Thursday, September 23, 2021

Was Yale-NUS an Unusual College Experience?

Story by | Jasmine Su, she/her/hers, former Staff Editor

Photo by | Jasmine Su

I still remember the night I got admitted into Yale-NUS College. My palms had been sweating all afternoon. I was refreshing my email every other class, and when the last school bell of the day rang, I ran as fast as I could back home. I kept on telling myself on the way: “It’s okay if you don’t get in, it’s really okay.” I reached home, locked myself in the room, opened my laptop—my mind went blank, and I cried. Yes, I cried. 

When I flew to Singapore for Experience Yale-NUS Weekend (EYW), I soon learned that no one reacted the way I did. Most people at EYW were set to go to Stanford, Columbia, or Cambridge; others who were attending had “ticked the box” on the Yale application form. Hardly anyone applied directly to Yale-NUS, and certainly no one cried. I felt embarrassed, and I buried my story for the remainder of my time here. 

But as my time at Yale-NUS comes to a close, I have been thinking back on that night in 2015 when I teared up over the admission letter. My time at Yale-NUS has been bittersweet. Like all college experiences, there were lows and highs. It was nurturing and often exhilarating, but it was also littered with depressive phases and anxious moments. As I share with friends and family about all the personal growth I’ve experienced, I often wonder: Was Yale-NUS an unusual college experience? In what ways was it unique?

One thing I noticed early on was the amount of resources that Yale-NUS is willing to invest in students. And I’m not just talking about the flamboyant way the school funds overseas trips, especially in its first few years (although, yes, that too, I had fun traveling), but the culture of giving students what they need to build their own projects. 

When I joined as one of the pioneer batches (Class of 2016), lots of student organizations had to be built from scratch. It soon became clear that if I wanted to see something exist, I could build it. I think the college environment, with all its resources and imperfections, cultivated a very proactive community that is quick to jump into action—whether that’s engaging in environmental activism, holding creative events, pressuring the DXT Team about Sodexo, or most recently, getting a rooster removed from UTown. 

I strongly suspect that I have become an action-based person today because of Yale-NUS. Had I gone to another college, where resources may have been more diluted and the social network more loosely connected, I may never have had the chance and courage to dabble in so many things while being so bad at them. 

I also never expected to learn so much about Singapore. Prior to coming here, I could hardly point out Singapore on an unlabelled map. All I knew was that it was a four-hour flight from home and that Orchard Road smelt nice. Before college, I was also bombarded by college brochures and marketing, each and every one of which claimed that “you get to experience the amazing [insert city name]!” Of course, the Yale-NUS brochure featured similar language about Singapore, so I was unconvinced that four years on a college campus meant experiencing the city. But I was wrong. The density of Singapore in itself makes it difficult to ignore our surroundings, not to mention that the idea of Yale-NUS sits awkwardly in Singapore’s political scene. It’s hard to overlook the political and social context of Yale-NUS, stay on campus 24/7 without ever trying food outside, or ignore the 60% of Singaporeans in the student body. 

As time in college progressed, I began to spend more and more time outside of campus and the Yale-NUS social circle. I grew to like food I’ve never heard of before coming, became accustomed to accents I previously had difficulty understanding, and can now order drinks at the kopitiam without getting scolded by the auntie. This is probably drastically different from what I would have gotten from insular college campuses in the US or English-based programs in other universities in Asia, where foreign students tend to congregate. 

Of course, I recognize that Yale-NUS remains an extremely insular community from wider Singapore, unrepresentative of students outside, a fact that has become clearer to me the more time I spend engaging with non-Yale-NUS Singaporeans. But Yale-NUS is situated geographically and politically in a way that provides tons of opportunities for international students to really understand Singapore. I was able to take NUS classes almost every semester, and the fact that my comfort food is now Banmian, rather than Japanese curry like how it was five years ago, must mean something. 

My experience at Yale-NUS has been characterized by my time within and without the college. My time spent physically here was fragmented, strung together loosely by my student status. I spent one semester away for my LOA, half a semester at home due to COVID-19, one at Yale on exchange, and two semesters taking zero Yale-NUS classes for my concurrent degree program. Each time I came back with my luggages, moving through the escalators at Changi airport, I viewed my experience here with renewed appreciation. Yale-NUS has become a place I leave to come back to, and it’s hard to imagine that this time, leaving will truly mean leaving. At night, I often look up from campus. Something about the way the white towers and yellow lights frame the sky makes me feel safe. But at the same time, it confines me. The physical structures remind me that my time here needs to and will come to an end. Every time I was away from Yale-NUS, I was also reminded that it’s a place that prepares and equips, not a place to linger. I feel as if I have had one foot out the door for a long time, and now, my other foot is on solid enough ground for me to finally take off.

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