By the NOC team
It was slightly after 1am on a Monday when Prof Chee Yeow Meng, Associate Vice President (Innovation and Enterprise) and Director of the NUS Overseas Colleges (NOC) programme, received a message from Associate Director Harpreet Singh, Programme Director for NOC Toronto in Canada. “Prof, Emirates just announced that it is suspending all flights in 48 hours. Our students in Toronto will be stuck!”
It had been a busy two weeks for the NOC team, working tirelessly around the clock to bring home safely 250 students on overseas placements around the world.
This was yet another challenge that had been thrown at the team. Whilst the Singapore team made calls to check on the flight status, Harpreet explored alternative routes. A flight transiting through Taipei was found and the team was given the green light to proceed, only to learn that Taiwan had just announced that it would be cancelling all international transits.
The Toronto students were eventually booked on Etihad Airways via Abu Dhabi. Six hours before departure, the United Arab Emirates announced a travel suspension within 48 hours. The team cheered when the students received their boarding passes, and when they touched down in Singapore, some tears were shed. Had the NOC team dallied, these would not have been tears of joy and relief.
The NOC programme is NUS’ flagship global innovation programme for students. It is renowned for sending students to 11 exciting innovation hubs for experiential learning through internships in start-ups and high-growth companies. However, since the start of 2020, the team has been backpedalling, no thanks to COVID-19.
The first signs of trouble started close to the Lunar New Year. Hearing of a spreading virus in Wuhan in the Hubei province of mainland China, Prof Freddy Boey, Deputy President (Innovation & Enterprise) at NUS, together with Yeow Meng, made a calculated decision to recall all mainland China-based students. The task was immense. Many were travelling. Some were already back in Singapore.
Flights were booked at a frenetic pace over the Lunar New Year period. “Get them back by any means necessary”. It was only in hindsight that the team learnt they had been hours away from a lockdown, which would have been catastrophic for the students stranded in mainland China and their anxious parents back home.
Hope was that the virus would be contained in mainland China. Constant monitoring of the news over February confirmed fears that the virus was spreading across the globe.
By early March, sensing that the situation was escalating, a decision was made to recall all NOC students.
Within two days, students in Tel Aviv, Munich, Stockholm, Silicon Valley, New York and Toronto were informed. Virtual town halls were swiftly arranged with the students, to allow them to voice their concerns, but ultimately, they had to be recalled. The meetings did not always end amicably, but with every passing hour, students started to realise the severity of the situation.
The recall was done in phases, beginning with Europe. Flights were swiftly booked, and a team activated to receive the students back in Singapore. Twenty-four hours before departure, Singapore Airlines pulled flights out of Europe and anxiety set in. Scrambling across various platforms, students from Europe were flown back, just about missing lockdowns and curfews. More importantly, they came back healthy, before the virus pervaded their communities.
Next stop was North America, where the bulk of remaining students were based. With each passing day, the situation in New York seemed more frightening. Flights were booked, but every hour before departure was an hour of potential cancellation or infection. The team was in close contact with every student, sometimes exchanging photographs to ensure that everything was proceeding smoothly, and everyone accounted for.
Bringing the students home was only part of the operations. Upon arrival, some of the students needed accommodation during their Leave of Absence or Stay-Home Notice (SHN) periods. Families worry about community spread, so NOC needed to coordinate and secure housing. Students also needed all kinds of assistance with food, medicine and other essentials.
A small team was assembled to secure facilities for students who could not serve out their SHNs at home. Although they were fathers and mothers themselves, the team never wavered in their professionalism. Some were present to register the students, and deliver meals around the clock. Perhaps it was fatigue, some even fell ill and had to be isolated from their families. Yet they never stopped working, albeit in isolation in their own homes. Everything was done to ensure the last student was brought home safely.
Ho Geer How, a Senior Associate Director with NOC, has been there from the beginning. Overseeing the China portfolio, his team was the first to be involved in bringing students home, settling their rents and equipment, and making sure they made it back to be with their loved ones. “Our biggest fear was that students would be stranded and unable to come home. Borders were closing by the day and airlines were cancelling their flights. It was complete chaos with new challenges every day.” Geer How was one of the officers stationed at the facility where returning NOC students are housed. On top of sorting the logistics and administration of having so many students under one roof, he also personally attends to the students. Knowing that the recall would be overwhelming for the students, he was there to show support, whether to provide a listening ear or a travel adaptor that the student had forgotten to pack in haste.
“The team stepped up, and their individual efforts have been invaluable. We also had other colleagues from within NUS Enterprise step in to help call every student daily, to check if they were feeling well, and asking if they needed any help.”
The NOC team became the students’ personal emergency service and successfully brought them back to Singapore. They are still in constant contact with the students.
Has the work ended? Far from it. Students have been transferred to different facilities, some needing personal attention, whilst others struggle with isolation. Once the SHNs have been served, it will be time to sort out student courses, finances and graduation requirements. All of these represent further mountains for the NOC team to climb, but the team is determined to make it work for the students’ sake.
“We have had so many alumni write to us to say they want to help. Some are offering internships, some even offered places to house the students. I am deeply grateful for the NOC family, which has come to the fore during this challenging time,” shared Yeow Meng.
Yeow Meng knows the next challenge is to monitor global developments and re-launch the programme. “NOC is only on pause. We will be back, better than ever. If anything, this experience will show future candidates that nothing can be taken for granted, especially in the world of entrepreneurship. It will be the best lesson.”