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Learning in a pandemic

BSc International Relations graduate and scholarship winner Jonah Foong talks about how his experience of studying for a master's at LSE was infinitely more rewarding than he could have hoped.

Written by Jonah Foong |

Jonah Foong pictured in Moldova
"To their credit, my professors at LSE made online learning every bit as rewarding."

Learning in a pandemic year presents challenges. Contact time with academics is limited. Lectures are also prerecorded, seminars socially distanced, and facilities closed.

For myself, grappling with these challenges began well before I even stepped on a plane. 

If the objective of grad school is not just to learn but also to connect, then wouldn’t pursuing a master’s in a pandemic year be unproductive? Yet, as a friend so wisely put it to me, is it not better to grab opportunities when they arise, than wait for better circumstances that may never arrive? After all, who can predict the end of a pandemic? 

I rehearsed multiple scenarios in my head. Are you prepared for the eventuality of another lockdown? Check. What about the social restrictions? Check. After what seemed like endless deliberating, I made the calculated risk of quitting a stable paying job in the middle of a pandemic to pursue a master's which, I hoped, would propel me towards a career in the development sector. 

I arrived in September 2020 to the typical sight of an overcast and rainswept London. Amid this gloom, the leaves began to dye orange and trees bared their branches in the first signs of fall. It was a foreign but beautiful sight, one I had only seen in pictures. 

Subsequent weeks revealed the stark realities of hybrid learning. Friendships did not come by as easily. For one, the lack of lectures presented greater obstacles to social interaction than I anticipated. It is unsurprising when I consider the number of times I've made friends at the back of lecture halls with a simple "hey mate can I borrow your pen?", or "sorry is this seat taken?".

Seminars took place in person, but the social distancing nature gave it an impersonal touch. Not being able to lean over during class and share a private joke with someone beside you. Not being able to see someone flash a smile, so often hidden behind a piece of cloth on campus. The problem was not a lack of interaction, but the lack of organic interaction. After months starved of interaction in a locked down world, we were awkward creatures surveying a world once familiar yet alien all the same.

Some of my classmates were mid-career professionals - doctors, NGO workers, entrepreneurs - learning to apply development policy lessons to their various fields.

These challenges are trivial to the uninitiated but hauntingly familiar to any student in the last academic year. You end up adapting, and everyone has their own way of going about this. Before, I never had much patience for texting. In London, I found myself emailing classmates and creating group chats on WhatsApp, organising meet ups, checking in with people with the odd text. The introvert in me felt weary, but needs must.

To their credit, my professors at LSE made online learning every bit as rewarding. The standard of instruction was evident even through crackling earphones and a shoddy connection. Most impressive I found was their knack for finding the right answer even if one asked a wrong or poorly phrased question, an oft-overlooked skill among educators.

The first-rate learning environment also helped. I found students at LSE to be sharp. They asked insightful questions and were adept at intuiting concepts and reformulating them in clear terms. They were also changemakers. Some of my classmates were mid-career professionals - doctors, NGO workers, entrepreneurs - learning to apply development policy lessons to their various fields. Many others were like myself, with little skin in the game but a desire nonetheless to serve the social good.

For a whole semester we learned to grapple with this strange hybrid world. Many would argue that our experience was suboptimal in that online and social distanced learning defeats the purpose of grad school. To some extent this was true: we did not have the large (in-person) networking events or career fairs typical of most grad school programmes. But as I learned, it can also give rise to immense opportunities.

I saw this as an opportunity to take my learning beyond the classroom.

When lockdown was reimposed at the end of December, the school decided to move the remaining semesters completely online. It was the worst anyone feared. Most students either stayed in London or went home, but I saw this as an opportunity to take my learning beyond the classroom. To my mind, the best kind of development is done closest to its beneficiaries. As a Development Studies student, I felt learning was no exception. After piecing together travel routes and complicated covid protocols, I packed my bags and headed east for Moldova.

Moldova is a small, developing post-Soviet country sandwiched between its larger neighbours Ukraine and Romania. Here I continued my lessons online. Virtually, we learned about institutional weakness and the perils of market-led development. In Moldova I saw it firsthand. In the capital Chișinău, wealth inequality is most evident on the roads: throngs of Porsches line the roads beside beat up Ladas. Youth unemployment and brain drain were rampant issues among many others. How to solve them? I had no answers, but all the while my time at LSE provided me useful foil to think about these issues.

In April I moved yet again, this time to Armenia. This was a country gripped by the spectre of war. Only months earlier, Russian intervention brought an end to the second Nagorno-Karabakh war that left thousands of troops dead. The mood in Yerevan was politically tense but tempered by a festiveness peculiar to Armenians in general. Themes of nationalism, patriotism, and regionalism were recurrent in conversations. We learned this in school, now I saw this in person. Again, I had no answer to the question of development, but it did get me thinking, and isn't that always the best place to start?

There is of course a lot more to my travels that I’ve left out, but suffice to say my time at LSE has been atypical. A year ago I made the decision to leave a stable job amid a pandemic. I began my master's wanting to learn about development. This I did, in ways infinitely more rewarding than I could have hoped.

I've been immensely fortunate to have been able to travel while receiving a first-rate education, something impossible in most years.

In October I start a new job in Germany at the Berlin Social Science Center, or WZB for short. As a predoctoral research fellow I will assist with ongoing projects in sub-Saharan Africa, where we conduct randomised field experiments to test social policy interventions. Does providing bicycles to school going girls in Zambia improve educational outcomes? Will the presence of female role models in Indian media change gender norms and attitudes? Do consultative meetings in Uganda increase trust and pro-social inclinations? These are the types of questions my team and I will attempt to answer.

On the whole it's been a productive year. I've been immensely fortunate to have been able to travel while receiving a first-rate education, something impossible in most years. Along the way I've gained perspectives that are important to my work and being. I’m looking forward to Berlin. I know not what I’ll find, but as I’ve learned in the past year, what one least expects sometimes yields the greatest dividends.

Jonah Foong achieved a BSc International Relations (First Class Honours) in 2019 while studying for the University of London programme at SIM. He obtained a full scholarship to pursue further studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) in 2020. We congratulate Jonah on the LSE award of MSc Development Studies (Applied Development Economics) with Distinction in 2021.