Opinion

The Grass is Always Greener on the Other Side: Missing Yale-NUS While on Exchange

story | Chloe Lim

When I first came to Yale-NUS College, I was ready to leave.

Yale-NUS was not my “dream school”; the new “hippie” liberal arts college was a far cry from the traditional local schools of law and medicine, and other more long-standing, prestigious universities overseas that I extolled. I was incredibly skeptical towards this young institution and what it had to offer, just like many others around me. This made me a relatively unexcited freshman, and there were times where I wished the years would pass sooner, so that I could get on with my life for better things to come.

So when the time came for semester abroad, I was more than excited to take some time off from Yale-NUS. I was ready to experience a new city, a new community, and a new chapter of my student experience. Upperclassmen who returned from a semester abroad were always full of stories of their new learning experiences and fun-filled travels, fueling my zeal further for the beginning of the new semester. It was only after I left, however, when I realised that there were so many things that I had taken for granted over the past few years at Yale-NUS. 

1. Office Hours

Like most students at the college, I’ve had many insightful conversations with different faculty at Yale-NUS over the years. Office hours, for some, are part of the culture at Yale-NUS; it is a way to deepen academic discussions and bring learning that reaches beyond the classroom.

This is not always the case at other institutions. Due to the large student populations at most other universities, office hours are not a given. Any student-faculty interactions at my host institution were carried out mostly via email correspondence. At times, when I tried to reach out to faculty members to learn more about their expertise, graduate school programs, or department events, it was difficult to make appointments for these discussions to take place with their schedules packed having to attend to a large pool of students at the college. My other friends on exchange at larger universities also conveyed to me similar experiences: that they felt incredibly isolated in big lectures, and that their academic experience lacked a certain “warmth” or spark for learning that Yale-NUS had offered us.

This made me appreciate the close community of faculty and staff at Yale-NUS, and Yale-NUS’ emphasis on building strong, healthy individual relationships with them inside and outside the classroom. I realized then how valuable my one-on-one meetings with my professors, Head of Studies, and career advisors at Yale-NUS were, and how individualized sessions with these mentors played an integral role in my development as a student at Yale-NUS.

2. Dining Hall

I wince at the thought that I used to complain about our dining hall food at all—sure, there have been some bad (food) days, but the ultimate convenience of it is not to be taken for granted.

For many other institutions, the “dining hall” equivalents manifest in the form of small cafeterias that sell slightly overpriced sandwiches or salad bowls. Most days at my host institution, I would look at my cold, 4 Euro tuna baguette, and realize that all those grilled cheese days weren’t so bad at all. Dining out in Europe was incredibly expensive, and cooking, while especially fun with friends, could be time-consuming and a hassle when exam season came around. I missed the convenience of being able to redeem a full meal with a single tap of my card just a couple of floors down from my suite, or a quick bite on days when I was pressed for time. More than anything, I really missed the community that made our dining halls come to life—the buzz of lunch hour, meeting an assortment of people in the servery, and catching up with my friends over a meal. I remembered how our dining halls double up as a quiet study space in between meal times as well (quick tip: the kitchen aunties sometimes let you sneak away with a cup of coffee outside of mealtimes), and these memories suddenly seemed magical to me when I was especially far away. I missed the food, friendships, and the irreplaceable atmosphere created in our dining halls.

Yes, I even missed that Chicken Fungus dish that no one really likes.

3. Spaces

Because my host institution was located in the city center, it was spread out across different buildings in the city, where a certain amount of walking (oftentimes in cold, dreary, unpleasant weather) was required to get from one school or department to another. I was not quite used to this initially, and rushing from building to building did prove to be rather exhausting after a while. This made me realize that “that-walk-from-my-room-in-Cendana-to-my-9am-class-in-Saga” was not actually that bad, and appreciate Yale-NUS’ architecturally close-knit space more.

Moreover, there was limited space around the main campus for students to relax or study outside of class or the library, especially with the considerably large population size of the school I was at. The spaces that were available seemed cold and unfeeling, more clinical than comfortable, and I was never quite inclined to stay there for long. Additionally, studying at cafes was not much of a culture in the city I was in, which ruled out a lot of options when it came to doing work outside. There were many times when I was abroad, when I missed hanging out on the swings at the Elm courtyard with my friends and studying at its benches outside on a sunny day. The architecture at Yale-NUS is perhaps one of the most overlooked features of the college, and I realize that these spaces have made my experience at Yale-NUS particularly enjoyable, and echo with reminders of how Yale-NUS has been good to me.

4. Suite Life

During my time on exchange, I chose to stay in a small studio on my own. While I enjoyed having time to myself, there were times where I missed living with my close friends. An independent living experience overseas did give me a lot of space to grow, mature and take responsibility, no doubt, but I continued to miss the camaraderie from living with others, sharing experiences and making memories. After a while, meals for one were not so fun.

Over the past few years at Yale-NUS, I have made countless memories with my suitemates on and off-campus. Waking each other up for class (or lunch…), study sessions in the living area, midnight runs to Cheers, Fairprice, Supper Stretch, the new 24/7 bak chor mee stall at University Town, and ordering in Al-Amaans on busy days. These experiences with my friends have made my college life worth looking forward to. It has been nice to live with people who look out for one another, and grow alongside them over the years.

However, it is too easy to take this for granted year after year at Yale-NUS. I often get too caught up in the whirlwind that is Yale-NUS life—non-stop project meetings, extra-curriculars, office hours and more. My suitemates have often joked about how absent I can be from suite life during the semester. Plus, when exam season comes around, everyone is on edge, and living together can be difficult at times (even when it’s with your best friends). Yet, the support system that has been built through the years is undeniable, and an immensely significant part of my undergraduate life that I am grateful for.

Being alone in a foreign country gave me time to reflect on the joys of living with others, learning about them, and in the process, learning even more about myself. I’ll be making more time for my suitemates in my final year at Yale-NUS now (and if I don’t, I know they will send me this article all the time for the next year anyway until I do.)

5. Community

I’ve never been a big fan of school pride. I’m probably one of the last people you’d see volunteering at a Yale-NUS Open House or publicizing the school in any fashion. Still,I am glad to see that our school has some form of school spirit, and a defining, constructive energy that brings people together to engage in important discussions, fight for change, and care in the way we do at Yale-NUS. After talking to people at other overseas universities, I found that such enthusiasm was often non-existent among their students. School settings were described as “individualistic in nature,” or un-nurturing for others, and some schools were even known for their “lack of school spirit”. It seemed that many students abroad tacitly understood university to be an individual race, rather than one to be run with peers, staff or faculty. I’d like to think that at Yale-NUS, this is less so, where we have an active student life, meaningful faculty-student relationships, and a growing community that is always learning and re-learning from one another. We agree on causes and build on them together, and we also disagree actively, which I’ve learnt is okay, because it is our differences that make room for more understanding, and more opportunities to sharpen one another. We might contribute enthusiastically in a Facebook group debate at one moment then help move laundry from Washer 2 to Dryer 5 in the next. This is something unique that makes Yale-NUS, Yale-NUS. What we have is rare and worth treasuring as part of our college days.

All this said, this is hardly a complaint about my semester abroad experience. I learnt a lot at my host institution and enjoyed weekends travelling to several neighboring cities in the region. I made new friends from all over the world, and had a great time. Still, it was exactly during these moments abroad where I realized that Yale-NUS was what I needed during my early adulthood in terms of support, guidance and stability for growth as an individual.

Going on exchange broadened my horizons on what the world had to offer but presented a stark contrast to what I already had. I missed Yale-NUS that had been a home to me before I ever realized it, and I hope to appreciate it more in the coming semester as my home for the last time.

And if you do see an exchange student in our community—reach out, be a friend, and welcome them to Yale-NUS. They could very well be missing a home too.

The views expressed here are the author’s own. The Octant welcomes all voices in the community. Email submissions to: yncoctant@gmail.com

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