A group of University of Sydney engineering students studying remotely in India will soon meet each other in person on a trip along India’s picturesque south-east coast.
The group of six, who have been studying online from their homes for more a year and are all fully vaccinated, will leave their hometowns behind (which are hundreds of kilometers apart) to rendezvous on a five-day trip to the coastal cities of Chennai, Pondicherry and Mahabalipuram.
The effect of COVID-19 and border closures have affected the group differently. The majority were able to commence their studies at Sydney University, attending on-campus lectures and tutorials before following the advice to return home to India. Other members of the tight-knit group have never stepped on Australian soil, beginning university life in India and studying completely online.
The aspiring engineers – Adhip Tanwar from New Delhi, Shreya Kothari from Jaipur, Ananyaa Gupta from Ambala Cantt, Aashika Agarwal from Lucknow, Roshan Venkatesan from Theni, and Harshini Jayakumar and Pranjul Bokaria from Chennai – met through a Whatsapp group for faculty of engineering students studying at the university.
While their initial discussions concentrated solely on their studies and assignments, the group did not take long to build friendships with each other over Zoom and other social media – an essential part of the university experience.
The group was soon sharing memes, chatting about things they hoped to do in Sydney when they could finally arrive, and held virtual movie nights. Fostering friendships and engaging in activities that weren’t purely study-related helped the group cope and support each other through the challenges of remote learning.
"This group of friends has become like a family,” said Ananyaa, who is 19 years old and studying for a Bachelor of Engineering Honours (Software Engineering).
“We've only met online but we've formed some of the best friendships we've had in our lives.”
COVID-19 and, in particular, the Delta variant, has devastated India, infecting more than 30 million people since the pandemic began. However, optimism is returning after a decline in case numbers recently has resulted in a relaxation of restrictions, with domestic travel currently allowed.
Taking advantage of what they see a window period (experts are predicting a smaller wave of cases could hit India in coming months), the six engineering ‘mates’ who have never met wanted to take a chance that might not come around again anytime soon.
While the group thought their parents would be disapproving of the idea, 19-year-old Shreya said, “They were more open to the idea than we ever thought they would be”.
“We had Zoom calls with everyone’s parents so they could meet and discuss it.
“They understood that this trip is exactly what we need to stay motivated through another online semester.”
Shreya and her new-found friends say “they have been coping well with remote learning, but nevertheless it has been a challenging time”.
The crisis that has engulfed the group’s country and communities has been an unending source of anxiety and grief, and they have experienced both feelings of loneliness and the struggle to stay motivated. Throughout these difficult times, many in the group have reached out to the university’s support services for students learning remotely during the pandemic.
Some have also completed online modules designed to help manage mental health and wellbeing during difficult times. Special consideration arrangements have also been critical for some members of the group, such as Ananyaa. She took advantage of the provision when she required time out of class to support a relative hospitalised due to COVID-19.
Through their ups and downs, the enduring message is that friendship, support and social interaction has enabled many international students to continue their study
“Without this group of friends, I don’t think I would have been able to get through three semesters of uni online during this devastating situation,” said Harshini, 19.
“There have been times when some of us would break down emotionally, but we got through it by checking up on each other and just being there for each other.”
The group of students are acutely aware of how fortunate they are to be taking such a trip at a time when their country and the world is suffering. But all are convinced it will be worth it, planning to soak in some happiness and finally meet their friends and study partners in the ‘real world’.
“Seeing my friends in real life, hugging them for real – it’s going to mean so much,” Ananyaa beamed.
“I hope to make memories for life and cherish them until we meet again.”Do you have an idea for a story?
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