Feature Stories


Journey of Futurepreneur: International Students’ Life in the ‘New Normal’

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, travel has slowed worldwide, and students have been struggling to decide whether to come to campus or stay at home with online classes. Those who chose to return to Hong Kong, they found their on-campus experience rewarding and felt that the University has handled the pandemic well.  

Zeynep Aydin, a second-year Economics student from Turkey, decided to come to campus for her Spring semester in early 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic just started. “It was a moment when we didn’t know anything and what to expect, and my family was supportive of my decisions. So, I decided to come to Hong Kong rather than stay in Turkey, even though Turkey had no cases at the time. I thought life here, even if stuck on campus, would be better for my future and dreams and aspirations.” With this in mind, she came to campus to learn and experience as much as she can under the given circumstances, even though classes would be online.  

Kenneth Tsai, a second-year Global Business student from Taiwan, and his family faced a similar decision when he needed to come back in late May for a physical internship over the summer. Initially, his family was worried about the situation, especially during the third wave in Hong Kong, but they supported his choice to come to campus and for this good learning opportunity. He stayed over the winter semester and had Christmas dinner and activities with other friends also staying over. 

Life Under the ‘New Normal’ is Filled with Friendship, Internship and Study

With fewer people on-campus and facilities closed at times, life in the ‘new normal’ meant more time on-campus with those living in the dorms.  

Zeynep noted she and her peers spent a lot of time in their rooms, but felt it was a peaceful time to reflect and decide what one really wanted to do in life. “I was really fortunate to be in a university situation where you were supported by the people around us at the time. Being in a sort of ‘bubble’ on campus during the peaks [of the pandemic] really gave us the opportunity to reflect on life.” Thus, when the pandemic situation got better in Hong Kong, they were all enthusiastic and motivated to do the things they planned to do during their isolation periods. “It’s all about the mindset!” Zeynep says.  (Photo on the left: Zeynep and her friends in the hall.)

A normal day for Kenneth in this ‘new normal’ looks similar to the pre-COVID era – going to class, studying and working in coffee shops, and cooking dinner at his hall or eating out. With the mixed-mode classes and remote internship, however, Kenneth takes advantage of the time flexibility to explore HK with friends. “I kind of love it because my friends and I can plan our hangouts much more flexibly.”

Outside the classroom, Kenneth and Zeynep are actively involved in extracurriculars despite the COVID-19 restrictions.

Kenneth is involved in the International Consulting Club (ICC) and building up an informal student group HKUST’s Breakfast Club. So far, the Club hosted three gatherings before the fourth wave, where students mingled over breakfast and meet new people at one of the on-campus catering outlets. At present, the Club is thinking about what else they could offer to the HKUST community, including online events. “The thing about online social events is that we may need to give people an extra push to talk to each other like giving them starter topics. But we’ll see.” 

With regards to his internship, Kenneth said working at the physical office was a good social experience to engage with and grow closer to fellow interns, but moving the internship online also had its perks. “With online internships, you have more flexibility, as you have less work per increment of time because it’s up to you when you work on it as long as you meet the deadlines, and you can work anywhere, such as in coffee shops around the city.”  (Photo on the right: Kenneth and his friend working in a Mexican restaurant.)

Business Doesn't Stop In Hong Kong

As the founder of two startups and an intern working at various companies and HKUST Vibes+, Zeynep was often going for business meetings for her startups or companies she was working for, going out with her friends to explore the city when she had time.  

One of her start-ups, Coinesko, creates an ecosystem for people to gain rewards by sustainable living. However, due to the pandemic, some of the plans to expand the project were constrained. “I felt like I was stuck most of the time. Whenever I wanted to move forward with an idea I thought would be good, I had to change it so much and tune down the whole project.”  

Despite the pandemic, Zeynep felt that HKUST supported her in her startups through the Entrepreneurship Centre’s mentorship, resources and encouragement for entrepreneurs, and through the faculty. “Whenever I reached out to a professor, they spared out time and space and resources for me. Whoever I reached out to at UST, I was able to get a tremendous amount of help.” In the future, she hopes to put more into her businesses and start her career early, being both a good student and businessperson at the same time. Her educational startup, School of Champions, was more affected by the pandemic, with the cancellation of all conferences during the third wave for the safety of the children she worked with. Despite having to go out of her way to continue with the startup, Zeynep is persistent in her efforts. “2020 was the year when we got challenged and stopped a lot by the current circumstances. But we also learned so much and this would also benefit both of my start-ups in the long-run.” 

She noted that although they can’t do everything they wanted to, business doesn’t stop in Hong Kong, and advised those thinking about starting a business, in Hong Kong or elsewhere, to just try and see what it’s like to be an entrepreneur.” If there’s a good idea you’re passionate about, go and try it out! You could bring about vital change to society, and both you and society could benefit. Don’t be afraid, if it fails just try again.” 

Online Learning Opens New Opportunities

Both Zeynep and Kenneth felt quite safe in Hong Kong, as the government and the people were generally responsible about taking hygiene and safety precautions and making adjustments so that life can continue under the ‘new normal’. 

When asked about how they felt the University handled coronavirus safety and hygiene amidst the pandemic, Kenneth felt HKUST was doing great, “There are temperature checks everywhere, and they are very strict about social distancing in campus food outlets.” Zeynep agreed, saying that she felt relatively stress-free living as an international student on-campus

With regards to handling online learning, they felt the University has handled online learning well. Compared to other universities and the remarks from peers and faculty from universities around the world, Zeynep felt HKUST is doing excellently. “What I like about HKUST’s approach to online learning is that they’re open to feedback. So far, every piece of feedback I’d given had been considered, and many of them were implemented for our benefit.” She aims to make the best of the practical aspects of the mobility and flexibility online learning offers to balance her work and study life.  

Zeynep also remarked that the online mode also allowed for different ways to enrich learning. In a leadership training camp over the summer, they were able to bring in people and professionals from around the world to speak, which brought a different element to enrich the camp. As for her work with HKUST Vibes+, she noted the online content built a unique sense of community and involvement between people both in and out of Hong Kong. “It’s a new world. Even after the coronavirus pandemic is over, we’d have to continue like this, at least for a while.” 

Should International Students Come to Campus for Mixed-mode Class?

When the pandemic situation got better in mid-October of 2020, the University introduced mixed-mode lessons for smaller classes. Although it was a new setup, everyone quickly got used to it, and the professors and lecturers learned quickly and knew what to do, Kenneth said.

With regards to advice for students thinking about whether to come to Hong Kong for mixed-mode classes, both Kenneth and Zeynep encouraged students to weigh the pros and cons, including the traveling costs, what they hope to experience, and what they plan to do.

“Mixed-mode is great – once you’re physically in HK you can easily have a social life!” Kenneth exclaims. He advises students to make the most of the flexibility with mixed mode learning, as you will learn as much as you intend to while taking your time to explore what Hong Kong has to offer. “You could even go to the beach and attend class from there!” he laughs. Zeynep agrees, adding, “Online learning in your home country can also be utilized in the most beautiful way possible if there are other things you want to do in your home country. If you want to come to Hong Kong, it’s safe, but if you’re at home, you’re not missing out on a lot either!” 

“For going to the classroom, there’re not many people, so you do get a bit of extra attention. But even if you choose to continue attending class online, you also feel noticed, so there is a good balance and division of attention on the part of the lecturer.” Kenneth also noted that mixed-mode meant more space to engage with others there, and sort of creates a self-selection process, for those who wish to engage with others will go to the classroom for class. 

But what if the coming semesters would be conducted fully online as in the spring semester of 2020? “Come to campus! University is not just about academics, but also includes interpersonal interactions and experiences!” Kenneth advised. Zeynep agrees, saying it is a personal decision. “If you want to discover and enjoy Hong Kong, create a business here, or learn more about Hong Kong, I definitely suggest coming here. It has its hardships – it might be hard being alone and slightly isolated here. It might be a challenge for a social person, but it might be a good opportunity to retreat and work harder. But wherever you are, you can always make the best of that.” 

(Left: Kenny and his friends hiked up to Razor Hill for the sunrise! Right: Zeynep and her buddies enjoying the vibe of the city despite epidemic!)