Life And Limbo Under The Pandemic For Thai Undergrads
In March 2020 a large number of Thai college students studying abroad eagerly awaited their trips home for the spring holidays. I was no different; having spent the last five years studying in both the UK and the US, I was looking forward to boarding the plane back to Bangkok from Boston Logan International Airport. Rumours of the threat of a new virus were beginning to circulate but checking my phone before my flight that morning confirmed less than 2,000 cases worldwide. So it never crossed my mind that my intended two-week spring break would turn into an ongoing stay-at-home marathon.
Before the World Health Organization announced in early April that the Covid-19 outbreak was a pandemic, I was anticipating my graduation from high school and a new adventure as an undergraduate at Boston University. Graduate from high school I did—eventually, online—but because of lockdowns and the halt in global air travel I was left in limbo regarding university. Of course, I knew that I was not alone; many of my internationally educated peers were facing the same predicament—and all of us had to get to grips with remote learning. Eager to know how others were navigating this unprecedented college experience, I talked to four contemporaries, all in the same boat, about the impact of the pandemic on their studies, their coping mechanisms and their plans for the future.
Knit Happens For Chidchanok Sophonpanich
Recently graduated from high school in Connecticut in the US, Chidchanok Sophonpanich, or Noknoi, is at the beginning of her freshman year at Tufts University. The daughter of luxury property developer Prapavadee and insurance executive Chone Sophonpanich, Noknoi is studying for a bachelor’s degree in history and economics, hoping to one day pursue a career in the political arena.
Finishing up her last year of school and returning home for spring break in early March, the 18-year-old was looking forward to her next big step when the pandemic really got going. “I was unable to return to the States so I ended up graduating high school online,” she laments. “I felt a little sad about missing out on the tradition of it, but then I got to spend time with family and graduate with my grandparents, which I wouldn’t have been able to do had I been in America.”
Meaningful time with the family is the saving grace of the past few months for Noknoi. “Whenever I came home before, breaks always seemed short and rushed and I’d spend most of my time catching up with friends,” she says. “This time, I’ve been able to concentrate on my parents and brother. I’d forgotten how nice small moments are, simple things like having breakfast together as a family.”
To cope with the unprecedented times Noknoi kept herself busy by picking up tennis and completing a two-month internship at Vitamilk. She also occasionally volunteered at Chef Cares—an NGO dedicated to providing high-quality food boxes to essential workers and people in need. Now her focus is on getting to grips with remote university studies. “The summer was a learning curve for me,” she says. “The marketing internship with Vitamilk broadened my experience because I got to travel to the provinces promoting their products, but the transition when university classes began was tough because it demanded a completely new routine. The time difference has been really challenging—I’ve even ‘attended’ a class at two in the morning,” she laughs. “I’m having to learn to say no to dinner with friends and family because I can’t miss tutorials.”
Despite the uncertainties surrounding her academic schedule, Noknoi says staying optimistic has helped and that the support system in which older peers at Tufts help and encourage her in her studies has been a boon. “The pandemic has also given me a chance to better know myself. Things can change very quickly so it is important to be adaptable. You need an escape too and recently I have resorted to knitting as a form of relaxation.”
Thirith Chansiri And His Snack Attack
The eldest son of Thiraphong and Pannapa Chansiri, Thirith Chansiri is in the process of finishing his bachelor’s degree in marketing and economics at Babson University in the US, after which the entrepreneurial 21-year-old, who prefers to be called Chris, is looking forward to joining the family’s global seafood empire and growing the Cruff healthy snack food business he established in early 2020.
With his final year at university on hold because of Covid restrictions he says he is glad he spent the pre-pandemic period skiing and making the most of his time with his peers. He smiles, “But when the pandemic began to worsen, I was grateful to be able to get back to Thailand and join the family.” Keeping himself busy, he attends online school full-time and also sets aside part of his day to oversee the snack line. “It’s been challenging but manageable. Academically I’m doing well but being here feels a bit like being on holiday. I keep reminding myself that I have obligations and studies to complete. We have a lot of collaborative work at Babson,” he explains, “and just like me, my peers are scattered around the world in different time zones. It makes cooperating on projects together…interesting.”
Chris admits that this has been a great opportunity for him to further hone his organisational and time management skills, as well as the chance to re-connect with family. “I can’t remember when I’ve been home this long before. Usually when I come back to Bangkok I see my father infrequently because of his business obligations, but because of the pandemic he has been working from home more often. It’s great that we have been able to do a bit of bonding again.”
Though the pandemic has been a setback for most in some way, the ambitious young man is determined to take positives from it. “If anything, the Covid outbreak has shown me the power of technology and the impermanence of the world around us,” he muses. “That something on such a grand scale can happen in a blink of an eye is worrying, but it is encouraging to know that no matter what happens, we are still able to connect.”
Like many young adults, Chris is unsure about certain aspects of his future but he is driven to do what he loves. In the short term his goals are simple: “Get my degree. Get on a master’s course. Put more time into Cruff, establish myself in the family business. I’ll be busy for sure but it is important to have goals…and even more important today, the flexibility to achieve them.”
Rittida Umpujh Goes Off Plan
Twenty-year-old Rittida Umpujh has spent most of her young life in the UK. The daughter of leading businesswoman Achara Umpujh is in the middle of a bachelor’s degree in urban planning at University College London (UCL) and has aspirations to follow in her mother’s corporate footsteps when she graduates.
On the cusp of resuming her second-year studies in the spring of 2020, the increasingly dire Covid situation in the UK quickly put paid to her original plans. “I was just getting the hang of university life and beginning to enjoy myself when the virus arrived,” she laughs, but then adds soberly, “Seriously, everything happened so fast. One day there were 200 cases in London, then it was suddenly increasing by the thousands and my one thought was that I had to get home.”
Return Jaja, as she prefers, did and she says the transition to online learning posed no real difficulty, partly because her college was able to adapt to the pandemic so flexibly and partly because—unlike her contemporaries studying in the US—she didn’t have to deal with such a brutal time difference. “It’s only six or seven hours, so at the latest my classes finish around midnight local time. In fact, I rarely have a class beyond 6pm because UCL cleverly grouped students based on their geographical location. That way, those of us in similar time zones can learn together without having to completely readjust our routines.”
Though mostly smooth-sailing, Jaja admits there have been bumps and confusion along the way. “After UCL announced everything was becoming fully remote earlier this year, they cancelled all exams and our first term grades,” she says. “I was really disappointed because I’d been studying hard generally to up my grades. I also had to adapt to new technology and software, so it wasn’t a breeze.”
To better understand what her future might hold, the young lady completed a two-month internship with the family’s The Mall Group over the summer. “I worked in the marketing department assisting with the launch of our online platform,” she says. But as a self-described homebody and family girl, she has also used her time in Bangkok to relax, indulge in K-drama and spend time with her mother and brothers. “I love being home,” she grins. “This is the first time we’ve all been together in an age because we live in different parts of the world. Of course I look forward to returning to London, but until the situation there improves and a vaccine is widely available, I’m happy to be surrounded by family and enjoying home-cooked food while I can.”
Fah-Sai Punyashthiti's Late Late Classes
The youngest daughter of senior government lawyer Kanich and Sani Punyashthiti and granddaughter of former principal of Chitrada School, Thanpuying Angkab, Fah-Sai Punyashthiti is currently finishing her bachelor’s degree in global development at Cornell University in the US. A diligent and hardworking young woman, she planned to return to the Ithaca campus in New York in good time for the start of the new term but was thwarted by Covid. “I love my university,” she smiles. “I am vice president of the Student Union Board and I write for the student publication, so not being able to return interrupted not only my academics but also much else about my university life,” the 21-year-old says.
Returning to Bangkok in mid-March, she occupied herself with an internship at Lakeshore Capital and maintained an active social life between her rigorous studies. “Attending classes online during the evenings has been demanding, but I enjoy it because I have free time in the day,” she says. “I can focus on my family, see friends and also have time to myself, which is important for my well-being right now.”
Many of Fah-Sai’s online sessions are mandatory tutorials and lectures. “The timing of these classes has been difficult with the last in the day sometimes dragging on to 4am local time. So, I have become a night owl,” she laughs. To mitigate the challenges she has found a more conventional approach to keep up with her academics. “I use Google Calendar to plan out my days,” she explains, adding that knowing one’s self and one’s study habits is a key factor to establishing a workable routine. “For example, I work best with another person so I’m currently studying with a close friend who also attends university in the US.”
As with our other interviewees, this enforced break at home is the longest period Fah-Sai has spent with her family in a while. “It’s good to be back because my father and grandma have both recently retired,” she says. The family has used their time together to visit local resorts in Thailand, including two they have a business interest in. “It has been a wonderful learning experience since my older sister Pangjee, who is a designer, and I might be managing them one day,” she laughs. “It was great to get some first-hand insight on how things are run.”
That said, Fah-Sai confesses that the pandemic has made her re-think some of her post-graduation plans. “Initially I was hoping to work abroad but lately I have been reconsidering. I know a Covid vaccine is on the horizon but the uncertainties of the current situation, particularly in the US and UK, have led me to think that the next few years might be better spent pursuing a master’s degree in policy or international development. I might even decide to follow my father into law.”
Her comments echo an encouraging theme among all four interviewees—that of maintaining an optimistic mindset. Despite the set-backs and confusion caused by the pandemic, the education these young people are so determined to achieve will give them something the pandemic has sadly shown to be missing in so many lives: the privilege of choice. For Noknoi, Chris, Jaja, Fah-Sai and many others like them, the future—however it may look—is still theirs for the shaping.
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