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You have got your acceptance letters and you have made your decision. You will be starting your undergraduate education this August and you couldn’t be more excited! However, as much as you are thrilled, you are nervous as well. It’s a huge world out there and you don’t know if you are ready just yet. Maybe you have never lived without family.
Maybe you have never stayed away from home. Maybe you have never done your own laundry. Maybe the liberty of choice frightens you. Maybe this is the 1st time what you choose to study might directly affect who you choose to be for the rest of your life. Whatever it is, know that you are not alone and that it is normal, for any student about to start his/her 1st semester. I have been there and after my 1st semester as an international student at Yale-Nus, I have had my own share of realizations.
It was my 1st day at Yale-Nus and as soon as I reached the foyer, I was taken aback by the clearly visible excitement and thrill of the orientation committee in welcoming the new class. I had expected no less, but the fact that these people had spent over a month in the college, sacrificing time that could have been spent on a summer internship or with family back home really fostered the sense of what community means at Yale-NUS. It is a small, new college and I am part of only the fifth incoming class in the college’s history ever.
Classes were scheduled to begin two weeks after orientation and most of the students weren’t back yet. Hence this communal spirit was even more perceptible among the upperclassmen and administrative department; they were all working closely together to make sure we smoothly transition into our home for the next four years.
When President Tan Tai Yong said something along the lines of every student of Yale-NUS having the potential, resources and default position to be a forerunner in this community, everything was so clear to me. Spending precious time as part of the orientation committee was a conscious and happy decision that these people made because making this place feel like home and eventually become our home is one of the sentiments that unite us all together. I realized whatever I do here will go down in the history of the college half a century later. I can’t pinpoint what I was exactly feeling but it registered as a concoction of empowerment and urgency.
This prefaces the first of a few advice I have for anyone just starting out with university.
Don’t be afraid to take initiatives :
I know how it can be intimidating, especially if you are in a big university with hardline administrative structures in place, to go ahead and start a club or a student organization. At my school, I believe it is much easier since the student body has a lot of power in molding the university narrative. But I have seen and experienced the feeling of fulfillment that comes from bringing your passion to the mainstream conversation in college and harvesting ideas about things your peers have not seen before.
It is unparalleled, to say the least. This doesn’t mean that you have to start a club from the ground up. This essentially means that you should not be afraid to pursue leadership and uphold your voice and attempt to materialize your ideas in the community. That is why you were accepted in the first place. The biggest mistake you can make is thinking that you will be better off with pursuing leadership later in your university life.
If anything, you are less likely to do so with the increasing academic demands in the penultimate and ultimate years of university. By putting yourself out there, you will learn so much more from everyone working with you and you put yourself in a better position to be well-integrated with not just the school but also the city through logistical responsibilities that may require you to venture out of the comfortable cocoon of your dorm.
I remember a quote which goes something like this, “The best type of conversations are the ones that have to end only because of sleep.” I found myself having many such conversations since I have come to college. And these are times where I feel I learned the most and grew the most as a human being. Our common curriculum pushes us to think critically, outside the narrow area of what we are used to thinking about. This was definitely the case for me, having done strictly STEM in high school.
The picturesque view was something to cherish and be grateful for
But the conversations that began in classrooms were consciously and unconsciously carried outside of them too, over meals in the dining halls, during community events and even when we found ourselves enjoying a laid back evening. This not only introduced me to the underlying beliefs of my peers, but also to the deep-rooted biases I hoard. There are so many opinions that I thought would never be contested but they have been and have led to a healthy amount of philosophizing ever since. Conversations are pleasing and insightful. Try them.
I think this goes without saying that having a group of friends that you can rely on and look to in need of help is something everyone would like to experience in their undergraduate experience. What we do tend to do, and I am guilty of this too, is that we stick to people who look like us and probably have experienced similar culture in their lifetime.
While that sense of unity is definitely commendable and it provides an amplified level of comfort, I have realized that the best and perhaps only way of really making use of an international education like Yale-NUS(45 nationalities in my class alone), is by venturing out. My perception of Europeans was overly simplistic and heavily influenced by how it is portrayed in the media.
I was also guilty of homogenizing Slovaks from different countries. My perceptions have widely changed ever since, as I continue to talk about these issues with people who have had that experience and try to evaluate how I form these assumptions in the first place. As part of our orientation, each of our three residential colleges were taken on a trip to a neighboring country and I had the privilege of going to Surabaya in Indonesia.
The picturesque view was something to cherish and be grateful for. But the most formative memory of mine has to be having a nuanced conversation about Poland with my Polish friend over a cup of indomie, while we overlook a volcano at 4 am in extreme cold. Here is a picture to give you an idea about the setting.
Embrace and uphold your culture:
I don’t know how many people reading this will be able to relate or share my sentiment. But being one of only two people who grew up in Bangladesh at Yale-NUS, I felt quite intimidated in the beginning. I thought most of the people here, who happen to be Singaporeans, will perceive Bangladesh from their experience with the migrant workers from Bangladesh.
The fact that most taxi-drivers ask me whether I am from India and the nuanced differences and identity politics of Bangladeshis from other nationalities of South Asia, didn’t help either. Yale-NUS attracts some great minds and some awe-inspiring individuals from all around the world because of its unique position and multidisciplinary teaching. I went through a phase when I doubted my intellectual abilities and thought that I was only accepted for the sake of tokenistic diversity; a way to improve the college statistics.
These plethora of emotions had consumed me when I realized that even if that were true, I had the power to define how people view me and the default responsibility to represent Bangladesh in the greater college community. Throughout the course of the semester, I had participated in the Student Speaker Series hosted by one of our residential colleges to talk about my experience as a Bangladeshi Muslim woman, sang a Bangla song called ‘Ami Banglay gaan gai’ with my mom for family weekend and wrote an article in Bangla for our multilingual magazine to name a few.
And I will be ever so grateful for how well my story has been received by everyone here. The entire semester has been transformative from this aspect and it has heightened my appreciation for my language and my country.
When I finally reached my abode in Dhaka for winter break, an ineffable tourniquet of emotions led me to a rather comforting discovery. I was afraid of feeling unsettled by my newfound love for this new place and not being able to reconcile the distance between the two and always feeling a sense of incompleteness.
But love is never equal or similar, neither in its inherent nature nor in its expression. The moment we define it, we restrict it. The empty lift in my home back in Dhaka instilled a sense of relaxation, a stark contrast from the lifts here in Yale-NUS, filled with posters of all the madness that constantly goes around here. The latter is a constant source of inspiration and hustle when I am here. In the end, I only have gratefulness, love and perpetually rekindled determination. And the word ‘Hiraeth’ keeps coming to mind. It is a word that expresses homesickness for a place that was never home. I guess my home is in my fleeting mind, somewhere between the two places that define my identity now. I am homesick and I am conscious I will always be. But I am also home. I am where I am supposed to be.
It starts from your 1st semester, it starts from today. Whether you find a 2nd home in your next 4 years, isn’t a random incident that may or may not happen. It’s a choice, a decision that only you can take. And now you know how.
This article’s audiobook is read by Rafsan Lazim.
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