinations being cancelled, many find it hard to keep up their grades and wonder how universities will assess their performance. Students that were relying on O/A Level results to spark up their application now find themselves worrying about a grade that is not only out of their hands, but also may not reflect their full potential and wonder whether universities will even consider them as valuable representations of the student.

On the other end of the spectrum, Bangla medium students sit in uncertainty as they wait for announcements regarding their indefinitely postponed HSC examinations. Without these qualifying exams, they wonder whether their dreams of studying abroad will ever become a reality. Although many universities are being lenient about final grades and accepting high school transcripts as final grades, others are not. Because many universities (particularly in the UK) do not recognise HSC as an adequate advanced exam, seniors in Bangla medium schools wonder how the admissions process will look like for them in the wake of the pandemic if they don't get to sit for their exams. Since they are a part of a small minority in the international applicant pool, they worry they may not get the chance to even put up a competitive application to universities.

For many others wanting to take advantage of this summer to boost their extra-curriculars and gain experience through internships, the chances of getting into a good college seems bleak. On top of that, students now have to worry about whether they will qualify for sufficient financial aid to fund their education while having to pay full tuition. As the pandemic puts people out of jobs and drives businesses towards failure, many students worry if their parents will be able to pay the hefty fees that come with higher education abroad. Since an increasing number of students are likely to apply for financial aid next year, universities brood over whether they will be able to provide sufficient funds to incoming freshmen. And while many students planned to take a gap year to focus on boosting the extra-curricular aspect of their applications, the pandemic now makes them worry about whether they will be able to demonstrate to universities that they utilised the year to grow, learn and gain experience when there are very limited internship and extra-curricular opportunities at their disposal.

For those that had their stellar applications accepted, the ban on travel poses a significant threat to their study abroad plans. While universities like the University of Southern California are going hybrid, conducting a small portion of their classes in-person and the rest online, others like University College London have plans of fully reopening this fall, with only classes hosting large populations being conducted online. This leaves students worrying about whether respective embassies will issue student visas in time for them to be able to start classes, while students who took gap years last year wonder whether they should run the risk of starting online classes with the threat of not getting a visa looming over their heads or take the safe route and enroll in a university back home.

"I took a gap year last year, but enrolled in a private university here even though I eventually planned to apply for Fall 2020. I applied for my visa back in March after getting my acceptance letter, but with the pandemic and the embassy being closed, I don't know if I should take the risk, pay a hefty sum for online classes and wait for a visa I might not get or stay back and finish my undergraduate degree here," notes Akif Rahman*, a student at Brac University.

And while travel restrictions may be lifted in the coming months and passports stamped, students still have to worry about travelling miles away from home in the middle of a pandemic and settle in a foreign country while trying their best not to contract the deadly virus. Though many are choosing to start their university journey from behind their desks back home to save costs and stay closer to family during this unprecedented time, the drastic time difference stands to not only affect their sleep schedules but also their academics, mental health, and physical well-being.

"I have PCOS and my doctor said that maintaining a healthy sleep schedule is a must for me, but if my classes start at 10 PM and end at 6 AM, how do I manage that?" ponders Fabliha Raushan*, an incoming freshman at UCLA this fall.

As experts warn that social distancing measures may be in place well into 2022, students find themselves wondering whether their university experience will be a joyful one. Orientation week, traditional school events, packed classes and a normal university experience all feel like a distant dream in a faraway reality. Needless to say, the four years spent in university are perhaps among the most crucial experiences in the lives of many young adults, and having to start this journey online can most certainly be daunting.

While I cannot say what the future holds for higher education, I can say with certainty that the lessons derived from this pandemic have the potential to change higher education as we know it. Online education has made its mark and it's here to stay.

*Names have been changed for privacy.

Fariha enjoys binge-watching movies in the dark vicinity of her bedroom. Strike up a conversation with her at fariha.safa@gmail.com

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