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Hong Kong Protests & Coronavirus - An MBA against all odds with Prateek Pant

Hong Kong. Pearl of the Orient. The Fragrant Harbour. Asia’s World City. Whatever you may know it as. For our author today, it was the dream destination to get his MBA from. An international student of the prestigious ‘Chinese University of Hong Kong’, Prateek wanted to build his career in the Asia-Pacific region.

However, a series of inevitable and unpredictable events, that will undoubtedly be written about in our history books, changed the education and experience of an International MBA student there.

We have Prateek Pant, a recent MBA graduate and someone who clearly makes the best of any situation. He is the team leader in the research group sponsored by Lane Crawford Joyce Group, and has worked as a marketing manager in Bira91 beverages and Associate Account Manager in Text100.

Scroll down to read how infamous protests topped by a global pandemic shaped his journey.

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Hi there!

Let me start off by saying that this is not just my story. It is a small part in a multitude of encounters shared by hundreds of Indians and other international students.

Any MBA student, or rather any student, graduating in 2020, is going through the same experience of remote learning and adapting to a virtual medium. However, I believe I add a unique perspective to this as I am about to graduate from perhaps, one of the earliest locations where the pandemic caused a lockdown – Hong Kong.

I’m an MBA student from the prestigious Chinese University of Hong Kong in September 2020, a highly respected and coveted business school for students who want to build a lucrative career in the Asia Pacific region.

I joined a batch of 50 last year and was quickly thrust into the study and networking mode, as is the case with most business schools. If you have never been to Hong Kong, it is a unique tapestry of concrete jungle and beautiful landscapes woven with a hard-working lifestyle. From camping to hiking, to late night college work and celebrations, Hong Kong was shaping up to match the hype.

However, at the same time, this city known as the gateway to east - a financial hub - was going through its own cultural and political transformation ignited by the now infamous protests of 2019. As an international student, I couldn’t comment on this debate and was focused on my own path. But as the months progressed, there was a dramatic shift in our reality. The protests were gaining momentum and so was the heart-breaking violence that ensued, our days spent away from the city were increasing.

The sprawling campus of CUHK stands in a corner of Hong Kong, distanced from the heart of the city, thereby creating a sense of safety bubble for us as students. The first-time reality hit us hard was when the protests happened in our vicinity. That said, the campus was safe, and we remained oblivious.

I vividly remember the day when protests began on campus. It was supposed to be a special day – some of us were going to present a business case at an esteemed consulting firm. It was probably around 9 am when messages started pouring in our official chat that the student protestors and police were at a standoff within campus, on the exact path that we take to go to our college. Naturally, we were asked to stay indoors, and we got the day off. At that point, I assumed that we would resume the next day.

To give you a bit of insight, before this, the protests were largely a day/night long activity before shifting to another location. There was no precedent for what followed.

Day 2 was the same, we continued to stay locked indoors. The world was starting to tune into the protests that were happening a few steps from us. Family and friends were calling us frantically, reacting to the news.

There was a sense of panic that was starting to settle in amongst the hostel residents, when we were sent instant ramen packets via alternate routes since transportation had been locked down. As the day progressed, most of us gathered in the lounge discussing the events and watching as police sirens zipped by and students gathered to make their stand.

That night was a terrifying roller coaster of emotions and events, like nothing I had ever seen.

● That night, the vehicles outside did not stop their loud sirens

● That night, a friend had an emotional breakdown and rightfully so

● That night, most of us did not sleep and just spent time together in the lounge. The alcohol was not helping anymore

● That night, we saw students scouting outside our hostel searching for any signs that might hurt their stand

● That night, the news reports about the protests seemed to never end

I cannot stress this enough, most of us were NOT worried about being targeted or harmed directly. No, this was a concern of being caught in the middle, especially as international students and with no end in sight to the standoff.

By day 3, many of local students had evacuated while the rest of us had to figure our way out. My first intention was to stay put, within closed doors and get through it. But as the day ended, it started to become clear that all routes including the small pathways were going to be blocked.

Due to ongoing chaos in university, while our college offered us an off-campus location to stay for safe harbor, we remained uncertain about our next steps since it wasn’t clear where this was heading. Moreover, other universities like PolyU were having the same movement and we were beginning to understand the depth of this situation.

We chose to leave that night through one of the small back exits.We learnt later that this exit was blocked soon after. As we said our goodbyes to some dear friends including some exchange students with whom we had formed a strong bond, we knew that we would not be meeting a number of these friends in the next term.

It was a long night at the airport since the only flights available were the next morning. As we sat perched with our emergency luggage (packed in a hurry), we saw what the entire expanse of Indian students was pouring in from all over Hong Kong taking the same flights as us. It was a weirdly comforting sensation to know that there were many going through the same experience in their own way.

Some of us returned to Hong Kong in December 2019, the rest in January 2020. It was going to be a fresh start. The protests were behind us and we had a new year of opportunities and experiences to catch up on.

The Fresh Start

Covid-19 hit Hong Kong in full force towards the end of January, just when some of us had returned from a 5-day networking trip to Singapore. Once again, we were asked to isolate ourselves but the threat of an unknown virus that supposedly is contagious by touch did not scare us then. We weren’t really prepared for the impact it would have on all of us yet again. Starting in February 2020, we said our second goodbyes in 3 months and left for India.

In March 2020, India went into lockdown and I (along with many others) had spent almost the entirety of 2020 on zoom sessions and zoom ‘drink parties’

On 24th July 2020, I submitted my final assignment for the school and to my surprise, my emotions were neither sadness nor hurt. Rather, I felt proud of what I had accomplished despite these circumstances. I managed to receive an additional scholarship from my college, earned a good GPA record, and remotely managed my Hong Kong life with respect to things such as hostel etc.

I took on a business project with a real client and a student team across different time zones and did a good job. I even hosted, led and organized a digital series of lectures to drive conversations around sustainability, a commitment that was originally for an on-ground event last year.

As MBA students, it is our tendency to focus on the final job offers and monetary gain/loss, and we often ignore the subtle changes that we might have gone through.

Sure, my experience is not the same as other years but that’s what makes me, and my batch stand out. We have learnt things that a typical MBA would never teach – How to deal with extreme conditions, extreme emotions, how to deal with failure and even damaging costs. How I need to be focused on the solution because the problems never stop coming as well. I’ve also learnt how to deal with the challenge of solitude. I haven’t been able to see a single friend in person since February 2020 and despite that I still continue to chase most days with all the dedication that I can muster. There are many goodbyes, many friends, many parties which were left unfulfilled and I hope to build those memories in the future, not worry about the past.

While this might not be the ideal year for anyone, I’m still ending my course carrying a ton of positive lessons, even though, at times, they look bleak compared to the negatives.

It has given me strength and fortitude to know that I can be successful wherever I go and am extremely proud of the resilience shown by all my classmates.

If you are a student who is reading this and going through the same thing, I’m not going to share some motivational spiel about overcoming struggles. All I’d like to say is that you’ve gone through a lot so, give yourself a break and take a step back. You’re already stronger in will than most graduates going through a typical program.

We are all in this together.



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