Commencement

I find it strange how NUS refers to its graduation ceremony as “commencement”. Today I begin to realize why it is so. Graduation from the university does not mark the end; it marks the start of new things to come in our lives. My commencement is next week and I have mixed feelings towards it. On one hand, I am excited – it is something that I have been looking forward to. “Success” seems so much more multi-faceted in the workplace than in schools and it is really exciting to anticipate what life will throw at me beyond university studies. On the same note, I spend such a long time in life imagining where I would be in life and what I could be, now it is the time for me to transform the imagination into reality. But because of this, I am also feeling quite afraid of commencement. To put it simply, I am afraid I would close the doors on my dreams and settle for something more mediocre. It is easy to be comfortable. It is even easier to convince yourself of a change in priorities. I wonder how do you stay focused on your goals when you know so little about how to get there? Furthermore, I have several friends who have already started working and somehow I find them a lot more grounded in reality than when they were in the university. I am afraid of abandoning all my idealistic dreams and settling for the mediocre.

Well, since commencement is around the corner, perhaps it is the time for me to thank NUS for what it has offered me in the past 4 years. I have grown so much in the past 4 years courtesy of NUS, particularly because of these experiences:

1) Study Abroad Programs

NUS sells itself as a global university and indeed, I think I had numerous study abroad programs in NUS. I gained a global education in two ways, one by literally studying in different universities abroad and two by acquiring cultural intelligence. I studied in Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) for 4 months under the Student Exchange Program and I also studied for a month each in Peking University (PKU) and CPE Lyon during the summer breaks. Through these study abroad programs, I learnt that some things (e.g. spectroscopy) that I thought were really painful to learn in NUS were also taught in other universities abroad, indicating that they were perhaps necessary evil for my discipline. I also learnt that education in NUS is good but tough comparatively. According to Bloom’s Taxonomy, most of our exams/ assessments in NUS  test “applying”, “analyzing”, “evaluating” and “creating” with very little focus on memory work. Apart from realizing that education in NUS is good but tough, studying abroad also makes me enjoy learning chemistry and other subjects a bit more. Without the pressure of exams (credits are transferred but not grades), I begin to enjoy the learning process somewhat more.

More importantly, these study abroad programs ignited my love for travelling. Instead of just heading for the iconic landmarks and taking photos, now I enjoy visiting the smaller and less well-known sights and towns and talking to local people. I love to visit places off the beaten track so much. In HKUST, I made a number of good friends from different countries and that was perhaps where I learnt most about cultural intelligence. I learned about different cultures and traditions and more importantly, I learned that beneath the facade of differences, people around the world are not too different from one another. It was quite some fun travelling in Hong Kong and other countries (China, Cambodia, Vietnam, Taiwan) with people who have different cultural backgrounds. It was even more fun when we reunited one or two years after the exchange program in different lands. I am thankful to have people to show me around Spain, Switzerland, The Netherlands and Japan. The world does seem a lot smaller when I know people from different places, I can’t wait to see them again in the near future! 🙂

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HKUST

2) University Scholars’ Program (USP)

Besides broadening my horizons, NUS taught me to discover my “academic interest” through USP. I could have been more involved in USP-related activities but I guess circumstances didn’t quite allow me to do so. In any case, USP taught me something quite important and that is “academic interest”. For some people, “academic” and “interest” just do not make any sense together. But in USP, we learnt to discover our academic interest(s) and explore it/ them. The professors in USP kindly guide us in our new pursuits. In USP, I thought about a wide arrays of things, from why the social media was so involved in the General Elections 2011 in Singapore to headhunters and anthropologists in Perak. I also thought about how the advent of quantum physics is transforming science. It was quite amazing how these topics were not assigned to us. On the contrary, we explored the relevant literature and picked the area that we wanted to further investigate. It was quite fun but definitely challenging.

As a member of the USP, I also had the privilege to stay on campus for 4 years – a year at PGP residence and 3 years at Cinnamon College in Utown. It was a privilege given how competitive it is at NUS to get on campus housing. But somehow as part of USP, I never had any issues getting on campus accommodation. Staying on campus was certainly quite an integral part of my NUS life and it was a lot of fun staying with friends and hanging around with the exchange students. Just on the Utown green itself, I remember we had a New Year Countdown one year while playing the Old Maid Game and we had a mooncake picnic during the Mid-Autumn Festival. Days that won’t come back again.

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Utown, NUS

3. Research

I did a UROPS (Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme in Science)  project on the synthesis and characterization of blue quantum dots and a final year project on investigating the immunogenic potential of platinum-based anti-cancer drugs at the Department of Chemistry, NUS. I like how the NUS professors are really nice to let the young and ignorant novice researchers mess around in their labs. I still remember the various lab techniques especially from my final year project but I wouldn’t say that was my biggest takeaway. I think the research experience is an experiential learning itself and there are numerous takeaways from it. I will share a few here: One of the most important things that I have learned from research is prioritizing. When I did my UROPS project, I was always a bit upset that I was spending time in the lab while my friends were doing their revisions or partying away. As a result, I was quite stingy and calculative with the time I spent in the lab. I filled my jar first with revisions/ parties/ family time and then research came in last.  On the contrary, when I did my final year project, I first filled my jar with research and other things came in secondary. The amount of time I spent in lab was similar to a working adult in the office –  roughly 40 h/ week. Strangely, I felt happy working in lab then and strangely, I felt like I didn’t have enough time for my revisions (and parties of course). The lesson here is that time is never enough. What you choose to accord priority at that point can dramatically affect your perception towards the task and your life.

Another important takeaway that research has taught me is resilience. When you do research, you become more resilient. This is because experiments hardly work on the first attempt and you need to have something in you to quickly put aside the frustrations associated with the failures, rationally analyze why it could potentially fail and try again.  For the key experiment in my final year project, I failed 13 times before finally succeeding and getting important results. 13 of those experiments roughly took me 7 weeks (half a semester). Albert Einstein says, “You never fail until you stop trying.” That is so true – this might be a good personal motto to have.

EDIT: I can’t believe I forgot to write about that earlier. I am only able to experience a myriad of things in NUS because of the support from my family. My parents gave me a lot of freedom to go on study abroad programs and travel during my summer vacations even though they themselves do not like the idea of living abroad so much. They are really very supportive of what I enjoy doing – many times, I just tell them the dates that I will be away and the friend from abroad whom I will be staying with and they will be okay with it. Furthermore, without fail, they helped me to shift in and out of Cinnamon College so many times in between the semesters. When I was doing my final year project, they will give me a ride to my lab in NUS every Saturday/ Sunday just so that I could seed my cells for the experiment next week. I dedicate my degree scroll to them. 🙂

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