Feb 22, 2018

College in Hindsite : My Four Years at Yale-NUS College

4.5 years ago, I moved to Singapore to be a part of the first cohort at Yale-NUS College. It was unclear at the time whether this college, being new, would develop the reputation that matches either Yale or NUS. In hind site, it was one of the better decisions I’ve made in my life so far despite some bumps in the road. 

The Better Parts

In my first month of college, I had the chance to go to Yale for a 3 week summer immersion. Right away, I felt challenged by my classmates. Every conversation was suddenly a learning opportunity. We had great lectures and seminars too, but what I learnt more from was the conversations with my peers in the dining halls, common areas and over frozen yogurt. 

A field trip to a museum at Yale with two very inspiring researchers

Immediately, there were extra-curricular activity groups coming up, despite the administration encouraging students to take it easy during the first semester while they sorted out the funding scenario for student organisations. Right away, there were 30 student organisations formed around activities like dancing, music, theatre, public speaking, value investing, MUN, environmental impact, writing, photography and so much more. I remember joining 10 student organisations right away. For some people, student orgs took priority over academics. 

Academics got more intense when we returned to Singapore, but life at college remained as stimulating as ever. I saw myself become more adventurous, open minded and patient. I suddenly realised how little I knew about the world and started asking more questions. There was something to be learnt from everyone I met, inside and outside school, which is how each conversation became a learning experience.

A touristy day with some classmates during a mid semester break in Jakarta

My American and Chinese friends get dramatic in front of their country's flags in Penang, Malaysia

In the summer of 2014 after finishing freshman year, I did a study abroad program in Japan. I wanted to be somewhere I knew nobody and couldn’t speak the language. I lived with a host mum and dad just outside of Tokyo, two of the most amazing people I’ve met in my life (here’s a list of the blog posts I wrote about my time in Japan). 

Organic farming in Japan

The following year after returning from Japan, I was on a trip with a friend in Cambodia. We were both sick and in our hotel rooms. As I lay on our cheap hotel bed, I thought about how I was getting tired of learning inside the walls of the classroom. And that’s how I started working on my third startup, Social MOOC Taker, a social platform for online educators. The rest of my college career was spent poaching technical talent, cold emailing customers and pitching to investors. Yale-NUS was an excellent place to run a company from. I had the infrastructure of NUS, the network of Yale and the support of my amazing classmates, many of whom had run their own companies at some point in the past. While it wasn’t ideal to have to attend classes everyday, something that Yale-NUS emphasises on a lot, it was still quite manageable to be a college student and entrepreneur at the same time. 

This was also the year I had to declare a major and minor. I had taken some very perspective changing psychology classes at college over the past year, which is why a psychology major was an obvious choice for me. More so, trying to create a startup in tech had inspired me to learn more about computer science, which is why I declared a Math and Computer Science minor. At first, psychology and computer science seemed like topics that were worlds apart - I didn’t think or expect them to have any complimentary value. But in the months and years to come, I saw the two topics combined in areas like artificial intelligence and cyber psychology (the study of online human behaviour). 

In general, I saw my thinking abilities evolve as I was exposed to different fields of study. I started to notice the different mental models required to study the arts, the sciences and the social sciences, and I found myself being able to learn a wider variety of things at a faster pace. Skills that I initially thought I was bad at, like those related to the sciences, became easier and more understandable. Most importantly, one of my psychology professors introduced me to the concept of the growth mindset - the increasingly popular belief in psychology research that your intelligence in not fixed and changes throughout your life depending on what topics you focus on. At first I was skeptical, but then as I started to notice my efforts in computer science and math classes leading to increasingly positive results, I started to believe that increased effort can lead to better abilities. This was an especially important learning for me. I was brought up in an environment where people were told in day to day conversation that they had a “knack” for math, or science, or writing - an attitude that I now finding severely limiting and dangerous for anyone who wants to keep growing as an individual. 

The following year, I got the opportunity to spend 6 months in Israel. NUS is one of the few universities in the world to have an overseas internship program. After much struggle, I was accepted into this very competitive program and started working at e-Rated, a tech startup in Tel Aviv. Without doubt, the e-Rated team was among the most brilliant people I’ve met till date. Working with them helped me grow my own startup too, which I continued to work on during weekends and after work. More so, the Israeli culture was vastly different from Singapore’s, which taught me a lot of the person level (here’s a list of the blog posts I wrote about my time in Israel). 

My last day with the amazing eRated team in Tel Aviv

As my 6 month internship came to an end, one of the founders of the company I was working at gave me some advice. He had seen my doing school, my startup and working at his startup over the past 6 months, and he didn’t think it was a good idea to keep doing that. He said “Pick one”. That’s when I decided to take a semester off from college and work on my startup for the next 8 months. While it was amazing in some ways and we grew much faster than before, we weren’t making enough money to survive long term. When my co-founder and I realised that, we decided to make the software open source for professors to use free of cost for their online courses.

I came back to college to finish my last 3 semesters in August 2016. That’s when I started getting into research. All Yale-NUS students are required to do a final year research project called the capstone. Over the summer, I’d read a book on ISIS and how they started perpetuating the terror we know them for today. After living in Israel and reading that book, I was curious to study and create knowledge on how people get motivated to join terrorist organisations. So the centre of my life for the next 8 months became the study of the psychology behind terrorism. This was also how I got to work under Dr Jean Liu, an accomplished psychology researcher. After we finished our research study on terrorism, we started working on another study related to the psychology of romantic love, which happened to be Dr Liu’s area of expertise. 

The new Yale-NUS campus - my home for 1.5 years!

It so happened that I also met the founder of Coffee Meets Bagel, a popular dating app in the US, at an event in Singapore. She was looking at marketing Coffee Meets Bagel among university students in Singapore, which is how I along with 4 other college students in Singapore started working for Coffee Meets Bagel. We ran campaigns at the National University of Singapore and Singapore Management University to increase the daily downloads of the app among college students in Singapore. It was an interesting experience to work for a dating app given that dating is a common topic of conversation among college students - people were more than willing to talk about their experiences with dating apps, so learning about the consumer and their reaction towards dating apps was never a challenge. 

A campaign my colleagues and I ran for Coffee Meets Bagel on the NUS campus

The following summer was the summer that I was originally meant to graduate at had I not taken a semester off to work on my startup (May 2017). While most of my friends were leaving college and moving on to work or graduate school, I still had one more semester of college to go. It felt strange not to graduate with the first cohort since we’d gone through so many adventures together. But luckily, I got to attend the same graduation ceremony as my 2017 cohort in May. 

The rest of my summer in 2017 was spent interning at Whistle Labs in San Francisco. Much to my surprise, a few months ago, I noticed some internship positions available to Yale-NUS students in San Francisco. As someone who had grown very fond of tech and startups at this point, I couldn’t not apply. I applied, interviewed and was offered a position as a marketing intern at Whistle, which is how I came to spend 11 weeks in the summer of 2017 in San Francisco. After Israel, I could not have imagined finding more brilliant colleagues to work with. But San Francisco was just a whole other level. Not only did my colleagues have extremely high standards of work ethic and creativity, but every other person I met in the city had an interesting perspective and vision for the world. Unlike in Singapore, I didn’t often hear people talking about specific tech startups, what they were doing and how much money they were making. Rather, they talked about the future they imagined, why things had to be the way they are and the side projects they were working on to make a dent in the universe. 

Being in San Francisco made me value the Yale-NUS crowd so much more. Just like the San Francisco crowd, the Yale-NUS crowd had an extremely wide range of interests, valued creativity and preferred to talk about big timeless ideas. I found myself reading more again, a habit I’d gotten out of when I started being assigned hours and hours of reading for classes at college. 

The Less Better Parts 

Nothing is perfect, especially for 4 years straight. Something I felt very strongly about while at Yale-NUS was the emphasis on academics and research that came in the way for people who were more interested in startups or any industry related work. Often times, there were professors who weren’t ok with my missing a class for an investor meeting. I didn’t receive academic credit for my internship experience and a class on venture creation that I took in Israel because it wasn’t considered academic enough. For this reason, I had to overload on classes during other semesters to make up for my time spent away from college. While I appreciated my classes a lot, my experiences outside the classroom were way more valuable to me given my specific interests and goals, which I felt weren’t always in line with the priorities the school had for its’ students. 

Having said that, I don’t think this problem is unique to Yale-NUS. Rather, it’s a problem that’s commonly observed in higher education. Universities were not initially built with the intention to prepare people for the industry. They were meant more for general “wisdom”, an opportunity that was initially only available to the elites who could afford the leisure and time to converse and think about big ideas. It so happened that our society evolved to prefer university graduates to those who went for a vocational education, even if it meant hiring people who were less job-ready. 

Moving on from college, I’m excited to go back to work in the education space. Interning and working in different industries over the past few years made me realise how much I’ve enjoyed working with people who are driven to create an impact in this area. 2 weeks ago, I started working with the team at Intedashboard in Singapore - a company that shares my enthusiasm for social learning! 

If there’s anything that the past few years have taught me, it’s that you can’t predict opportunities - most of the opportunities I’ve received have been those that I didn’t know about more than a few months prior. I can’t predict if I will continue to live in Singapore and to work in education all my life, but I certainly feel extremely lucky to be here in the now.