I thought I would structure my first post as a primer to Yale-NUS, hopefully to give some context on where I will be going to school for this upcoming semester. Yale-NUS is liberal arts college that was founded as a partnership between Yale University and the National University of Singapore in 2013. This means that all of the current seniors here will be the first graduating class. It is also very, very small with only about 800 students. People here instantly know that I am an exchange student because in such a close community, they recognize everyone except, apparently, me. I’ve been getting a few stares in the elevator—or lift, as it is called here—as people try to place where I’ve come from.
All students are divided into one of three residential colleges (RCs): Saga, Elm and Cendana, each of which are named after trees. Something interesting is that many staff members and faculty live in the residential colleges, so it is not uncommon to see them in the dining halls or in the elevators. Each RC has its own dining hall, residential towers, and common areas, which is an interesting change from eating in Val. I tried to explain the nuances between the front room, back room, and drinks room to a new friend here and found that some parts of Amherst are too weird and particular to translate well. I think it also might be a hard concept to understand because there seem to be fewer social divisions here. There is no athlete/non-athlete divide. Recruiting for sports is very confusing to most students I’ve talked to. I tried to explain Jenkins, but I’m pretty sure my suitemates here just think Amherst has very bad hygienic and social standards.
There are sports here and all students are encouraged to participate. Most would be unfamiliar to students at Amherst. There is basketball and touch rugby, but also tchoukball, badminton, floorball and netball. I’ve heard there are also e-games, which I think is essentially competitive FIFA, and mind-games like chess. We play against other colleges within the National University of Singapore, which is conveniently located adjacent to Yale-NUS’s campus. It’s a bit like Amherst’s proximity to UMass, with some of the same stereotypes that the students at Yale-NUS are elitist or removed from their peers down the road. Liberal arts are a relatively new and uncommon concept within Singapore, which makes the curriculum and structure of Yale-NUS a bit of an educational outlier. Even the idea of a residential college is unusual, especially for Singaporeans who are accustomed to going home on the weekends. Singapore is about the size of half of Long Island, so traveling home is not as crazy as you might think.
Another interesting note about Yale-NUS is that they have a common curriculum, which all students must take in their first two years of study. If you thought the workload at Amherst was intense, Yale-NUS is on a completely different level. Professors assigned me a hundred pages of reading before the first class of the semester even started. All of my courses, called modules here, have less than twenty students and all are rigorously discussion based, meaning that completing the readings and participating in class are mandatory—yes, actually mandatory. I have found this to be both wonderful and terribly challenging. It is hard not to feel some level of imposter syndrome. The creeping sense that I’m not prepared or smart enough to contribute meaningfully appears more often than I would like. On the other hand, being in a classroom with such engaged and intellectually curious peers lends itself to really interesting discussions.
I am realizing that so much of how I see the world is incredibly U.S.-centric. I suppose that is a bit of a study-abroad cliché: American students venturing to different countries and realizing that their home is not, in fact, the center of the world. However, home does have dessert and cheese and Rubinoff. This is no joke. Alcohol is incredibly expensive here. I had a great time explaining Keystone Light to a fellow student and watching him marvel at its price and abundance. The cheese here is a bit iffy, as is the availability of sweet foods. I was promised dessert twice a week in the dining hall, but so far it has yet to materialize, and I’m beginning to doubt that it ever will.
In all seriousness, it has been a wonderful and eye-opening experience to not only begin learning about Singaporean culture, but also the home countries of the many international students I have met. 40% of the students here are actually international, and only about 10% are from the United States. I am in a unique position now of being a member of a cultural minority, but for the first time in my life, a member of a racial majority. I grew up in a town that was 90% white and while going to Amherst presented a much greater range of diversity, I am realizing now that it is its own kind of self-contained world. This blog is called “Beyond the Bubble,” after all.
I find myself reaching for non-U.S. based examples to share in class and all too frequently coming up short. It has been an interesting and sad realization to understand how little I actually know about the cultures and histories of other areas of the world. I am sorry that it took me twenty years to realize that hookup culture, binge drinking, and the Kardashians are the exceptions and not the norm. If I had advice for students still at Amherst, it would be to take classes that focus on international perspectives and ideas. Learn as much as you can about the world outside of your culture and community. Befriend students who are different from you and listen if they are willing to tell you about their lives.