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By What We Give

What sets SMU apart as a “Different U”?

Ask around and you’ll hear the usual answers about our different approach to academics and co-curricular activities — but to me, what truly sets our college experience apart is how every graduate gives back to our community.

Because every SMU student has to serve 80 hours of community service before graduation, it’s easy to think of it as a chore (as I did at first!) — yet, students from the Class of 2014 completed 140 hours of service each: a clear sign that students aren’t just serving the community in order to meet some quota. And as one of those students, I’ve come to understand that that’s because community service gives back to you as much as you do.

Project Namaste VII

My journey of service began with Project Namaste VII in 2012. Running a different initiative every year since 2006, Project Namaste ( aims to benefit the villagers of Nepal. For our 7th trip, we worked together with teachers and tutored students in English to improve the way children were educated.

By introducing alternative ways to teach English besides rote learning (a method deeply ingrained in Nepalese culture) we trained the teachers of the community there to engage their students so they could learn more effectively.

Seeing how our programme changed the community for the better, the warmth with which the Nepalese embraced us; the joy with which they led their lives, in spite of the lack of the modern comforts and conveniences we took for granted—these experiences changed me profoundly.

The Project Namaste VII team

And so, though Project Namaste VII was a success, I found myself returning to two questions: would our changes last? And was it our Nepalese partners, or us, who benefitted the most from Project Namaste?

I remained unsatisfied.

We concluded the project with a sense that everything we had experienced, that everything we had learned, was as valuable to us as—or even more so than—what we had given back to them. Could this really be considered as community service? Furthermore, I felt that we could have done even more for our Nepalese partners.

I had originally planned to go to Nepal only once, then focus on my academics and career upon my return. But my thoughts, questions, and experiences there led me to different priorities. I wanted to shape a better project for our partners, and guide a new group to share my journey of self-discovery: and so I stepped up to lead Project Namaste VIII.

Project Namaste VIII

The leaders of Project Namaste VIII!

Though I joined Project Namaste VIII with a clear idea of how I wanted it to look like, that quickly changed. Our partner school in Nepal had just entered the 4th year into their 5-year vision, with technology capability remaining as one of the outstanding goals they had yet to achieve, so my fellow leaders proposed to re-design our programme to directly address this need—a decision I initially opposed.

Over the course of several days, however, they convinced me of the need for this change, as they were confident that it was essential in order to build a more robust programme for our Nepalese partners.

And because of their conviction, we did.

Donating laptops to the school and organising introductory lessons to basic Microsoft software for local teachers, Project Namaste VIII marked a departure from Project Namaste’s historical focus on education towards implementing technological solutions. This paid off remarkably well, with the teachers displaying unprecedented levels of enthusiasm and engagement during these sessions.

Learning Points

My key learning takeaway from leading Project Namaste VIII? Community service isn’t about going in with a preconceived notion of what we think the community needs.

Rather than giving something your partners don’t want or need because you think it’s the ‘best’ solution, we only serve the community when we listening to our partners, understand their needs, and build effective solutions for their unique sociocultural and economic context.

As a leader, I also learnt that you have to loosen your control to let those under you grow. From our experience in Project Namaste VII, my fellow project leaders and I had our own sense of what was the best way to organise the project: so giving more ownership of the project was possibly one of the hardest things to do, because it meant losing elements of control.

However, this decision proved to grow the maturity of our members, as taking responsibility for different aspects of the project led them to a greater appreciation of the meaningfulness of Project Namaste, and the privileges they enjoyed back home.

Community service: it’s about helping those who work with you grow too.

When we commit to understanding our partner communities, community service benefits not just them, but also the volunteers and leaders, too.

Winston Churchill said that “we make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give”.

Your 80 hours can make a tremendous difference. Make them make lives.

13,525 kilometres away from Home;

090215 – 060615 | Just like that, 4 months of my exchange has come to an end.  It has been a unique experience, and a process of self discovery. The toughest part is leaving when I’d just adapted.

February 2015 was when I left home for one semester of international exchange in Warsaw, Poland at the Warsaw School of Economics aka Szkoła Głowna Handlowa w Warszawie (SGH). SGH has the oldest business school in Poland and is one of the top universities in the country.

Building C. SGH

Adapting to life in Warsaw was daunting. The first challenge was definitely communicating with locals. Poles communicate primarily in Polish even if they speak English. And it was not always easy to find someone who spoke English – even in the international student hostel of the university, there was only one adminstrative manager who could speak English. Simple tasks like asking for directions and buying groceries suddenly became very difficult. 

It was only days after we arrived that we learned that some locals were very proud of their own language as a representation of their nationality. This was especially important to them given that Poles had to speak Russian during the communist period. We tried to pick up some basic vocabulary to show respect to the Polish culture. Strangely enough, people did seem friendlier even if we could only greet them “Dzień Dobry (Good morning)” or “Do widzenia (Goodbye)”!

Part of going on international exchange is to learn and embrace differences. But if there’s one exception, it would be that racism should not be embraced or tolerated under any circumstances. Once, a fellow student came up to me and shouted “Asian”, amongst other offensive comments, right into my face. I barely knew this student and I was honestly quite offended by his actions. I told myself to let it go because I was alone in a foreign land. In hindsight, perhaps I should have stood up to him. It is a shame that despite living in such a globalised world, there are still such insular individuals. Incidents like this make me more appreciative of the racial harmony we enjoy in Singapore. 

Trying some homemade pineapple tarts with our polish buddies on arrival in Warsaw.

Attending classes taught in English meant that most of my classmates were exchange students and it was really a platform for me to learn more about other cultures outside of Poland. We had to do a project about MNCs in different countries. While my group chose Singapore, the project was a different experience because I could not take it for granted that my classmates understood what I was talking about. It was crucial to set the context for them and I felt like I became an Ambassador for Singapore! 

Another element of going on exchange is definitely the opportunity to travel to different parts of the world. One of my most memorable trips was my trip to Iceland, where I saw the northern lights and explored an ice cave. 

The trip to Iceland consisted of 7 friends including fellow ambassadors Wen Yun, Hong Wen, Laura and Bryan. A bit of familiarity while being overseas is a great feeling to have! Apart from the fun moments, we also encountered a minor traffic accident where our vehicle skidded off the road and crashed into the snow walls formed at the sides of the road. Luckily, we were all unharmed. It was at times like these that you experience friendships in its rawest form – Bryan, who was at the wheel at the time, made sure we all stayed in the car while he braved the gale to check out the situation. The others checked to make sure everyone was safe before cracking a joke or two. 

Northen Lights in Iceland. Image credits: Jacob Ma

Jökulsálón Glacier Lagoon in Iceland. Image credits: Jacob Ma

One of the biggest takeaways is that going on exchange really pushed me out of my own comfort zone. Experiencing new things is a part of growing up isn’t it? Going on exchange, there were times when I had to eat alone (one thing I really dislike) and I learned to embrace that and many other things that are not the norm for me. I’m glad I picked a place that’s entirely different from Singapore for exchange because it showed me a lot more than I’ve ever expected, and I too, surprised myself with my ability to adapt. 

Exchange can be lonely and difficult sometimes, but it will be as exciting and adventurous as how you allow it to be. For those heading off to exchange, good luck, and safe adventures! And for those who are considering an exchange, if you can afford the time and money, go for it – it’ll show you a whole new world, a new fantastic point of view; no one to tell us no or where to go, or say we're only dreaming (:

A Different U

It seemed not too long ago that I was a prospective undergraduate, ‘A’-Level results in hand, staring at another of SMU’s brochures. Cheery colors. Pictures of happy undergraduates. “Discover A Different U”, it said.

I had my doubts. I remember thinking: “How different would I really be?”

Impressed by how uniquely different SMU students presented themselves during SMU Open House, I selected SMU as my university of choice. While it surprised all my family and friends at that time, that decision turned out to be one of the best decisions I have ever made and one that I have never regretted. Despite all my initial reservations, the brochure was undeniably right about one thing: SMU is truly a Different University. 

Celebratory Dinner and Drinks after Summer Internships!

The first way in which SMU proved to be different: Class participation. Or as it’s colloquially known to all SMU students, “class part”. Personally, it was first a source of immense frustration. Coming from a junior college where there was less interaction between students and their lecturers, I struggled to speak up during my early semesters in SMU.

Despite my initial hesitance, engaging professors and classmates in dialogue soon proved to be far more interesting than simply sitting in class and trying (unsuccessfully) to stay awake! Doing so added another dimension to my classroom learning experience – I learnt not just from my professors, but from my classmates too. 

Getting used to challenging opinions, assumptions and ideas, and having my own challenged, encouraged me to get comfortable with speaking up in class – and outside of class as well! Class participation has value-added to my learning experiences, and steadily built up my confidence. As a result, I’ve since warmed up to the idea of “class part-ing” as I begin my 3rd year in SMU.

The second? Project work. Putting academic theories to practical use in the real world made them relevant (and more palatable). It challenged me to work on my ability to manage people, delegate, write concise reports, present to large audiences, and (perhaps my biggest takeaway) manage my time well! With a minimum of four projects within each semester of 13 weeks, I quickly learnt to get my priorities right and manage my time carefully, lest I miss out on any of my deadlines.

Although learning these hard and soft skills wasn’t always easy, they gave me an invaluable advantage during my internship. Going through an internship was just like completing one massive project, and even more: I was required to work on multiple projects during the course of my 10-week internship. This was where the rigour of the SMU curriculum proved sufficient in preparing me to navigate through all of them with relative ease.

Finally, what sets SMU apart is the everyday sight of SMU students studying on campus wherever chairs, tables and power outlets can be found! Some consider this to merely be a symptom of an over-competitive culture; but what I’ve found is that SMU students are motivated more by an intense internal drive for personal excellence, rather than the competitive pressure from their peers. but.

The SMU culture is about competition; not so much against others but against yourself. It challenges you to be better than you were yesterday, every day. Seeing so many of my peers working hard to achieve their various academic, career and personal goals compelled me to do the same! What initially originated from a fear of losing out evolved over time into a determination to work hard consistently. Consequently, my time in SMU instilled a sense of self-discipline that had been sorely lacking in my teenage years.

End-of-Summer Dinner with the Ambassadors!

All that said, SMU’s not all about academics and work either – amidst all the hustle and bustle of campus life, I found that it was equally important to strike a balance between work and play. I’ve been fortunate enough to forge a diverse, yet close-knit group of friends over the course of my four semesters in school. As one another’s cheerleaders, confidantes, and taskmasters, they remind me that university’s not simply about preparing for life after graduation, but about living it to the fullest!

How different am I? Two years and a myriad of learning experiences later, I know – with absolute certainty – what my answer is. I’ve become more outspoken, disciplined, and motivated. I’ve developed a side of myself that I never knew I had. I am, quite simply, a very different me – and I owe that much to a Different U.

What does a fully planned overseas study trip have in store for you?

Flashback to 2013, to my childlike, starry-eyed first year self starting my 2nd semester of studies. It must have been a fine day in the library (most year ones are over-zealous about performing well after all) where I was checking my email and chanced upon an invitation to be part of a study trip sponsored by the SMU Scholars Program. As an SMU Scholar, one is entitled to 4 years of fully-sponsored tuition fees and a sponsored overseas immersion program. I registered for it without much thought, kick-starting my very first overseas program with SMU.

A group picture at CPA Australia.

Australia, otherwise known as the land down under, is a modest 8 hour flight from Singapore. The planned itinerary was short, spanning 10 days from start to end, covering the cities of Melbourne and Sydney. (However, one can easily extend this by making travel arrangements after the study program.) The trip was a bold one for me. True - I did know a few fellow students, but they were mostly acquaintances I’d seen in my classes, who I did not know on a personal level. Nevertheless, a combination of freshman’s enthusiasm and the allure of the country pushed me to be proactive in getting to know my fellow travel mates.

Company Visits

The study trip was extremely well organised, with visits to one or two companies on each day. These companies ranged from large multinationals such as Linfox, ANZ bank, CPA Australia to boutique marketing firms. These experiences were extremely fulfilling. As a year one student, it is definitely an exclusive opportunity to interact with an executive, what more one from Australia with a multitude of experience under his or her belt. Although I did not have much working experience then, I quickly learnt that the Australian job environment differed highly from a conservative Asian context. Open communication was emphasised, with extremely thin lines in superior-subordinate relationships. What also fascinated me was the pride Australians took in their jobs, no matter what they did. Be it accounting, warehousing or waitering, people were passionate and enjoyed their jobs. This quickly gave me a more tempered, mature perspective on how to approach my work in the future.

The study group, our driver, and the bus which brought us all around Sydney.

My most memorable visit came with The Monkeys. Established in 2006, The Monkeys is an unconventional advertising firm which clinched multiple international accolades for its provocative advertising designs. It was my first time visiting an advertising company, much less one which focused on bringing advertising beyond its traditional scope. The entire company structure was built very flat to facilitate communication and creativity. Visiting the company was an incredible experience, and I’m proud to say they are still in great shape today.

Culture in Melbourne and Sydney

Truth to be told, my experience in Melbourne was shocking to me.. Life in Melbourne can be described as extremely laidback and relaxing. While the average Singaporean works from 9am to 6pm, shops in Melbourne are never open past 5, and operate on a 4 day work week.

I was heartened by the politeness and enthusiasm from the locals, and it pleased me to know that the city had once been ranked as one of the most liveable cities in the world. In addition, we managed to have a networking dinner session with locals who migrated from Singapore. Of course, each had their own reasons for moving across borders, but it was great learning the different perspectives from others. One thing in common though – all of them enjoyed the cooling weather the country provided.

Getting hands on at a restaurant in the Yarra Valley region.

On the other hand, in Sydney, shops didn’t close at 5pm sharp. Life was generally more upbeat and faster in the city. The city’s harbour bridge bore a close nostalgic resemblance to Clarke Quay, with a large river and bustling nightlife situated there. Generally one would describe Sydney as slightly more disorganised than Melbourne. Things in Sydney didn’t operate on a tight schedule, with more leeway for spontaneity and improvisation.

Overall: a wonderful experience

Right now, as I start my final year of university, the trip still holds fond memories within my heart. Coincidentally, my direct supervisor in my internship happened to be Australian (as you can imagine, he was in fact pretty laidback), which brought about quick recollections to my previous experience in Australia. Such overseas trips provide an easy crash-dive course to understanding a foreign country’s culture, which I find incredibly insightful and important in our globalised world. This also comes with the luxury of dedicated university staff planning our accommodation and itinerary with almost no effort on our part. I can only hold with a grateful heart that I’ve managed to be part of such a wonderful experience.

Do yourself a favour, and sign up for one of these trips :)

What can you learn in 21 days?

After 3 amazing weeks into my internship, it’s a question I’m ready to answer: a lot.

Sharon and her team at Bain & Co.

From experiencing the daily ins-and-outs of the firm to getting hands-on experience with custom graphic tools, every day of my first three weeks on internship offered plenty of opportunities to learn – opportunities that I was able to take full advantage of, thanks to the headstart my SMU experience gave me. 

Knowing how to crunch data on Microsoft Excel, craft slide decks and conduct secondary research through databases such as Euromonitor and Factiva – skills I’ve picked up in the many modules I’ve taken in SMU – meant that instead of contending with a steep learning curve, I could focus on learning new skills instead. Likewise, SMU’s emphasis on group projects helped to ease me into the culture of working in small teams at work.

In just the first three weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to learn so many things beyond what I’ve learnt in the classroom! An example of something really fascinating that struck me over the course of my internship thus far would be the lingo and the working styles that pervade, and are central to the values of the firm.

One such concept is the idea of “Answer first”. My initial thought was that this meant providing the answer upfront (instead of the methodology or supporting material) when communicating with others. But being “Answer first” goes way beyond that: it’s about being hypothesis-driven – going in with a hypothesis of what’s going on, then proving or disproving it based on hard facts and data.

The beauty of this is that knowing what we’re trying to prove allows us to focus on key questions that need to be answered, and plot a data-driven path to get there, rather than researching every possible issue that could be addressed (also referred to here as “boiling the ocean”). Seeing first-hand how this approach has been taken in the case I’m working on has taught me how to apply this – not just during my internship, but even for the work I’ll be doing in SMU next semester and beyond.

Another is the idea of “80/20”. I’ve heard about this Pareto Principle in economics and business (e.g. 20% of the people own 80% of the wealth), but definitely not in the context of work-planning as is often used in the firm: for example, “Let’s be 80/20 about this analysis.”

Applied here, the 80/20 principle is really about working smart, not hard, and being able to obtain the most valuable output in a short time frame (as the situation often is with the cases we handle). What’s amazing is that I’ve always thought companies only paid lip service to productivity and efficiency, without actually acting on it; but here, I’ve seen first hand how the focus is truly on minimising ‘yield loss’ (or wasted efforts) and focusing time on what’s most important. For sure, this is something I personally have to work on and practice.

A partner shared this on the first day of my internship: “You need to know what you can do out there, before you can truly decide that this is what you want to do.” This piece of advice neatly sums up what I’ve come to believe the greatest value of an internship is: experiencing and understanding different career options, and acquiring the skills and expertise you need to succeed at them.

Internships are a core component of university life here at SMU, and my internship continues to open my mind, broaden my horizons, and shape my character and long-term goals. For a 21-year-old greenhorn, the industry exposure and learning I’ve gained (and will gain) on this internship are a real privilege.

What can I learn in 21 days? Not as much as I will in the next 49. I’m thankful for the 3 weeks I’ve had here at Bain, and excited about the next 7 weeks to come!


4 ways entrepreneurship has shaped my life in SMU

I am a recent graduate from SMU’s Lee Kong Chian School of Business, majoring in Strategic Management. Before this, I ran a small tuition agency (founded in 2009), which was eventually liquidated in Summer 2012. I re-entered the startup world again in December 2012, when I joined Reactor as a trainer and partner. Here’s how my entrepreneurial experience has shaped my journey in SMU.

1. Be willing to live with uncertainty and dare to take risks

"Team Reactor in Arc-II, Reactor's co-working space"

As a partner in a startup, one quickly learns that uncertainty is omnipresent. It is only given greater visibility in the startup space. One will never have perfect information. One will never know what the outcome will be. We can create models and prediction machines, input massive amounts of data (assuming we can get that data anyway) to make the “best” decision and guess what? Things can still go wrong. I chose to forego exchange to keep Reactor running. Do I sometimes regret that decision? Of course. I did not make as much out of that one semester that I had running Reactor and I had given up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But I also did learn many valuable lessons that led to a 30% increase in contract closes the following quarter. Do not fear uncertainty. Accept that bad consequences and results are part and parcel of life, but also do not discount the good that was gained.

2. Take charge, craft your own path

There will always be naysayers. And then there is conventional wisdom. If you want to be conventional then you should never deviate from conventional wisdom. But so many of you are unique individuals with the potential to make a significant positive impact on yourself and the greater community. You are the only person holding you back. Listen to advice and fact-find, but I have learnt that I need to brave enough to use that to craft my own path instead of simply allowing it to direct and move me. Michael Jordan, who once stood at the pinnacle of sporting excellence said, “You must expect great things out of yourself before you can do them.”

3. Learn to commit and what it really means

"ASMU fellas in our 2013 photoshoot”

In a business like mine, in choosing ASMU and being chosen for it, in choosing your major, life partner, in choosing a way of life, in accepting a project, in making any long-term decisions, you will face multifarious challenges that will push your physical, mental and spiritual limits. I learnt that when I choose, I should stick with it regardless of the pain, because of the very conscious decision I made in the first place. Sticking with Reactor for the past 2 and a half years has been very, very difficult; it should not take much effort to imagine the questions of concern and skepticism, scoffs, laughs and other various forms of dismissal that I have endured from loved ones and friends. Nonetheless, I chose to push on. To me, it is reflection of belief and fortitude. If one cannot push on for one’s dreams and beliefs in times of hardship, one will never be able to achieve those dreams. One of my closest held values is that commitment is sacrifice and pain, which leads to the question, “What and who are you willing to sacrifice for?”

4. Manage your time well and that includes developing yourself

Despite the diversity of the Corps, one commonality is that we are all very busy people. I need to qualify that ‘busy’ is not a good term. Read the article, The Glorification of Busy by Guy Kawasaki on HuffPost. Spend time meaningfully and efficiently. Time management is key. I found that by creating a system where I am able to prioritize tasks and order them the right way, I could get them done well and efficiently. When I was President of ASMU, running First Class Tutors and then Reactor while juggling family issues and studies, good time management was desperately needed. However, during that time, I made the mistake of not investing deliberately into developing myself. My biggest advice is to always set aside time every day to reflect and engage in activities which will help you develop as a person. The best investments you will ever make are in yourself.

These are lessons that I have learnt on my path as an entrepreneur. However, one does not necessarily have to be an entrepreneur to learn or do them. But one has to be entrepreneurial. It is my personal (and biased) belief based on my experiences as a 25-year old, as an entrepreneur, as a student of life and of school. Listen to advice and fact-find but at the end of the day, decide your own path. And do not take too long about it.

© 2018 SMU Ambassadorial Corps