Abroad: In Yale University

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It was already fifteen minutes into class, and still she’s said nothing.

I look at the guy sitting across from me. He’s holding in a laugh. Everyone around the room wonders about the limits of human ignorance – and not just because we were in philosophy class.

I try to make it obvious, so I reach for my head, as if to scratch my hair – and I hold up my bunny ears and start flapping it around. Still nothing. I gave a small cough, leaned back, and stretched my arms, revealing the obnoxious pink torso that forms part of my full-body bunny onesie.

She continues talking about Plato’s Republic. I raise my white-furred arm.

“Plato thinks that the tripartite composition of our soul corresponds to the three classes in the ideal city,” I say in all my bunnied glory. My professor nods, and doesn’t even give me a second glance. At the end of class, as I gathered up my things, I feel a desperate need to vindicate myself.

“Professor, I feel the need to explain that this….” I point to my rabbit costume. “…is not a fashion choice. I’d promised to do this dare if I’d completed a fundraiser. So, yeah… Just in case you were wondering.”

“Ah,” she shrugged. “Honestly, I just thought you hadn’t done your laundry this week.”

That was the moment I knew I had found a home at Yale.

WHY THE UNITED STATES

The allure of a US education lies in its complete inversion of what we Singaporeans have been so accustomed to in our local education system. In Singapore, we are shepherded towards a certain route, and told that as long as we work hard, we can achieve excellence. Consequently, much of our efforts have been dedicated towards pedaling the bike as hard as we can, without really thinking of where we want this bike to go.

The chase for grades has been a necessary rite-of-passage during our pre-university years, but a US education provides a welcome opportunity to finally explore the varied fields of study that eluded us during our IB mugging.

WHAT IS THE LIBERAL ARTS?

Historically speaking, it was called “liberal” because the ancient Romans saw a broad-based study (rhetoric, philosophy, mathematics) such as this as the privilege of the liberal person, free from the vocational demands of labourers and slaves. Studying the liberal arts was seen as necessary to fully equip someone with the knowledge and wisdom to fully participate in society as a free citizen.

In today’s terms, the liberal arts is an education system that allows you to choose classes across many disciplines over your university education. You might need to fulfill a certain progression of classes in order to graduate with a major in a specific subject, but you will invariably be able to take many other classes that do not fall under that field of study. Unlike education in Singapore or UK where you might be restricted to the specific faculty that you applied to, in a liberal arts system you could be simultaneously taking a class on ancient Chinese poetry, while majoring in Chemistry.

At Yale, the liberal arts system manifests in a 36-credit requirement for graduation, with each class averaging one credit. Majors usually require 12 credits to be dedicated towards that particular field of study, be it in general or in specific classes. There are no minors offered at Yale, but you can double major in two subjects here.

IS LIBERAL ARTS TOO UNFOCUSED?

Personally, I think that deep expertise has its own utility in certain fields – law and medicine, for example – but is not necessarily essential to being a learned person, or to have a “legit” job. Being able to draw both content and ways of thinking from varied fields could assist in our future occupations and personal pursuits as well.

Perhaps you might fear that you’d end up a jack-of-all-trades but master-of-none. To this worry, I do concede that an education specifically dedicated to the study of a certain field might yield greater expertise. But you’d have to ask yourself how much value this deep exploration might yield, as compared to the broadening of perspectives that studying a contrasting, or complementary, subject might. Even if you want to be an engineer, perhaps being able to take classes in philosophy or history could hone your thinking in ways that a vocationally-trained engineer would not be able to.

Global praise for our Singaporean education system is evidence that we are doing something right back home – but this system may not be right for everyone, especially in tertiary education. In ACS(I), we’ve been more fortunate than some of our peers, because the IB provides broad-based learning akin to the US’ liberal arts system, and prepares us for university-style education as a whole. If you’ve been enjoying IB because of how you’ve noticed your varied HLs and SLs conversing with each other, or by the interest-driven projects in the IA and EE, then do consider studying in the US.

ACADEMIC CULTURE

I chose Yale because of its reputation for having a community driven by passion in learning, rather than concerns of future job prospects and the like. I can’t speak for other universities since I don’t have first-hand experience, but Yale does have a reputation for being more “chill” and having a stronger community spirit, as opposed to the pre-professional attitudes in some other US universities. That being said, many of the top universities in the US – especially the Ivies – share more similarities than they do differences. After some point, observations about cultural differences boil down to subjective experiences. I would suggest basing your decision more on the “hard” aspects of what the university can offer, instead of obsessing over the softer aspects like sense of community – because after all, you won’t form a “community” with the whole cohort, but small pockets of friends, and though universities will have different proportions of people with certain personalities, you’d be able to carve out your own social space there regardless.

STEM OR HUMANITIES?

If you are interested in the humanities and social sciences, then Yale would be a great place to explore these fields. History, economics, global affairs, EP&E (ethics, politics, and economics) are amongst the most popular and internationally-lauded faculties at Yale. This does not imply that the hard sciences are weak or ignored. It doesmean, however, that there are other universities with more established and more recognised courses in STEM fields. Yet, there are plenty of students at Yale who study STEM, because there is great synergy between STEM and the humanities, and a liberal arts education here (as opposed to an education focused on computer science in a non-liberal arts US university, for example) greatly enables this. Computer science is one of the more popular STEM majors here, and there are many pre-med students at Yale as well. Don’t be put off by the more humanities-focused environment at Yale if you’re a STEM person – however, certain fields do greatly benefit from certain brand names and dedicated courses of study (for example, engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology), so do take note of that too.

SHOPPING PERIOD

One great feature of Yale’s academic system is its “shopping period”. For the first two weeks of classes every term, you are allowed to pop into most classes (for five minutes, or for the full session) to get a taster of what the class would be like. You won’t need to firm up your class schedule for the term until the end of shopping period, which means that you’ll have the chance of exploring a wide range of classes beyond just seeing their syllabus on the course database.

RANGE OF CLASSES

The classes at Yale range from the academically rigorous to the academically ludicrous. A friend of mine took a class titled “Blue”, which studied the uses and symbolisms of – you guessed it – the color blue. Other popular classes last year were titled “Ancient Ships”, “Anime and the Posthuman”, and the internationally-reported “Psychology and the Good Life” (the regular assignments for this class included mandatory meditation sessions everyday for a week, as well as a “what I am thankful for today” notebook). However, this is sharply contrasted with many more-explicitly academically legitimate classes. CS50, an introduction to computer science class jointly taught by Harvard and Yale, is well known for the 15-hour problem sets it assigns weekly. Directed Studies and Grand Strategy are classes that are well-known beyond Yale and even in the corporate world, and some students choose Yale specifically to apply to take these classes. Depending on how many majors you are taking, and what majors you are taking, you’ll be able to explore a wide variety of insightful, fun, or just plain weird classes across your four years here.

I personally took a great class on culture and trauma studies that watched and analysed the first two seasons of The Walking Dead and several other movies. The way the class revealed to me the intersections between psychology, philosophy, film studies, and sociology truly changed the way I’ve viewed the relationship between the individual and society, all while vindicating my hours spent on Netflix.

The structure of classes varies widely depending on what specific classes you take. In general, there are three types of classes: (a) lectures; (b) seminars; (c) lab session. Lectures are larger classes that take dozens, up to hundreds of students (Psychology and the Good Life famously had a class size of 1.2k – almost a fourth of the total Yale undergraduate population). These lectures could be paired up with “sections”, which are smaller follow-up tutorial sessions ran by teaching assistants or the professors themselves. Seminars are smaller classes, usually number from eight to 18 people, which are more discussion-based and moderated by the professor. Lab sessions are mainly science-specific, and because I didn’t take any science classes, I can’t really give much insight about. As you would notice, the numbers in Yale classes are quite different from, say, in Oxford and Cambridge, where tutorials are usually two-to-one or even one-or-one. The decision on whether Yale suits you would depend on how you prefer your classes taught. The benefit of having small but still populated classes is that discussions can be engaging, and you can learn a lot from the clash of ideas and perspectives. You can compensate for the lack of individual attention offered in class by approaching the professors during their office hours (when their doors are open to any students for consultation or to have a quick chat).

EXTRACURRICULARS

Extracurricular activities are huge part of the Yale experience as well, with students often viewing their academic pursuit and extracurricular activities with equal emphasis. Whether you’re interested in playing sports at club or varsity level; join a club advocating for social causes; or a performing arts, there is something for everyone here. I personally saw a lot of AC in Yale in this particular respect: academics and ECAs aren’t seen as a dichotomy, but mutually dependent in providing the full educational experience. It will definitely be a challenge to balance both academic and extracurricular commitments, but that’s the magic of being transported to a community of passionate and like-minded people; because you’ll always have someone to pull you up when you’re down.

SOCIAL CULTURE 

Social life at Yale, as is true any other educational institution, is greatly defined by your circle of friends. There will be pockets of students with noses buried in books, or perpetually hungover, but it would be difficult to categorise the community as a whole. As mentioned above, the Yale community has a reputation for possessing a strong community spirit, and feature a population with varied passions that manifest in regular campaigns or projects across campaigns. It is sometimes very heartening to witness this solidarity, and strong convictions in others – it’s hard not to be inspired to pursue one’s own beliefs with the same zest.

RESIDENTIAL COLLEGES

Once you matriculate, you’ll be divided into fourteen residential colleges, each pulling together a diverse group of people so that it becomes microcosm of the greater Yale community (no Hogwarts sorting hat based on personality and/or significance to plot). For the first two years (or until you are 21 years old), you’ll be living on campus in suite-style accommodation, sharing an apartment with several other suitemates. Whether you have a single or double room really depends on which residential college you are in, and what year you are in (priority for singles are given to the juniors and seniors).

SOCIAL ACTIVITIES

There is no lack of social activities at Yale. Performing arts events are held insanely regularly – there is almost always a concert or magic show to attend every weekend. The community spirit regularly manifests itself in various campus-wide celebrations and events: the annual Harvard-Yale American football game, Halloween, etc. This is something I particularly love about Yale, as there is a perpetual sense of excitement around campus.

GRE*K LIFE

Is there a culture of partying, drinking here? Yes, as I am sure is true for almost every college in the US. Is it something you cannot get out of if you’re not comfortable with it? Absolutely not. The drinking age here in Connecticut (and in most states) is 21, but as you can probably guess this is adhered to in varied degrees across campus. If you are self-admittedly conservative and fear that being in a US university would put you in very uncomfortable situations, rest assured that there is enough space for you to insulate yourself from these activities. If you are, conversely, more “adventurous”, also be comforted that partying at Yale is both accessible and not as ridiculously wild as some Hollywood films paint it to be, so that you won’t end up straying from the main point of a university education (i.e. learning).

SOCIAL ACTIVISM

Regarding other aspects of social culture, social activism manifests here in magnitudes completely unheard of in Singapore. I was definitely shocked and inspired by the passion and heart of service that my fellow peers had. Many volunteer at NGOs or community-driven projects, utilising a lot of their own skills like programming or performing arts to contribute to the greater society. In Singapore, we’ve seen glimpses of this being done, but it is largely through institutional structures: VIA etc. That’s not to say that the good being done by students in Singapore is therefore insincere – and the culture at home is definitely improving – but at Yale (and US in general), there is a greater sense of urgency. Many see doing work here as a sort of moral responsibility – whether this is in itself self-aggrandisement is a conversation we can have another day.

I see myself as a liberal, but I had a culture shock when coming to the US as well. There were many issues I was faced with that forced me to question whether “liberalism” can truly be understood in the same way between cultures (conversations on “cultural appropriation”, for example), and whether “conservatism” has really been justifiably getting a bad name in self-styled liberal democracies like America. Regardless of your personal beliefs, studying in an environment so different from our tamer sociopolitical space back home definitely challenges you to clarify your beliefs and stances. Additionally, the issue of “safe spaces” does come up sometimes, which personally does make me uncomfortable. It is a particularly ironic product of the liberal ideal of free speech – one that I can empathise with, but still unsure of how to reconcile. If free speech and debate supposedly strengthens the community’s values and perspectives, then why selectively disallow it in certain circumstances? This is a question I’ve still been struggling to answer – a question that I have been very glad to have been forced to confront. After all, these are all parts of personal growth that a university education promises.

GENERAL COMMENTS

APPLYING TO YALE (AND THE US)

Advice on application isn’t the focus of this piece, but I think it’s important to convey that Yale isn’t unreachable. Sure, it is competitive to get into, but don’t write yourself off just because you’re not topping your cohort in every subject, or because you got 32 overall points in Year 5 (that’s what I got). That’s the thing with US applications – it’s very hard to predict what the admission officers are looking for, because unlike the UK or Singapore, they don’t just look at academic scores. Mere good grades don’t provide security for your admission. US universities prize passion and personality, and they are actively trying to craft a class that is diverse; when writing your application, keep these both in mind. It’s not enough to show you’re intelligent – many people who apply to Yale are intelligent – you need to show that you passionate, have something unique about you, and have something to contribute to the Yale community. Anothr important thing is to be cognisant of your audience: who are you writing the common application and supplements for? Different universities have different missions and cultures, so cater your application towards that.

FINANCIAL CONCERNS

If you have a strong interest in studying in the US, but are hesitant because of the financial costs of such a dream, I encourage you not to quickly write off the option just yet. Many top US universities have a commitment to reduce financial barriers to education. A large proportion of their endowments are dedicated to financial aid, which they provide to both domestic and international students. Do some research into these universities, and talk to our COG department to consider options. For example, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton are needs-blind to international applicants. That is to say, they evaluate your application independent of your financial need, and guarantee provision of financial aid should you be admitted. Note, however, that this financial aid may not be 100%, and may not be subjectively sufficient. Some other universities do guarantee provision of financial aid should you be admitted, but they take into account your financial need when evaluating your application i.e. declaring a need for financial aid may hurt your application a little.

SAFETY

If you are concerned about safety, as New Haven, where Yale is located at, is known for some criminal activity, rest assured that the university has spared no resources in ensuring the students’ safety. There are frequent patrols by campus security and campus police; you can call for a security escort to any location on campus any time of the night. Yale takes safety very seriously, so do not worry about this. Of the past year I’ve been at Yale, I’ve never felt unsafe. There has admittedly been some criminal activity, but they are usually away from where our campus is.

Tat Wei is from the class of 2016, and was in the rugby team and student council. He is a strong believer that binge-watching TV and consequent late-night mugging are key tenets to the IB life.

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