First steps to the new normal: NOC students travel again

Travel is in the air again for NUS Overseas Colleges (NOC) students. Five locations have been earmarked – Munich, New York, Silicon Valley, Stockholm and Toronto. Between October 2021 and January 2022, some 80 students will be going overseas to these entrepreneurship hubs.

Flash back to 24 January 2020, the fateful day when NOC students in China received the news that they would be returning to Singapore. A mysterious virus was sweeping through China, overwhelming the healthcare systems and posing a deadly threat. The students left China within a couple of days, just before lockdowns started and chaos ensued.

In the month that followed, the team carefully monitored the situation, and by early March 2020, made the decision to recall NOC students from the rest of the world.

Within just two months, all students and programme managers were back in Singapore safe – just in the nick of time before the situation escalated rapidly worldwide.

While NOC students were returning home, the Ministry of Education, too, issued a directive for all students on overseas placement to return to Singapore. The NUS Dean of Students’ Office and NUS Enterprise worked together to create a platform, for students who have returned to share information with others on how to get back.

Keeping the momentum

Once the students were settled in, NOC turned its focus to keeping the momentum. The NOC Programme has been an influential force behind start-ups in Singapore, and a flagship programme of NUS. Indeed, two of the three most recent unicorns in Singapore, Carousell and PatSnap (the third being Carro), were founded by NOC alumni. The work to nurture next-generation disruptors and innovators has become even more pertinent in a pandemic.

We asked ourselves whether we can still keep to the purpose and rigour of the programme, operating in pandemic mode,” shared Professor Chee Yeow Meng, Associate Vice-President (Innovation & Enterprise) and NOC Director.

However, they were able to achieve this by having students to do remote internships for start-ups in NOC locations, and for them to have access to the same slate of mentors and coaches in those locations as before. The students also attended Zoom sessions with entrepreneurs and venture capitalists from their respective NOC locations, and online courses from partner universities when available.

“When we started looking at remote internships for our students, we were overwhelmed with questions. Questions on whether companies would be keen, whether it would work given the time difference, whether students will miss out on social interactions, among many others,” said Mr Harpreet Singh, Associate Director for NOC Toronto.

To the credit of partner companies and programme managers, students were given amazing learning opportunities in diverse roles, and efforts were put into helping them connect and engage with the wider start-up community. Many companies also went out of the way to look after the students’ mental health and made sure that they were not left out.

The experience has been a learning curve. “This unique working environment has taught me to be more adaptable, and I have been able to manage my time better and cultivated the discipline to accomplish tasks on time. The downside has been the lack of face-to-face interactions. I’m also looking forward to dive deep into the working environment in Sweden for a more holistic internship experience,” said Kiran Prabakaran from NUS Engineering, who flew to NOC Stockholm on 6 October 2021.

Ready, get set, go

Twenty months later -- the world is showing signs of overcoming this unprecedented challenge -- and students from NOC Stockholm, Silicon Valley, New York, Toronto and Munich will be the first to head abroad on an overseas exchange and internship programme.

“We recognise that there are elements of overseas experience that cannot be replicated — the independence, serendipity, adventure, and wonder that comes from traveling. Being in a new place drives a spirit of adventure and curiosity. These are important parts of character building. It is for this reason that, if we can provide this experience, even for a few months, we should do so.”
Professor Chee Yeow Meng, Associate Vice President (Innovation & Enterprise) and Director of NOC

While they would have to keep a close eye on their health and to the COVID-19 situation around them, it is finally the chance for them to immerse in the ecosystem, to rub shoulders with like-minded founders from a different country and culture.

Surmounting obstacles

The planning for resumption of overseas travel began in April, but was met with multiple obstacles. The emergence of the Delta variant has caused the virus to spread at an alarming speed. Hence, it was a much anticipated milestone for NOC as they sent off the first group of students, including Kiran, to NOC Stockholm on 6 October 2021.

By now, more of the world has been vaccinated, and countries are better equipped to deal with COVID-19, significantly reducing the risk and danger. Precautions will still be taken to ensure the safety of the students, including an active monitoring system which tracks the host countries' border policies, pandemic situation, vaccination regime, pandemic control measures and quality of healthcare system.

Only students who are vaccinated are able to travel. All NUS students are members of International SOS and have been trained to use the service. NOC will also be actively monitoring their health and providing regular COVID-19 updates of the respective locations.

“I am looking forward to attending demo days, start-up conferences and hackathons in real life, having only attended virtual events previously. Travelling to the US would also be a good chance for me to catch up with fellow investors and start-ups whom I have met over the past few months of my remote internship,” said Jane Wong, from the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Science. She will be headed to NOC Silicon Valley.

“I’m a city lover and I want to take in the sounds, sights and smells of a different part of the world. It gives me great joy to be able to indulge in my senses and the new world around me,” said NOC Toronto-bound Benjamin Fheng from the NUS School of Computing, summing up the excitement and sentiments of many students.

By NUS Enterprise