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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.

asmu@sa.smu.edu.sg

© 2018 SMU Ambassadorial Corps