Return student mobilities: disoriented bodies, vector control, and geopolitical borders

Presenter/Author and Affiliations:
Yi’En Cheng, National University of Singapore


Scholarship on international student mobility has focused on student flows from countries of origin to arrival cities and, to a lesser extent, post-study destinations. This forward-moving directionality of student flow is often imagined and captured by terms such as “going”, “staying” or “departing”. At the same time, extant discussion on students’ return mobilities tends to fix these mobile bodies into a reversal of student flow from study destinations to home countries (i.e. student returnees). This conceptualisation of international student mobility as linear and uni-directional belies the multiple and complex experiences of internationally mobile students characterised by discontinuity, interruption, and uncertainty. The COVID-19 has amplified the emotional, ideological and political dimensions of return mobilities and, as such, offers an opportunity to theorise international student mobility through the lens of “return”. Drawing from materials including news and media reports, blog entries are written by youths with disrupted study abroad plans, and extended conversations with international students, this paper reflects upon two pronounced moments of “return” during the pandemic when students were recalled from and subsequently wooed back to overseas universities. First, I consider the embodied contexts of international students’ return journeys through the lens of disorientation to underline the messy and temporal realities of student mobilities. Second, we discuss how returning students are being subject to vector control which has emerged as a new form of contagion-migration management. Third, I examine how international students are being positioned at the forefront of geopolitics where their returning bodies are being labelled and manoeuvred by governments to enact borders and boundaries. By recasting student mobilities through these diverse, tentative, and politicised contexts of return, I extend the discussion about international student mobility beyond its present image as a linear trajectory and emphasise emergent situations, flows, and experiences of return among mobile students.

About Author

Yi’En Cheng

Affiliation/s: Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore
Email: yien.cheng@nus.edu.sg

Yi’En Cheng is Research Fellow in the Asian Migration cluster at Asia Research Institute (ARI). His research interests lie in the intersection across education, youth, and mobilities in Asian cities. He is currently researching how international student mobilities in Asia are reconfigured through the Belt and Road Initiative and the Covid-19 pandemic. He is guest editor of Special Issues Geographies of Citizenship in Higher Education in Area (2019), and Mobile Aspirations? Youth Im/mobilities in the Asia-Pacific in Journal of Intercultural Studies (2018). His forthcoming edited volume (with Sonia Lam-Knott) Youth Politics in Urban Asia will be published by Routledge in February 2021. More information: https://chengyien.wordpress.com/

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