Thursday, October 21, 2021

Baffled, Cheated, and Frustrated, But Trying to Hope: Yale-NUS Deferred Matriculants Share Their Perspectives on “Merger” and New College

Story | Toh Hong Jin (he/him), Guest Reporter
Photo | Toh Hong Jin (he/him) and JW (he/him)

“I found out while sitting on the toilet bowl, then my junior from JC texted me a Mothership article and said, ‘Are you affected by this?’ And halfway through the Mothership article, then I was informed via email,” said K, a deferred matriculant who has less than three months left until the end of his National Service (NS).

The morning of August 27 was a fateful one, not just for current Yale-NUS students, but also for the many deferred matriculants who had already committed themselves to the liberal arts college. Many of the deferred matriculants who spoke with The Octant did not hear about the closure of their prospective college through the 9 AM town hall that Friday. 

Reception from the deferred matriculants toward the news was largely negative. Dylan, a deferred matriculant who was originally due to matriculate in 2022 due to NS obligations, summed up his feelings in a single word: “cheated.” 

A deferred matriculant who preferred to be known as Shawn remarked: “I’m just quite regretful that I’ll never be able to experience it firsthand.” Shawn had learned of the news amid a busy day serving his NS.

Nicole, a deferred matriculant who had taken a gap year and was originally slated to matriculate in 2022, said: “How do I feel about the ‘merger’? It was extremely disappointing, like very demoralizing, because just in the way that it was delivered to us…? Like the [manner] in which it was revealed to the public, I would say it is somewhat careless.”

The letter from the Yale-NUS Admissions and Finance team welcoming deferred matriculants to the Class of 2026. Credit: JW

Why Yale-NUS?

Prior to the upsetting revelation, these deferred matriculants were much like anyone would be after they had found out about their acceptance into Yale-NUS—anticipating, imagining, excited, hopeful—even if it would be some time before they could join the community proper. They each had clear reasons for their decision. That conscious decision came with dreams and much planning for the path ahead.

There was a consensus that it was the unique model of a small liberal arts college in Asia that drew them to Yale-NUS, with the top factors being small class sizes, in-house majors (and flexibility of said majors), a unique, interdisciplinary Common Curriculum that insisted on covering material from around the world, a fully residential program, and a highly diverse yet close-knit community. 

JW is a deferred matriculant due to complete his NS in January 2022. “I really liked the vibe and campus experience,” he reminisced. JW had attended the college’s “Kingfisher for a Day” program, where students from local pre-university institutions could experience a typical day in the life of a Yale-NUS student. If he had had his way, JW would have majored in history with a minor in philosophy (specifically Asian philosophy) at Yale-NUS. 

He further remarked on the potential for deep rapport between faculty and students here, saying, “The professors who teach [you] the Common Curriculum can also see your four-year progress.” Outside of academics, JW expressed his passion for international chess, and was keen to join the ranks of GAMBIT, the Yale-NUS Chess Club.

Axel, a deferred matriculant serving NS, has spent 17 years living and studying in Malaysia. He had originally set his sights on the Global Affairs or Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) major, with a strong desire to pursue the Concurrent Degree Programme and Master’s program pathway with the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP). 

He said: “I was proud to be Singaporean, but still greatly appreciated outside perspectives and structures, and the idea of having the best of both worlds meet in Yale-NUS felt like a dream to me, it felt like I found the place I truly belonged in.”

Shawn, who was involved in community service and football before NS, expressed his excitement for the college community. “I wanted to step outside my comfort zone as I’ve all along been growing up under the Singaporean education system. I felt that by coming to Yale-NUS, I could challenge some long-held normative beliefs and expose myself to more diverse perspectives.”

Many of the deferred matriculants also cited financial reasons for committing to the college. Nicole, an international deferred matriculant who has spent her whole life in Asia, stated that the option of heading to the United States for a liberal arts education would have been “far and very expensive,” and that it was much more affordable to attend Yale-NUS. She was also very fond of the college’s location in Asia. 

Arthur, a deferred matriculant serving NS who was interested in the PPE major and Global Antiquity minor, highlighted that the Ministry of Education (MOE) Tuition Fee Loan scheme has allowed many Singaporean students like him to gain unprecedented access to a liberal arts education. Schemes like this often supplement the college’s generous financial aid. The need-blind admission policy for local students also allows lower-income students the same chance of being admitted as full-fee paying students. 

The Yale-NUS College and New College Switcheroo

For these deferred matriculants, who had in mind a very specific kind of university experience and who had already committed their futures to Yale-NUS, the “merger” dampened their hopes of ever seeing these dreams come to pass. 

“I was able to genuinely look forward to something in NS, and now that feeling of expectance has been taken away,” said Dylan. 

Shawn said: “I’ve served my National Service—or am about to finish National Service—and I’ve served with a lot of pride and enthusiasm. But now that I look back on it, you look at it a bit regretfully—you missed an opportunity there because of those two years spent when your batchmates moved on and managed to secure the education experience you had wanted.”

For Axel, the probable loss of the myriad opportunities and experiences offered by Yale-NUS hit hard. “It heartbreakingly crushes all the hard work and aspirations we put behind applying to YNC, and all the joy and ecstasy we got after opening that offer letter.”

JW added: “It feels like you lost a college that you had a best fit for, and you’re not too sure if this New College will be the same level of fit that you had.”

Nicole, who took a gap year to focus on volunteer work and try out new things that had piqued her interest, did not regret her decision because it was always something she had wanted to do before coming to Yale-NUS. 

“But if they had thought to tell people who were admitted in 2025 about this decision… I’m just thinking about all the people whom they would have affected, the people who would choose not to go Yale-NUS at all, or [who would have] taken up offers elsewhere, people who made different choices like me… because if they told me this, I know I would have definitely gone [to Yale-NUS] this year, not because it’s worth more than a gap year to me, but just ‘cause there would be no more Yale-NUS to go to,” she added.

Instead, the deferred matriculants are now offered automatic admission into the New College, an imitation of what they were promised, and one that has yet to be concretely conceptualized or structured. It is as though they were expected to believe that the New College could qualify as a replacement for what they had worked (and are still working) towards.

A virtual town hall for the Yale-NUS deferred matriculants was convened on the afternoon of Saturday, Sept. 4, to provide more information to the deferred matriculants about the kind of education and experience they may expect from the New College and NUS. The Octant understands that a group of deferred matriculants had met the night prior to the town hall and filed a few main questions and concerns in an email to the administration. However, the situation remains shrouded in uncertainty.

“They kept saying they wanted to ‘honor their promises to us’ since we had accepted an offer at Yale-NUS College. The thing about New College is, we still don’t know so much about it,” said Nicole.

“I’m not sure if these promises will be carried over,” said JW. “It’s quite scary that they’re still working on the details.”

Some of the main concerns that deferred matriculants felt insufficiently addressed include academics. Shawn, who had intended to pursue Urban Studies at Yale-NUS, noted that there were attempts to tackle the translatability of such interdisciplinary majors at NUS during the town hall, but they did not seem well thought out. Notably, the administrators present at the town hall had suggested the single-degree program of Real Estate as an alternative to Urban Studies, despite the stark difference between these two fields. He is thus baffled at the prospect of having to now review his academic plans in a mere few months.

Meanwhile, for K, losing the breadth of international experiences was the main cause for concern. He said: “I don’t have any doubts about the academic rigor at NUS and the quality of the teaching. I’m sure it’ll be fine. What’s crucial is that you don’t get to live with 45% international students, and you don’t get to have 12 AM chats with them about the classes you took together.”

“The environment will change. And fundamentally it’s not a liberal arts college anymore, it’s an honors college which maybe took some aspects of Yale-NUS, but definitely not the parts a lot of us hold dear that actually have a lot of tangible, pragmatic value.”

He elaborated that Yale-NUS had been highly accessible for Singaporean students financially, especially for those from a lower-income background. “And I think that’s unique in this boat. Where else are we really making such education so equitable for everyone, so accessible for everyone? That’s what education should be, right?”

K also commented on the reported motivation behind the “merger” decision. “When we talk about expanding the scale, we are really levelling down what was originally there. And I think that’s dangerous. I don’t think that’s what we should be doing in this country.”

Arthur echoed K’s sentiments. “What is the price for this increased scale? Is this actually worth the sacrifice? Are we sacrificing too much for this scale?” he questioned.

The Top-Down Approach

Unsurprisingly, the top-down nature of the “merger” decision was deeply disappointing and troubling for the deferred matriculants. A few of the deferred matriculants also noted that both the NUS President and Yale-NUS President were absent during their town hall meeting, which rubbed salt into an open wound. They feel a certain amount of frustration at how deferred matriculants are being treated differently from current matriculants, even if they do understand that it is inevitable. 

JW expressed bitterly, “the town hall wasn’t a consultative process; it was just the YNC and NUS admin relaying decisions that are already made.” 

These deferred matriculants will be the inaugural class or the New College if it proceeds as planned, but they feel sidelined and excluded from the very start. “They tried comparing us to the [Yale-NUS] Class of 2017, but there was more consultation [done] in the past. I’m not sure if we will have the same level of influence or say,” JW added.

Shawn lamented: “These decision makers failed to consider those who are left behind because of military service. It feels like there was a lack of consideration for these issues on the ground, when I felt like they should’ve been more empathetic to this situation. We didn’t determine when we would serve NS.”

On the special arrangements made by the administration to honor their promises to Yale-NUS deferred matriculants, K remarked in a resigned tone: “The feeling I got was that they were trying to pacify the students because there’s a certain acknowledgment on their end that what happened wasn’t right. The only reason you’re offering that deal, I would say, is because we know that fundamentally something is wrong here when you change the offer. I mean the admissions letter said, ‘Welcome to the Class of 2026,’ and now—and now that’s gone.”

Nonetheless, the deferred matriculants recognized and appreciated the efforts of the administrators who were present at the town hall, especially those of Professor Roberts and Dean Severin. 

“I can understand that they’re doing their best—Laura and Joanne—in understanding our concerns,” said Arthur. “We were quite surprised—pleasantly—that at the start of the town hall, they acknowledged and addressed the queries that we had sent them beforehand. They showed us that they were doing their best to look out for our concerns.”

Axel said: “These could be viewed as being the bare minimum from some, but I guess I’m just glad that we weren’t completely forgotten and tossed aside by NUS.”

“They were very honest that we won’t be able to get the exact YNC experience, but they’ll try,” said Dylan.

A deferred matriculant who wished to remain anonymous added: “The town hall may not have addressed all my concerns as many of the answers were a hope rather than a promise, but it provided me security that there is a team working towards a best possible New College.”

However, the deferred matriculant pointed to the lack of consultation with key personnel such as these admissions officers, and said: “I felt that an extended time before the announcement should minimally be given to them to work on the details of the New College.”

Yale-NUS as seen from below. Credit: Toh Hong Jin

The Road Ahead

The clock ticks on mercilessly in the thick of grief and broken dreams. While there has yet to be an acceptance deadline announced at the time of writing, the offer of automatic admission into New College and a single-degree program of their choice is hovering just above the horizon. 

The majority of the deferred matriculants who spoke to The Octant remain in a dilemma. For Nicole, the ideals behind the decision to make a liberal arts education more accessible and inclusive are admirable, but the removal of the legacies that USP and Yale-NUS have built over time makes her doubtful whether she will take up the offer. She said, “You’re entering this kind of institution where decisions like this can happen at a moment’s notice. It makes you cautious.” 

“What’s on paper is almost always not necessarily what translates into real life. A community takes time, a sense of belonging—it has to be cultivated,” she added.

Dylan appears more inclined towards rejecting his offer. The “deal breakers,” in his words, are that one could no longer expect to receive the vibrant, international perspective characteristic of Yale-NUS, and that the New College will not be a liberal arts institution anymore. He added: “You can try to replicate the college in structure, but you can’t replace the people, the intangible, and the unique.”

While they understand that they are not in an advantageous position to bargain, a few deferred matriculants are still hoping that they can recover pieces of their dreams and attain some semblance of the experience which they had been promised.

“After the town hall, many of us were talking and we feel like there’s still so much more that Yale-NUS and NUS could do together to find a way to honor their commitment to us, rather than just trying to sell the idea of CHS and the New College to us,” said Shawn. “[But] I’m open to seeing what it can offer to us and whether or not it can suit what we wanted from the Yale-NUS education that we signed up for.”

“Following this merger, those of us to whom the option of an overseas liberal arts education is closed off because of costs do not have that many options left,” said Arthur. “Perhaps [the loss of] an authentic liberal arts education will be the price we have to pay for New College. It remains to be seen which ‘best elements of YNC and USP’ will be retained at the New College, and whether these can actually be retained.”

Axel remarked that it is likely he will end up in the New College. He said: “It is still the closest thing to Yale-NUS that Singapore has to offer, even if it’s a far, far cry from what it’s replacing. I don’t have the luxury of affording similar liberal arts institutions overseas, and honestly the Yale-NUS application process and journey was both physically and emotionally draining for me, and I don’t want to go through that again with another university.” 

Speaking about the special academic arrangements made for the deferred matriculants, Axel also hopes that NUS could continue offering the special Concurrent Degree Programme and Master’s program pathway with the LKYSPP in some form.

K, who fears that the New College will be “a step backwards” for the education landscape in Singapore, nevertheless hopes that it will provide more autonomy and breathing room to different groups to organize their activities. He also hopes that the New College can somehow offer an international exposure that is truly built into the system (and not just as a side activity), so that they can develop a more outward view and a more global perspective. 

In terms of administration and teaching, K said, “I hope that there can be a culture of open communication. I hope that we’ll be given the tools to reach our own conclusions rather than having answers prescribed to us, and we can challenge each other’s conclusions, and really learn from them.”

Still, JW feels that the New College may not necessarily turn out badly. “The more say students have in their education experience, the better the experience will be,” he said.

“It’s what we make of it.”

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