My biggest fear about studying at Yale-NUS College was that it would shut down. Then it did.

Still, I will never regret coming to Yale-NUS or to Singapore.

Jane Zhang | September 13, 2021, 10:18 AM

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On Jul. 25, 2014, I landed in Singapore — my past 18 years of life packed into two large suitcases, a carry-on, and a backpack — to join Yale-NUS's second batch of students.

My decision to attend Yale-NUS was not a straightforward one.

I had several options within the U.S., which seemed objectively "safer" than flying around the world to attend Yale-NUS — a new college that had only accepted one class of students so far — given that I was born and raised in the U.S and had no connection to or knowledge about Singapore at all.

One question was also on my mind: What if Yale-NUS shuts down? What if it's just an experiment that fails?

But as I considered all of the incredible reasons to attend Yale-NUS — the chance to build up something new, incredible diversity among Singaporean and international students alike, a robust and tight-knit living and learning community, the opportunity to learn about Asia and Southeast Asia while being situated in the global hub that is Singapore, and so much more — I pushed the nagging questions to the side.

On several occasions during my time as a student, I found myself thinking, "Phew, Yale-NUS hasn't shut down." And as I saw the college grow and the name become more respected and known, I felt so silly even worrying about the prospect.

Yale-NUS's closure

Which is why, last month, when I heard that my worst fears had come true and that NUS has decided to close Yale-NUS in 2025, I was absolutely shell-shocked and felt like a rug had been pulled out from under my feet.

Even Yale-NUS College president Tan Tai Yong was "gobsmacked and flabbergasted" when he was told of the decision only after it had already been made by NUS in July, reported my alma mater's student publication, The Octant.

I personally have been struck by feelings of heartbreak, grief, confusion, and anger following the announcement. These feelings have been even more difficult to come to terms with, given the lack of clarity on how the decision was made, why it was announced in the way it was, and what is to come.

In this reflection, I won't reminisce about the typical university experiences of things like ordering late-night supper with friends and other fun memories — these were valuable parts of my time Yale-NUS, but these were not unique to my college nor my experience.

Instead, I'll write about the importance that the diversity of the student body and high degree of buy-in from students played in shaping Yale-NUS into what it is today, and how these will be heartbreakingly lost in the New College.

Diversity of experiences to draw from

An essential element of what made the Yale-NUS experience unique and impactful was how tiny the community was, yet the immense diversity of experiences that were embodied within it.

Having such a high proportion of international students — with 40 per cent of the student body being either permanent residents or foreigners and more than 60 countries represented — meant that our vast diversity of experiences and backgrounds was able to contribute greatly to our learning and growing process.

And the small size of less than 1,000 students made it extremely unfeasible for students to stay within segmented silos based on nationality or cultural background — e.g. Singaporeans being friends with only Singaporeans, Americans only hanging out with Americans, etc. — which is a phenomena that is often observed in many larger universities around the world, including NUS.

The impact of having such interconnectedness and diversity played out within the classroom as well as outside of it.

In a course that I took in my second year, our class discussion on the politics of identity of the ethnic Chinese in Indonesia and the mass killings that occurred under then-President Sukarno was made even more meaningful by the fact that our professor was herself Indonesian, as was another classmate in our small seminar of less than 20 students.

On another occasion, I found myself seated on the floor of a cozy common lounge late on a Sunday night to listen to two classmates — as well as Yale-NUS president Tan Tai Yong — speak on the topic of "Histories", as part of a student-run initiative to invite members of the Yale-NUS community to share their personal lived experiences and reflections on a series of topics.

That night, a friend, who was born and raised in Mongolia, spoke about Mongolia-China relations from the past, up until present-day, and how Chinese people are seen in Mongolia. The other student — a friend of mine from Colombo, Sri Lanka — spoke about the post-colonial history of her country and the lasting impact that the Sri Lankan Civil War left.

Because we all came from such a wide diversity of lived experiences and backgrounds, our learning in and out of the classroom were enriched and our world views were expanded as we listened to and learned from each other.

New College will lose this diversity of backgrounds

As my friend and fellow alumnus Tee Zhuo wrote for The Business Times, this diversity, together with international experiential learning opportunities, created "locally educated yet internationally informed" students with "adaptable mindsets [that] are particularly important for Singapore's growth in new sectors such as the tech ecosystem".

For Singaporean students who could not afford, or did not wish, to study overseas, Yale-NUS brought this to their own backyard, at a cost which was far more feasible than going abroad, especially given that Yale-NUS practised a need-blind admission process and was committed to meeting the full financial need of each admitted student.

The proposed New College is slated to cut the proportion of international students in half, to only 20 per cent of the student body. With this decrease, the New College will inevitably lose a significant portion of its diversity among its students.

In addition, the diversity of socioeconomic status and financial ability among international students may also be reduced among the New College's student body.

NUS President Tan Eng Chye wrote in The Straits Times on Saturday (Sep. 11) that the New College's funding model will be "more closely aligned" with NUS's "philosophy of providing support for financially disadvantaged Singaporean students". Financial aid will thus likely be focused on Singaporeans and far less will be offered to foreign students, as is NUS's current policy.

For illustration, according to NUS's Office of Admissions' Financial Needs Calculator, the estimated amount of bursary that would be offered to a "relatively needy" foreign student would be only S$1,050, with the rest of the S$23,845 coming from loans or out-of-pocket.

While some may celebrate that Singaporeans are being prioritised for financial support, the consequence of this decision would be that the majority of international students at the New College will likely be students who can afford to pay the majority of their fees out of pocket, and thus come from higher socioeconomic status backgrounds.

Less well-off foreign students, like myself, who offer their own set of unique experiences with class and socioeconomic status, will be unable to afford to attend, and thus will likely be less represented within the student body.

Student-led policies, culture built from ground-up

Another reason Yale-NUS was such a unique and impactful experience for students was the degree to which we, as students, were actively involved in the building up and running of the school.

As Straits Times journalist Timothy Goh, who is also my good friend and former Yale-NUS classmate, wrote:

"Staff, students and faculty had an equal stake in shaping the future of the new school. Students were told that they were not spending their time there just to get a degree, but to build up the institution from scratch and leave behind legacies for students decades down the road."

In the first few years, important aspects of the running of Yale-NUS — the college's curriculum, Constitution, Student Government, mascot, and many more — required immense student involvement, and we rose to the task.

Yale-NUS students called for more diversity in the faculty hiring process. We played an active part in the development and reevaluation of the Common Curriculum, pushing for it to be decolonised and to include a wider range of texts.

Yale-NUS's approach to consent and sexual conduct education also involved significant student involvement through groups such as Kingfishers for Consent, who served as sexual wellness peer educators.

And due to the collaborative hard work of staff and students, the sexual misconduct policy that is implemented at Yale-NUS is survivor-centric and focused on restorative justice.

When first-generation and low-income students felt that there needed to be better support for them, they established the In-Betweeners, an identity collective in which members could share their experiences and find support in one another as they faced the challenges of attending college.

We formed task forces, held town halls, discussed issues over dinner in the dining hall, and so much more. And students gave up their time to work closely with staff and administration to make the ideas that the student body had a reality.

Was only possible through willingness of staff and faculty to engage

I won't pretend that everything was always rainbows and butterflies — in fact, there were always differences in opinion and sometimes feelings of unhappiness or distrust of administration among students — but students kept speaking up because they believed in what they were advocating for and that they would ultimately be heard.

As an alumnus who also worked as a staff member at the college for one year after my graduation, I saw how deeply staff and faculty cared about and valued student input, and how much energy they dedicated toward building up Yale-NUS because they were an integrated part of the community too.

This willingness by staff and faculty to work closely with students on their ideas has been an essential part of making sure that Yale-NUS students' hard work comes to fruition and their voices are heard.

Some may argue that the New College has the potential to have a similar ground-up process involving its students, allowing them to build up the New College like how Yale-NUS students built up ours.

However, given how top-down and unilateral the announcement of the birth of the New College was, it is unclear whether NUS's handling of future decisions in the New College's formative years would be as consultative and inclusive regarding students' input, in the way that was necessary for Yale-NUS to flourish.

The road ahead is unclear

Very little concrete information has been shared by those in decision-making positions regarding the closure of Yale-NUS and the road ahead.

As pointed out by my fellow alumni Tee, Melody Madhavan, and Ng Yi Ming in their timely and well-thought-out response to President Tan Eng Chye's opinion piece on Saturday, the New College has no admissions policy, no website, and less than one year to plan its curriculum. Meanwhile, Yale-NUS was planned over the course of five years.

Tee, Madhavan, and Ng also point out that Tan conflates "liberal arts" with "interdisciplinary education", and highlight that MOE had, in 2008, characterised a liberal arts college model as including a high endowment, small overall cohort size, a low faculty to student ratio, and governance autonomy from NUS.

This autonomy of governance was an essential part of why Yale-NUS was able to operate differently from the rest of NUS, and why we were able to have survivor-centric sexual misconduct processes and affirming policies for LGBTQ+ students.

There has been no indication on whether these policies will be able to continue at the New College when Yale-NUS comes to an end, and whether marginalised students will be able to receive the same support that Yale-NUS offered.

Unfortunately, there is much left unknown, with less than 11 months before the first batch of New College students are supposedly meant to start their course.

Hopefully, as it is discussed in Parliament this upcoming week, more information will be shared, which will allow for a better understanding of the situation at hand.

In the meantime, amidst the lack of clarity on the path forward, current students must frantically decide whether to stay at Yale-NUS, or to transfer to NUS or elsewhere. Alumni worry about whether their degree, which they spent four years pouring their hearts into, will hold as much value in the future.

And the staff and faculty of Yale-NUS College — themselves heartbroken and devastated by the news — are left to pick up the pieces left behind by a decision that was announced to them only one hour before being broadcast to the public, while also being asked to contribute to the development of the New College.

I am grateful for the opportunity, and that's why I question the decision

Despite my worst fears about Yale-NUS's demise coming true, I will never regret coming to Yale-NUS or to Singapore.

Here, I grew into myself, learned to question my own assumptions, was exposed to so many ideas and experiences, and had the privilege of living in and learning about Singapore.

As time passes, I inevitably will need to deal with the logistical challenges that come from this, like preparing an elevator pitch for future employers who may not know about Yale-NUS's existence.

In the meantime, I am incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to attend Yale-NUS and to have such a unique experience, as I know many of my fellow Yale-NUS graduates are as well.

It has been inspiring to see my classmates and current students rally around each other and jump straight into action in the weeks since the announcement: checking in on friends and acquaintances alike, organising mutual aid for those who need it, setting up communication channels so everyone's voices are heard, carefully drafting up petitions, holding each other accountable when sentiments err on the side of elitism, and ultimately, simultaneously using our voices and listening to those around us.

It's simply an extension of what we learned to do at Yale-NUS.

Many opinions have been shared about the closing of Yale-NUS, both among those affiliated with the school and those who are not, but for those asking why Yale-NUS students and alumni are making such a big deal of their school being closed, I can only speak for myself and some of my peers:

It is because of our gratefulness for what we learned and for the community we built that we ask, why will future generations of students, Singaporeans or otherwise, be deprived of this experience?

Top photos via Jane Zhang. 

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