Why Go to College?
story | Kei Franklin ’17
photo | Public Affairs
Four years ago, I sat on the porch of a wooden cabin in eZulwini, Swaziland, and contemplated whether I should go to college. Evening light danced through the lime trees, monkeys raced across the tin roof, their tiny feet hammering like thunder. The scrumptious smell of peanut curry, and the tune of Money for Nothing wafted out the door from the kitchen where my partner was cooking dinner. I was content. I had a house, a stable relationship, two tabby kittens, and a job that felt meaningful enough. Why upset all of this and go to college? The answer wasn’t obvious, and I spent a lot of time thinking about what going to college would give me that I didn’t already have.
Before college, I had barely begun to unpack the Second Wave Feminist idea that the personal is political. I saw myself as an agent of change, but had not had the opportunity nor resources to truly unpack what that meant. I had not engaged deeply with the idea that I could contribute to society beyond my role as a consumer. Only through engaging with the political dimensions of my identity—through the Common Curriculum, LABs, workshops, and conversations with many of you—was I able to understand my role as a citizen, with an ability and responsibility to actively engage in conversations about broad and complex social concerns. I am deeply grateful for the serendipity that led me to discover Yale-NUS College. If it weren’t for the unique chance to be part of the inaugural class, I might never have gone to college and learned about my role as a citizen, or the potential for knowledge to effect social change.
During the first two years of college, I spent most of my time looking inward—concerned with building the friendships, community, core values, organizations, and traditions that would define Yale-NUS. Like many of you, I wanted to help create something new: a liberal arts school that would prioritize the seminal teachings of both “East” and “West,” be radically committed to diversity and inclusion, and innovate novel pedagogical approaches. It wasn’t until the beginning of my third year that I began to be more realistic about what Yale-NUS could be, and think seriously about the role that I, or Yale-NUS, could play in the greater world.
As compared to the founding years of Yale-NUS, there is now much less to do in terms of immediate school-building. We have student organizations, a gorgeous campus, and systems for communicating with faculty and administration. I hope that, with this new internal stability, we might be able to redirect our focus outward to issues that concern our most immediate community: Singapore.
As students at Yale-NUS College, we are immensely privileged. We have access to outstanding facilities, learn from world-class faculty, get highly subsidized opportunities to study overseas, and get support for pretty much whatever we want. I have come to believe that this exceptional privilege gives us an equal responsibility to serve others: our families, our communities, our nations, the world. An education like ours means that we need to do more than simply give back what we were given. We need to question what giving back means, what education means, what progress means, what service means. We need to direct our attention, intellect, and time towards examining the world as it is and then exercise our creativity and empathy in order to reimagine how it could be. Then we need to work—collaboratively, generously, and tirelessly—to make that reimagined world a reality.
Some folks might disagree with me, arguing that a Yale-NUS education does not necessitate any great responsibility, or that we would be arrogant or naive to think that our dreams can make any meaningful impact. I agree that if our imaginations of a new and better world remain in the dream-realm, they are for naught. It is only when theory is applied to practice, when hypotheses are tested, when informed action is taken, that we can begin to truly serve our communities and effect meaningful change.
During my semester abroad in Uttarakhand, India, I encountered firsthand the concept of praxis—or the application of theory into practice. I was inspired by people who seemed to constantly be finding ways to apply their knowledge and expertise to serving others. One man used his background in chemical engineering and his knowledge of local religions to implement a highly successful waste management program in Nainital, India. One woman used her expertise in biotechnology to lead an eco-feminist campaign against Monsanto, and started a centre to save indigenous seeds. These folks and others encouraged me to reexamine why I chose to go to college and whether I was making best use of the knowledge and resources available to me.
This past year, Yale-NUS has seen more instances of student activism than ever before. From protest-art in the elevators to Mocktant articles, Yale-NUS Divest to Take Back the Night, Parking Day to G-Spot dialogues, Skype-ins to documentary screenings, students have played a more active role in starting conversations on campus about broader political, social, and environmental issues. Despite these hopeful initiatives, there is still a long way to go. I have noticed a somewhat self-referential quality to our student activism that diminishes its power to invite engagement beyond our campus boundary. When we see a piece of protest art, for example, we tend to ask “who made it?” rather than “what is it about?” I wonder if we could move the political beyond the personal, focusing less on the inter-personal histories that are so central to our small community, and more on the broader issues that we are concerned about and the change we hope to enact in the world.
What might it look like to have Yale-NUS students—with newfound awareness of their status as citizens and their potential to enact political and social change, and the critical sensitivity and nuance that is often developed at Yale-NUS—directing their attention to the issues most relevant to Singapore? What implications might our on-campus activism have for greater Singapore? What conversations might we be able to start outside of Yale-NUS? What envelopes might we be able to push? Yale-NUS has a unique position in Singapore and, as students, I feel that we could do much more to start campaigns, create art, write articles, and form organizations that spark conversations about the social, environmental, political, and personal issues most relevant to Singapore. We could apply theory to practice, using our knowledge, skills, and resources to support existing organizations and activists in Singapore who are working for positive social change.
I am grateful that, on a shady afternoon in Swaziland four years ago, I decided to give college a shot. The past four years have awakened my political consciousness and have helped me to look at social, political, environmental, and interpersonal challenges with more empathy and nuance. I am just beginning to understand what it means to be a citizen (of a country, a community, the world) and what social change might really entail. I hope and trust that future Yale-NUS students will use their education to serve the world in more generous, radical, and creative ways than ever before.