story | Megan Chua, Guest Contributor
photo | University College Freiburg Website

On the day I arrived in Freiburg and saw that the main office was just one corridor in the Alte Universität building, I was confronted with a very different conception of a liberal arts college from the one I had known in Singapore. This one corridor in University College Freiburg (UCF) was where I spent the academic portions of my semester abroad. Walking up the winding staircase on my first day to find that the only student-oriented spaces were two classrooms, one reading room and one common room, was a strange feeling. I had previously thought that all liberal arts colleges were these American-style, heavily funded institutions with generous facilities. In that moment, my definition of a liberal arts college was challenged not just ideologically but tangibly as well.

After my first week, it occurred to me that one of the biggest differences between UCF and Yale-NUS College was the student lifestyle. I was envious at first of how the UCF student always seemed to be having coffee breaks on the lawn, laughing and soaking in the sun. I remember being asked to lead a creative writing workshop at the UCF Arts Festival. When I found out that the “festival” just meant painting a wall in the common room and lazing around, it felt like student life at UCF was cruising at 60 kilometers per hour while at Yale-NUS it was speeding in a Lamborghini at 300 kilometers per hour.

A German tertiary education is free, and perhaps being able to cruise at 60 kilometres is an effect of that. Because of this, there is less pressure to perform or to “make the most” out of the fee you are paying. I come from a culture that, unlike Germany, does not see higher education as a right but more of a privilege. As such, certain luxuries, facilities, and support mechanisms are in place because we are willing and have to pay a significant amount for it. We also have a Centre for International and Professional Experience (CIPE) office that handles our external study opportunities and internships, and we are also given more opportunities to apply for fellowships and Learning Across Boundaries (LABs).

On the other hand, at Yale-NUS we work and live in a competitive, high-pressure environment where students are at times worked into overdrive or handle many commitments at once, and feel pressured to graduate and pay back their debts. Studying at UCF, I have seen that for a country that understands higher education as a basic human right rather than a luxury, students are less pressured to complete their degrees on time and this academic climate may make them less compelled to thrive academically and professionally.  

It is perhaps partly because of the fees we pay that Yale-NUS that students can expect more, and are given more. While money is not the only motivating factor in taking ownership of your studies, it can be a very big one. Certainly, it might seem dismal that money is the only thing that pushes a student to attend classes.  But the fact that my tuition fees are borne by me and not the state or my parents (given that I plan to pay back my debts) means that I have to take ownership, responsibility and accountability for my own education. However, so do the administrators of the school, and those who govern and lead my institution.  The amount of say that we have for changing the most minute things from timetabling issues to dining hall food, is something that is only possible in systems in which the administration is paid to view their service to students as an obligation as in Yale-NUS, rather than as a chore as in UCF.

These initial differences began to dilute over time. I began to notice similarities between both institutions as the semester gained momentum. The absence of a residential campus environment, such as the one I know in Singapore, does not dampen the motivation of a UCF student. The UCF student possesses an intellectual curiosity and tenacity that reminded me of my fellow classmates back home. At UCF, the hunger for learning translates to being vocal in class, discussions, and collaborations. This was not what I expected to see given the preconditions of their education.

I realised that there is a clear distinction between a liberal arts education in Germany and the more traditional model. A liberal arts education in Germany manifests itself in the willingness to understand a different perspective and to allow oneself to be challenged. It thrives on continual assessments and group projects, which is a different model of education that most standard and traditional German universities employ. The latter is one where lectures are impersonal and grades are determined by one big final exam. It appeared to me that UCF, the only undergraduate liberal arts programme conducted in English in Germany and the first of its kind, seems to be transforming the conventional, robotic way of learning for the better. With the rigor that a liberal arts education provides, liberal arts is doing something beneficial for its students, both in Germany and Singapore.

At the end of my exchange semester, I realized how much I had taken Yale-NUS’sclimate of possibility for granted. Author and speaker Sir Ken Robinson once said, “[by creating a climate of possibility] people will rise to it and achieve things that you completely did not anticipate and could not have expected.” It seems that with the emphasis of self-resilience and self-reliance inherent in German culture, this climate of possibility, is perhaps not as big a factor in fostering an ownership of their education as it is here. Theirs is a different kind of ownership, an ownership of a healthy life, one that is rooted in the subtle and daily   balancing of university work and enjoying a good life being young and free.

Being at UCF has reminded me of what I am most grateful for at YNC—that we live and work in an environment where the hunger for action and improvement is a prerequisite to inspiring change and that making a difference is not hindered by a system and environment that stifles.

I am inclined to think that inside most of us lies a hunger to do something that matters, that is why we are at university in the first place, and above all, at institutions where we can be part of pioneering a legacy. When we talk about the similarities of  liberal arts institutions, both Yale-NUS and UCF provide a rigorous, multi-disciplinary education that feeds our hunger for learning. Students at both institutions might have different approaches to ownership and accountability, and the institutions themselves might have different student-support practices but there are various aspects of each institution that both can learn from each other.

Only when we are in an environment that nurtures, can we truly talk about making a difference and being citizens of the world.


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