Why did you choose to study overseas?

April 27, 2006 at 5:22 pm 5 comments

I feel honored to be featured in an entry by Scholarsheep, a production of the Scholarships Committee of Victoria Junior College (VJC) in Singapore. [Ed: Wah, now schools are taking note of my humble abode in cyberspace huh?]

The blog author (I assume it is Mrs Wee WH, VJC’s HOD Careers & Scholarships) had asked a good question: Just what is it about going overseas that is so, if I may use the term, “romantic”?

My reasons for attending Graduate School (in the US) were already detailed previously. As you can tell by now they are hardly “romantic”, more for practical (selfish?) purposes. Ironically, I lost my first SO by choosing to leave. (History might repeat itself, but I digress)

Now for the undergraduate education part – well, I do not exactly have a good compelling explanation for it. Parents? Sure, they strongly believed in the economic value that the coveted foreign degree cert can bring to status conscious Singapore. But why did I not choose NUS (or the other two local universities)? In my JC class, after the A levels/NS approximately 40% went overseas, another 40% to NUS and the remainder to NTU/SMU. Incidentally, those with the worst A level grades in the class (2 A level distinctions and fewer) ended up in NTU.

If you are to ask me six years ago this question – I would probably tell you something like: Oh, I want to learn from the best teachers in my field; after all, they wrote the pioneering/landmark textbooks for this discipline. Or I want to be independent and be away from the watchful eyes of my parents. On hindsight while these are reasonable, I think counterpoints can be easily made. Being able to write good textbooks doesn’t necessarily mean they can teach effectively. Want to have an independent lifestyle? You can always stay in the school hostel or rent an apartment near campus.

I used to believe that the educational experience at a top-notch foreign university is better than an equivalent one at a local university simply because the professors overseas are more well-known and are winners of such prestigious international awards as the Nobel Prize, or are elected fellows of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences/Engineering etc. What I didn’t know then, but I do now is that – the more well-known/established the professor is, the less time he/she has for teaching. And as undergraduates, you are at the bottom of the academic food chain.

Taken off Xue, a quote from Erik Ringmar, a Senior Lecturer at the LSE Government Department:

After all, the greatness of a scholar is measured in terms of output — that is, research. It is more than anything the number of books and articles written that matters to academic promotions. If you want a high-flying academic career you have to publish.

This means that the first-class teachers usually will have their minds elsewhere than on undergraduate teaching. They might be away on conferences, and even if they are not absent in body, they may be absent in mind. This is too bad of course. In fact it could indeed be that students have more opportunities for interaction with faculty members at lesser institutions — like the London Metropolitan University, say — where research is less heavily emphasised. I don’t know.

What I do know is that the in-class student experience often differs very little between the LSE and a place such as the London Metropolitan University. This may surprise you but it something students tell me. Instinctively I rebel against this conclusion, but I have come to believe that the students who make this point are correct.

Think about it! The kinds of courses taught at undergraduate level are pretty much the same everywhere you go. The courses use the same kinds of reading lists, with the same kinds of books, set the same kinds of exam questions … The lecturers too are not that different from each other. This is easily explained. Often after all we went to the same universities.

I compared course/lecture notes with peers studying the same course at NUS, and the materials covered pretty much overlapped. They kaopehed about lousy lecturers from the PRC and India with hard-to-understand accented English; I bemoaned the fact that in some of my classes the teaching assistants (TAs) taught for more than half the semester because the professor was always away for some conference.

What stood out instead for the educational experience is not so much the professors, but the quality of the student population. Borrowing from Erik again:

the student body

This may in some ways sound like a con, and some LSE students do indeed end up thinking so. They are disenchanted with the ‘elite institution’-label and wonder what all the fuss is about. They prefer something less elite and more approachable and perhaps they even end up transferring to places like the London Metropolitan University. I remember this reaction very clearly from my own time as a student at another elite institution — Yale University in the United States.

Let me suggest to you why transferring down would be a mistake. What makes the LSE unique not only in Britain but in the world as a whole — and into a vastly different kind of institution than all of its local competitors — is the quality of its student body. We are able to recruit some of the smartest, most interesting, intelligent, rich, successful and all-round attractive people on the planet. That is, we are able to attract people just like you!

Great American universities like Harvard and Yale may pride themselves in their multiculturalism, but they know little about it. At Yale we were some token foreign students in a corner of the classroom, but the majority of the students were regular, all-American, kids. This is not the case at the LSE. There may be more English students here than others, but we don’t do ‘minorities,’ we are all minorities of some kind or another. Everyone is included, no one cannot take part.

This is why the official language of the School is broken English. Personally I speak this language perfectly fluently.

However it is only in Graduate School, that I finally fully understand the above.

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Mr Wang has three posts related to the admissions decisions made by the local universities. Perhaps these can be counted as reasons to why you should head overseas. Read Dominic’s take too.

Edit (28 Apr): Sg_Ljers has two similar posts.

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UofC front

UofC back

Heh heh. Paiseh, cannot help it. U of C’s school crest looks very much like RJ’s.

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Blood paintings; First class physics tuition Intelligence Gathering???

5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Peishan  |  April 27, 2006 at 6:37 pm

    tsk. tsk tsk.

    i don’t even own the t-shirt myself, and here you are proudly displaying it! i wanna protest! fun does not come to die at the u of c, that is, not if you’re an econ student. if you’re a pre-med, possibly.

    but you know what i learnt from my time at the school? americans are more hard core than us. they study HARDER. like, WAY HARDER. we’re the ones who happily skip class to go on road trips while they dutifully attend every single TA class.

    ok, i didn’t have a point. and i wasn’t answering your question: why study overseas?

    why not? my choices were law in sg and econs here. i was looking for a liberal arts education, which neither the law program or even the general social science program could provide; i was looking for independence and adventure – yes, you could stay in hostels in sg, but really, it’s not the same thing. if you fall ill, need to get laundry done, home is a bus or two away. if you get into trouble, accidents etc, there’s no one really whom you can easily fall back on. blah blah. in a nutshell.

    Reply
  • 2. Hangman  |  April 27, 2006 at 9:51 pm

    Actually Mrs Wee doesn’t author the blog, ScholarSheep is one of the teachers in the committee.

    Reply
  • 3. Unknown  |  April 28, 2006 at 11:37 pm

    I didn’t choose to study overseas.

    But if I did have a choice to study in Malaysia/Singapore or the States, I’d choose the states.

    Reason being, I’m more comfortable with the people here.

    That few years in Malaysia kind of just made me feel inadeqate. The pressure is all about the grades, and the only thing you can do to rebel against that, is to go out at all hours of the night, and etc. etc. etc.

    The people over there kind of scared me. I can’t compete with them, ’cause all they think about is beating the next person, if they’re beatable.

    I’m not like my sister. I don’t participate in any competition. It’s just too stressful. Following that thought, I don’t even care to compete with my fellow students about my grade. Walauway, you say, with that kind of thinking, of course I’ll get beaten up bad – grades talking that is.

    But it doesn’t mean I can’t do well. I’m actually doing better here in California than I did back in Malaysia.

    anyway, just off on some trail of thoughts.

    Reply
  • 4. Unknown  |  April 30, 2006 at 7:26 pm

    Hmm…somehow I missed your post on “Singapore Lecture Series at Brown (II)”

    So I’ll just post here instead.

    I really wished I was there. Seems to be good.

    At my university (UCR), SouthEast Asia courses are only recently being developed, from my knowledge anyways. They have SEA literature, music and a few more if I remember correctly.

    Recently, last year, they had a conference on SEA and Vietnam. Sadly, Malaysia and Singapore are still not important enough here to warrant an in depth study on it. If it is, we’d be seeing a boom in subjects on this matter.

    But like the subject I’ve mentioned earlier, interestingly enough, there’s also a gamelan ensemble on campus, with a professor who has spent years in Indonesia.

    But yeah, every time I hear about this topic, it makes me want to go back to Malaysia and teach humanities subjects and research on OUR culture…not the culture we’re raised to see, such as hollywood and the “white way of life”

    Reply
  • 5. Elia Diodati  |  May 4, 2006 at 9:54 pm

    As long as people understand that the collegiate American body politic is a very diverse beast, and that we as outsiders can at most see only a small part of the elephant…

    Reply

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