You may be thinking, “Wow, this girl sure does travel a lot!” The travel is thanks to Singapore’s central location in Southeast Asia and the inexpensive nature of travel in Asia. However, I do actually live in Singapore and attend school at the National University of Singapore, or NUS.
I am taking four classes (“modules”) at NUS: “Genomic Medicine in the Post-Genomic Era”, “Global Issues”, “Separation Processes”, and “Introductory Materials Science Engineering”. I am really enjoying the diversity of my class sizes, the teaching styles of my professors, and the friendships I have made with my classmates thus far. The content of the courses does not seem much different from the content of equivalent courses at the UW.
The students here are incredibly inspiring and are really changing my idea of what it means to “learn”. It is no secret that education is one of the key pillars of Singapore’s success as a nation. The classes are quite competitive. Most students strive to get a B, but NUS is graded on a 5-point scale, so the pressure to achieve the A+ level is ever-present.
All of the professors here use PowerPoint slides. Students print these out before coming to class or annotate their own notes on a tablet or laptop computer. My class sizes range from 13 students (separations) to 500+ students (Introductory Materials Science & Engineering). Most classes (if large enough) are graded via a bell curve. This makes it very difficult to fail, but also very difficult to get an A/A+. To attend NUS, you must be willing to work very hard academically, as the University recruits top Singaporean students – an already competitive population.
With this hard work comes the prestige of attending a top University outside of the U.S. For example, Chemical Engineering (my major) at NUS was recently ranked 5th in the world in 2014, rivaled only by MIT, Berkeley, Stanford, and Cambridge. It is amazing to learn and work with my peers, some of whom are double majoring in engineering and business, or other majors. Because of this, they may take 7 modules in one semester and must finish in four years as many are on scholarship. I can assure you that I am plenty busy with just four modules, which is the equivalent to 12 credits at the UW. Several of my friends on exchange are only taking three modules.
I recently completed a presentation worth 40% of my grade in my genetic medicine class with 7 classmates, now new friends. Our presentation was 30 minutes in total for seven speakers. This works out to ~10% of my grade per minute. I think this is an accurate representation of school at NUS: everything you do is worth a lot. We spent well over twenty hours preparing as a group and countless more preparing individually for 4 minutes each. Needless to say, it was a scary presentation. Again, I would not recommend studying abroad at NUS if you are not willing to work hard, but if you are, the classes are rewarding, the students are awesome (though competitive) and the program is continuously exceeding my expectations.
I do not have class on Fridays. I begin at 8am three days a week, but do not start until 4pm on Wednesdays. Classes are typically two hours, and tutorials (similar to discussions at the UW) are 1-2 hours either every week or every other week. So what does a typical school day look like for me? The below is my Monday schedule:
7:15am – Wake up and get ready for the day. “Getting ready” in Singapore involves rolling out of bed and brushing your teeth. It’s really too hot here to try to look good, and none of my hair styling appliances work properly because I’m too cheap to buy a converter for the voltage, but at least I have a nice tan!
8:00am – Arrive at 1st class. I always walk to class. One of my 8am classes is about 100 meters from where I live. The other is about a 20-minute walk. I always walk, though many local students take the inter-campus shuttle bus. This is probably a smart move because of the heat, but I dislike waiting for the bus when I can easily walk (even during a frigid winter in Wisconsin).
9:45am – Professor ends class so that students can get to the next series of classes, as classes begin every two hours, on the hour.
10am-11:45am – 2nd class.
12:00 – Eat lunch. There are various food outlets on campus. Each faculty (college) has a “canteen”, which is essentially a food court, as do all the residents halls and living areas, and the medical school. Simply said, cheap food is not hard to find. Some canteens are better than others, and certain faculties have specialties. I like the 50 cent curry puffs at the engineering canteen, the avocado shakes at the Faculty of Arts – shown below, and the middle-eastern snack food at the business canteen. Overall, my favorite food is Indian, which can be found at almost every canteen, with variations. It is unlikely that I would pay more than 5 SGD (~4 USD) for any campus-subsidized (food court) meal. When I do pay $5, it is a feast. Be prepared to eat a lot of rice if you come to Singapore and want to eat cheaply!
12-3pm – Work on homework, write blog posts :), Skype family or friends certain weeks, etc.
3-5pm – 3rd class. I’ll occasionally wear or bring workout clothes to afternoon classes to motivate myself to go to the recreational centers on campus afterwards. NUS has a public track, two swimming pools (one for recreational swimming – shown below, another for swimming laps), several Multi-purpose sports halls (for Badminton, basketball, etc.), and three traditional “gyms”. Many people use these air-conditioned facilities. I prefer to run at night when it is a bit cooler.
5 – ? – Dinner with friends, homework, maybe a movie in one of the lounges if the homework load is light, etc. The living accommodation I was assigned is quite nice. I live with three other girls: two from Sweden and one from the U.S. We each have our own room and share a kitchen, living room, and bathroom. The kitchen is equipped with a refrigerator and freezer, microwave, sink, and cabinets. The only thing we really miss is an oven/stove, but the food court food is good and cheap, so all is well. We are on the 21st floor, so the view is always beautiful.
School days at NUS are not much different from school days at Wisconsin, except that I do not have to split my day between work, extracurricular activities, and school, while here. Instead, I focus on school when I need to focus on school, travel when I can, and try to explore as many on and off-campus opportunities in my free time as possible. For example, a few weeks ago I participated in the NUS “Yogathon” which was an event during which ~100 students did 108 sun salutations. It was a great experience and the first time I really felt bonded to the school as a student. Similar events are held every week. This weekend, I look forward to having breakfast with orangutans at the Singapore zoo. I’m sure there will be more on that to come.
Each week is different and exciting. I sometimes forget that I am studying abroad because of how routine everything I do has become. I do need to continue to remind myself to explore, both on and off campus, because when I do, I am never disappointed.