Students exchange programs on hold in light of global health crisis

Student exchange programs offer unique learning opportunities for students and highlight an institution’s integration into the global academic community. It is also through these programs that students from across different countries are granted the opportunity to walk through DLSU’s doors, while Lasallians get to immerse themselves in a foreign academic setting.

Indeed, DLSU’s ties with institutions within ASEAN and the European Union allows the University to regularly exchange students with other distinguished universities abroad—a distinction shared by few other Philippine higher education institutions (HEI).

But the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic marked a dramatic, if temporary, reversal in the trend of student exchanges, as travel restrictions worldwide meant a halt in student mobility. DLSU students bound for abroad found themselves grounded, while foreign students left sooner than expected. 

A Lasallian life

Taisei Kishikawa is one of the few hundred  international students who set their sights on DLSU. A language education student from Meio University in Okinawa, Japan, Kishikawa took up courses in the College of Liberal Arts during his stay which started last September. 

“I had a hard time keeping up with classes,” he admits. “I’ve heard that DLSU is one of the prestigious colleges in the Philippines, and the quality of every class is high. Hence, I glimpse that students study hard with distinguished professors.” 

Despite the challenges, Kishikawa paints an enjoyable stay in the University, fuelled by a competitive academic environment. “One thing I was astonished [by] the most [was] that students [in DLSU] are active and don’t hesitate to state their own opinions in class”, he says. “I’ve never encountered such an intense and lively atmosphere in class in Japan, which makes me so happy to see their attitudes toward their studies.”

However, as concern over the spread of COVID-19 began to grow globally, DLSU began to enact safety precautions. Last January 31, DLSU imposed a travel ban on University officials and faculty bound for China, Hong Kong, and Macau. Those who had recently arrived from the aforementioned territories were required to undergo self-quarantine for 14 days and seek medical attention.

By March 6, student activities that involved overseas travel were put on hold, effectively putting student exchange programs on an indefinite pause. Five days later, local government units began to roll out preemptive class suspensions, while the Department of Transportation suspended international flights going to and from Luzon on March 20.

Kishikawa reveals that the uncertain situation presented him with a dilemma, though he narrates that he was initially prepared to sit through the crisis. “I was not expecting to return to my home country even after several [COVID-19] patients [were] reported [here], but I couldn’t [determine] when this situation gets suppressed or ends,” he says. Nevertheless, the international student stayed in touch with his family, which helped alleviate their worries. Only after he received instructions from his home university did he pack up to return to Japan last April.

Now having returned home, Kishikawa is grateful for DLSU’s efforts in helping him cope with pandemic conditions, noting that the University keeps in touch with him “even after I went back here in Japan,” he adds.

‘The dream just vanished’

However, Zam Doctolero (V, BSMSCHE), who was bound for the Tokyo Institute of Technology (Tokyo Tech) as part of the Young Scientist Exchange Program, shares a different experience. He laments the University’s “lack of flexibility”  during a pandemic. The crisis, he added, has practically “killed” his plans of studying abroad—something that he had prepared for since his frosh year.

Before applying for the exchange program last year, Doctolero made adjustments to his flowchart to meet eligibility requirements, as he needed to have at least one term in DLSU after the program’s completion. He also needed to obtain the endorsement of the External Relations and Internalization Office and make appeals to faculty members and the Office of the University Registrar. 

Doctolero was also granted a Japan Student Services Organization scholarship, with tuition, lodging, and monthly stipend perks. But upon being told by the University that he can no longer participate in the exchange program due to the pandemic, Doctolero decided to adjust his flowchart again to graduate earlier instead. Months later, however, Tokyo Tech informed him through email that he can opt to join an online exchange program. But DLSU no longer allowed him to pursue it as he was already set to graduate in February 2021—he simply had no terms left.

He hoped that given the unprecedented and unfortunate events leading up to this, the University could have allowed him to attend the online exchange program because he had already exerted so much effort on this endeavor and Tokyo Tech provided an alternative with the online learning environment. However, even if Doctolero asked DLSU to “waive the requirements for [his] case”, he was still not allowed to attend the program.

“I have already invested a lot of effort to go on exchange. And ganun ganun na lang nawala. The dream just vanished [into] thin air,” Doctolero laments. 

(And just like that, it vanished.)

Persisting hopes

Representatives from the the University Student Government’s (USG) Office of the Vice President for External Affairs (OVPEA) Riley Uy and Georgene Romero assure The LaSallian that in times of crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, “the University will definitely always be on their toes” and will act to “protect students   as well as staff members”.

OVPEA, who maintains close contact with the Office of the Vice President for External Relations and Internationalization (OVPERI), reveals that all DLSU students, faculty, and staff members who were originally sent abroad before the pandemic have already been repatriated as of press time.    

With traditional student exchange programs not expected to resume anytime soon, virtual exchange programs have emerged as alternatives. A survey last May by the International Association of Universities, of which DLSU is a member, found that 60  percent of HEIs were moving toward virtual exchanges. Some international institutions have also followed suit: the European Commission, for instance, has allowed the Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange to partially replace the Erasmus+ physical exchange program.

DLSU has also launched the Lasallian Exchange and Virtual Study Abroad Program (EViSA), jointly handled by the USG and OVPERI, to rebuild momentum in student exchange programs. EViSA aims to provide students foreign scholarship and exchange programs through an online setting via partnerships with international universities across different parts of the world. “DLSU is doing its best to contact and partner up with different universities to try and bring international opportunities, may it be through conferences, webinars, or exchange opportunities,” Uy and Romero assure.

For Kishikawa, the opportunities opened by exchange programs are not only limited to academics. “[The] friends I met in the University [were] kind and helpful,” he says. “Without their kindness, I couldn’t have [accomplished my] studies in DLSU.” Even though a return to normal is well beyond the horizon, he hopes that in time, he can come back to DLSU to continue where he left off.

Oliver Barrios

By Oliver Barrios

Leave a Reply