Misconceptions about my overseas education

I felt the need to respond to the seemingly innocent comments people have been dropping at me, especially those undermining my efforts at university and my eventual paper certification.

1. “Enjoy life only”.

I think the ease or difficulty of university is always up to the individual. I guess it is easy to jump to conclusions about our workload when people like me get granted 4-hour timetables the entire term; I am hardly in school, after all. But I bet you did not know I overloaded my timetable last term, doing 6 out of the 8 necessary modules.

In your conclusion about my schooling life you probably did not account for the hours I spend at Starbucks and the Science library doing readings and churning out essay after essay, coursework after coursework for submissions. That is of course, primarily for a degree in the Humanities where submissions and examinations are often of a qualitative nature. You did not see the Economics students doing their weekly quizzes, you did not see the Law student who finished 4 ink cartridges within 2 months, and you did not expect my two flatmates to leave university because they found that university (and possibly, the workload) was not for them.

What is different about us then? Readings are often optional, but you will realise that they are essential eventually. To find that there is a ton of it because of the extremely well-staffed Geography department here; the staff-to-student ratio here is 1:3 and many of them have their own exclusive research interests that they passionately write and teach about. Lectures are often extremely wide in breadth, but they go little on depth, which necessitates a lot time outside class. Also, the fact that I have very little time in class makes me appreciate every single lesson and I would dare to conclude that I actually absorb a lot in every single lecture I attend. I occasionally chance upon Snapchat images and videos of people snoozing in lectures back home, doing homework from other modules, basically not paying attention to lectures. Doing shit in lecture happens here too, but possibly on rarer occasions because we have such minimal hours in school to sap our energy anyway. Most people will just skip the lecture if they deem it useless. Maybe we are actually “mentally attending” the same number of hours a week?

Most of us do not have mid-terms, finals, examinations, that can take place up to 4 times a year. It comes all at one go, and these graded examinations will be our final mark for the module. Do I prefer this? I am not too sure — afterall, I haven’t had examinations in university yet. The Singapore university system with the infamous “A Levels 4 times a year” probably does indeed prepare you intensively though, and allow your final grade to spread out across the year. We don’t, and the independence granted to us to control our own studying means that many of us shit our pants when it is 3 months to examinations (like now). What if we fail one module?

It’s always a choice here too, but we are just like any other educational institution. If you want to be mediocre, then go easy on revision. You want that first-class that historically, only 10.89% students obtain (felt the need to cite this)? Then mug your ass off. It is the same everywhere, isn’t it?

Sometimes, some of us just choose not to Snapchat it.

2. I have a lot of free time (when I persuade people to attend university in UK, they respond with lines of “but education is important to me”).

Actually maybe I do, in fact, learn less than you. But as highlighted, it is always a choice.

But I cannot deny that I have a lot of free time. I can take out pockets of time to go running and swimming, I can allocate an hour every night to play the piano, and I can allocate about five hours every week to work on my Korean language learning. I can even travel on weekends!

Why do I have so much free time though? Because, very primarily, I do not have a social life over here. The occasional meet-ups with people as a form of social gathering definitely cannot surpass the social life that NUS and NTU halls provide very well. I do not have hall activities, I do not need to plan for orientation or Surf and Sweat or Bike Rally or anything that I used to attend as a JC student in the past. I do not have hall suppers, inter-hall games, hall/faculty bash, RAG, tournaments, or ANY form of activity that I would view on Snapchat with envy. Even if you do not choose to stay in hall in university, you probably have a greater social life than me from the sole fact that you definitely would have friends actively involved in hall; hanging out with them alone would grant you to a plethora of activities that I, over here, do not have the access to. Growing up in the same cultural background (i.e. Singapore) means that you are likely going to enjoy the same ideas of hanging out, same conversations, which would allow anyone to forge friendships easily. And in that, find endless things to do together.

Me? I have a limited number of friends I can actually enjoy activities with (mostly Asians), as the #TGIF ideals here of partying, getting wasted in clubs and suffering a hangover the next day do not really appeal to me.

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Remember this triangle? Many students back home struggle achieving the best of all three. Undisputedly my personal choice means that I do not really have to care for “social life” over here; which may paint an illusion of my university life being free, easy and undemanding.

I can get involved in clubs and societies if I want to, and I can join extra-curricular activities if I desire. I just chose not to. I have a lot of excuses for why I choose not to get involved, but I will leave them for another day and another conversation. So maybe the truth is that many could be free like me too. Many of them, or many of you, just choose to be busier, and to lead a more fulfilling university life that I opted out of. Will I regret? Maybe. I don’t recall anyone ever regretting fulfilling and busy lives though, at least when I think back to days in JC.

3. I get to keep travelling.

Actually, Singaporeans do have the freedom to travel on weekends too. However, for some reason being in London provides a greater propensity to travel on short-haul flights for short weekend trips, or for road trips. I mean, while we can boast about Europe and the tons of cities a mere 2-hour flight from us, you could also talk about Bangkok, Myanmar, Philippines, Vietnam, Laos, Bhutan and Indonesia. Hong Kong and Taiwan isn’t that far away from Singapore either; there’s a reason why Changi Airport is one of the busiest airports in the world. Singapore services a lot of destinations too.

Also, I get to travel so much mostly because of SAF and the spare allowance I have after paying for accommodation, meals and other miscellaneous stuff. Only international students here tend to travel quite a bit, and even among us there are variations in this pattern. To some of us I guess being far away from home means that we try not to let go of the endless opportunities we have to visit destinations close to us, and to truly learn as much as we can about the world out there. “Europe” to Singaporeans and “Asia” to Londoners are probably equally exotic in their own cognitive maps.

And maybe I travel because I have a lot of free time. More often than not, it is a choice as mentioned above. The independence you have here means that you make what you want out of this opportunity to study abroad, and in that I choose to pick up new skills and find new hobbies. I can mug 24/7 too, there are endless readings that I can never finish for the broad coverage of topics here, but why would anyone choose to do that? I want to learn more, and much more, about everything and anything that I will not receive, or not have the time to visit, when I return home in 3 years time.

My personal thoughts are far from depicting the lives of all university and international students over here, as I speak from the perspective of someone enrolled in a course which some describe to be “the slackest in UCL”. I am just tired of people undermining my “Mickey Mouse degree” and overseas education, hinting at how there is no necessity to pay exorbitant amounts for a mere paper certificate not from the STEM degree list, making snide remarks about how I am “living the life” while they are slogging their lives away back home. I have my busy days too, I have my bad days, and I have many occasions when I fail to score well for essays too. I may not necessarily have it easier, I just have it different from many others back home. And guess what, I envy you on many, many occasions too.

Nonetheless, I know I am truly blessed to be here, an opportunity that is only read about in books and watched about in movies. I walked through the building housing the Facebook London HQ today, with a registration counter for people to drop their badges (with the Like button on the box!) I was once again reminded how lucky I am to be situated so closely to where big ideas are developed, and where global foreign talents are attracted to congregate.

2 years ago during my involvement in NDP 2014, I had an interesting conversation with a NSF officer who discouraged me from signing on. I remember the scene: I was standing to the left exit of the Marina Bay Floating Platform. He directed me towards the skyscrapers, and told me that there’s a world much bigger out there, and the SAF was just about the smallest world you could expect (context: he had budding dreams of becoming an entrepreneur). I cannot discount these claims because I was last a mere midshipman, barely aware of what is in store for myself in the next decade. But today, I choose to be thankful to the SAF for showing me this form of a “larger world out there”. Life is what you make out of it.


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