Oct 30, 2013

A Week of Experiential Learning at Yale-NUS

When you get a week without classes, and instead spend time researching with professors in your freshman year of college, you know you’ve been given a unique opportunity.
In case it wasn’t clear already, I was one of the lucky ones who got this wonderful chance!

All 150 freshman at Yale-NUS were given 12 research projects to choose from, spanning over diverse fields. I chose a project called ‘alternatives to fossil fuels’ and spent last week probing deeper into green energy with Professor Clarke and Professor Maniates, experts in the field of environmental science.
With the profs and 14 of my classmates, I got to visit a solar institute, a palm oil farm in Malaysia and an electric vehicle startup among other things. We learnt about the challenges in the technicalities of scaling solar energy, the possibility of palm oil as in alternate source of energy and the commercialization of the electric vehicle. All the field trips and discussions we had with the professors gave us new insights and different perspectives into the world of alternative energy.

At a palm oil refinery in Malaysia

An Electric Car at EV World, an electric vehicles company in Singapore

It was a bit incomprehensible at first, but I think that was part of the purpose-making us struggle and pushing us outside our comfort zone. Looking back, the challenge in trying to comprehend some of the technical aspects of my project was exciting. This week challenged my assumptions, and made me so much more aware of the complexities that I previously deemed simple.

Some of the other interesting week 7 projects were migrant nations, a project involving interaction with migrant workers in Singapore which made some fascinating discoveries about the plight of migrant workers, such as their disintegration with the local community and their socio-economic conditions. There was a trip to Banda Aceh in Indonesia to study the impacts of the 2004 Tsunami, which discovered that villagers whose homes were impacted by the tsunami thought of it as largely religious and spiritual and are averse to technology which might help them predict future tsunamis. A project on beauty researched beauty across cultures, and went about interviewing people on their dating and marriage preferences.

We had a symposium on the last day wherein all groups came together and exchanged their experiences and learnt a little bit about each other’s projects and epiphanies. It was amazing seeing everyone back together bubbling with new insights and exchanging stories about their weeks. It comes to show how being out there makes learning so much more exciting and conducive. 

Oct 5, 2013

College in all its Glory

On June 29th, 2013 I flew into Singapore, not knowing what to expect of college. I was going to Yale-NUS, a new liberal arts college in Asia, a collaboration between Yale and NUS.  All I knew was that it would be like something I had never experienced before. And that is exactly how it turned out to be. 

By July 9th 2013, I knew that Yale-NUS was a good place to be. It had an extremely diverse and talented peer group, the faculty was extremely approachable and involved in the student community, and the administration seemed to be much too efficient for their own good. And the best part was that this was their first class.  

The previous year, I had started college in my hometown, New Delhi. It had turned out to be following a system which I didn't find myself getting much out of, which is when I had taken a leap of faith and dropped out. I wasn't sure how much I’d get out of a liberal arts education either, but considering the attractive opportunities Yale-NUS was offering, I took a leap of faith again and clicked the accept button.

So here we were, 155 of us, the first students of one of the few liberal arts colleges in Asia. And everybody  fit. Two qualities that stood out among the student body were the ability to take risks and strong leadership skills. Most had a love for travelling and exploration. Everybody was very open minded and loved being challenged. The level of comfort and the similarity in wavelength which I would normally look for in friends increased exponentially, simply because every one of my classmates seemed like people who I could find that comfort level with. We all started finding people who we shared a profound level of connection with.

Our campus isn’t complete yet, which is why we moved into our temporary residence in NUS university town. Although at first I was a bit apprehensive about temporary housing, it turned out to be amazing. We all got single rooms, lots of common spaces and access to all of NUS facilities. Some of us thought of it as a lot more luxurious than our own homes! 

Our first week was called ‘Singaporientation’. It was basically an orientation week in which we got to know our classmates better and had an amazing race that involved going all over Singapore and discovering more about the little red dot. The residential colleges competed against each other in the amazing race.
My group during the Amazing Race! 'Volare'  is the name of one of the three residential colleges at Yale-NUS 

At the end of the first week, all of us headed towards New Haven together for a 3 week long summer immersion program at Yale in US. The idea was to get acquainted to the culture of residential colleges and learning as a community. We lived at Berkeley College, one of the 11 residential colleges of Yale. We spent one week each learning about sustainable environment, immigration and leadership. Our lectures were by several highly accomplished Yale professors, some of whom had received awards for their work and almost all of whom had written books on their research. Our weekends were usually packed with field trips which included a beach, shopping outlet, New York, Boston and a camping trip. The last day of the summer immersion was the cherry on the cake. We got to meet UN general secretary Ban Ki Moon, who addressed us at the UN headquarters in New York.
The first class of Yale-NUS in Yale's Berkeley College during summer immersion at Yale

Apart from the amazing learning experience we had, we also got a chance to discover more about each other. By the time we returned to Singapore in August for our official first semester, we already knew each other reasonably well. We also had 12 dean’s fellows, who are recent college graduates from US and Singapore, who act as our upperclassmen and seniors, since we don’t have any. Having that comfort level with each other and guidance of the dean’s fellows played a massive role in a smooth sailing first semester, especially when it came to forming interest groups and seminar discussions.

Being the first class, we were in a situation where we had to create the extra-curricular life of the college. There were no student clubs/organizations before we began. Although we weren’t allowed to officially start forming clubs until the second semester, it’s hard to keep such talented people away from collaborating and forming clubs. So we started forming interest groups which didn’t have an official structure or outline, but involved people with similar interests coming together.

As for our academics, Yale-NUS has a very unique curriculum and class structure. Unlike most colleges, we have a common curriculum for the first two years with the same classes spanning a broad spectrum of arts and sciences for the entire student body.  After 2 years of common curriculum and some electives, we choose a major to pursue. We’re also required to work on a capstone project depending on the major we choose, which is uncommon for an undergraduate course.

In the first semester, we have four courses and one hour of lecture for each of them every week. All 150 of us attend the lecture, but afterwards break into groups of 16 people for 3 hour seminar discussions. These seminar discussions are facilitated by a faculty member, and are usually based on the lecture and readings that have been assigned to us for a week. So a typical Yale-NUS student’s day involves a one hour lecture in the morning and 2 seminar discussions later in the day, which last 90 minutes each. But here’s the best part. We have a 4 day work week. We get Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays off! The idea behind giving us so many days off and lesser lectures than seminar discussions is for us to be able to absorb and process the information that we are getting.

Initially, this system was new to a lot of us, especially those of us who had studied in an Asian education system (like me)! The seminar discussions were a radically different concept from anything we had done before. These seminars involved us talking more than the professor and challenging established views. There was a lot more freedom than before. Assignments and homework weren’t the same either. But we are now beginning to figure the system out and find ourselves more at ease with it.

As the semester progressed, I started spending more time outside college on weekends. Being new to Singapore makes it all the more exciting since there are so many places to explore. There’s always more food to try and another place to see. Being exposed to new things one after the other is amazing. Moreover, the diversity in the Yale-NUS student body always ensures that the people you are going out with are from more than one continent. Going out becomes a whole new learning experience by itself, and is suddenly more than just socializing or leisure. 
Spandana's birthday at Little India

Liz turns 19! Dinner at Holland Village.
Late night coffee at Arab Street
We finished half a semester two weeks ago and had a mid-semester break, in which I went to visit my aunt in Jakarta with 3 friends from college. It was great spending time with my aunt and uncle and introducing them to my new friends. We spent 5 days exploring Jakarta, shopping, eating, getting massages, reading and just chilling at home! This was my first time travelling with a small group of friends, and it was so much fun doing everything by ourselves and having the freedom to make our own plans. 

Visiting my aunt in Jakarta with friends during the mid semester break

After the mid-semester break, we had a week of experiential learning. Instead of regular classes, we were asked to pick from among 12 research topics and spent a week delving deeper into our topics along with a few of our classmates and professors. The week was full of mind boggling field trips and insights from professors, who were experts in the field and had been researching the topic for years. There were some international trips, and some which stayed in Singapore. 
The alternatives to fossil fuels research group at a palm oil plantation in Malaysia

We are now through more than half a semester, and it is unbelievable how quickly these past few months have gone by. I've learnt so much already that it feels like a lot longer. What I especially love about being at Yale-NUS is that there is always something more to do as part of the first class. We’re the guinea pigs. Although that can seem quite risky, it is equally exciting. We get to define our culture, and establish a functional structure. If things don’t work, it’s our job to fix them. There is never a moment here when we can sit back, stop bothering about the rest of the college community and mind our own business. It’s always about looking at the bigger picture, and pushing for a vision to become reality.

So in a way, it’s more than just college. Its college in all its glory and a lot, lot more.