Today (1st August) marks one year since I arrived in Singapore for my study abroad year at the National University of Singapore (NUS). Bittersweet is the best way to describe how this makes me feel. On one hand, I hold a deep sense of sadness that my year abroad is over and I would do anything to go back and relive the memories. On the other hand, my heart is filled with the utmost joy when I think about the previous year and the breadth of amazing memories that I will carry with me forever.
My first memory of Singapore is one that I’m sure everyone who visits the country for the first time gets – the feeling of your entire body being engulfed by an immense wave of humidity as you exit perfectly air-conditioned Changi Airport. The humid air takes over your lungs for a split second, and you finally realise what everyone is talking about when they describe the Singapore climate. I’d like to say this is something you get used to as time goes on, but honestly I’m not sure it gets any more bearable. Sure, the initial shock of the hot humid air when you step out of the AC becomes normality, but the side effects never ease. From the day I entered Singapore to the day I left, I found sweat in new places I didn’t think possible. It sounds awful, but in some ways, it’s fabulous. Could I live in that climate for the rest of my life? Absolutely not. But was it cool to experience a tropical climate for a year? 100%. From the unpredictable thunderstorms and lightning shows, to the blissful sun-scorched days when there is not a cloud in sight, the weather really does form a big part of the Singapore experience.
I never realised that a rooftop infinity pool on campus was a necessity for students until joining NUS. I can assure you that the novelty of the UTown pool never wears off, so spend as much time there as possible. When else are you going to get the chance to go for a swim and sunbathe between lectures? The NUS campus is extremely impressive. I thought Leeds had a big campus, until I realised you have to take a 10-minute bus from one end of NUS to the other (or you could walk it in 45 minutes but really who’s doing that in 30 degrees and 99% humidity?).
I arrived on campus at UTown feeling completely overwhelmed, like a small fish in the biggest ocean. Standing at the top of the stairs by the gym overlooking UTown green, waiting for a fellow Leeds student to save me, I just stood there trying to take it all in. This is one memory that particularly sticks in my mind, because it’s crazy how different UTown looked when I first saw it, compared to now. I’m sure there’s a word for this feeling, and it’s something I experienced a lot over the course of the year. Despite being in Asia, campus has a very American teen movie vibe; from the bleachers on the track field, to the famous mascot Linus the lion. Campus has a good vibe, and there is always something going on (even at 8am on a Saturday when NUS’ answer to Coldplay decide to jam outside your window!!!). NUS is a truly 24-hr campus, which is good and bad. It’s good because you’re never alone; even when you go for a 3am snack run to Cheers! Yet, it was something that took a lot of getting used to. I think because the idea of a 24-hr campus is to ensure students are always in work mode. From the first day of orientation, to the last day of exams, every library, study room and communal area will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and you will always find local students working from dawn until dusk.
It’s a great example of how different student life is compared to Leeds. NUS students are the epitome of stereotypical hardworking Asian culture. I take my hat off to them; their dedication to academia is truly remarkable, and puts UK students to shame. However, student life is extremely unhealthy. Singaporeans live by the rule of work hard, work harder. Part of this is down to the immense pressure they are under, from family and society in general. It’s where Singapore culture truly shines – known as one of the most materialistic and money-driven societies in the world, it’s something that starts young. If you’re not studying to secure a top job in business/law/medicine etc. then you’re not doing it right. The pressure to play by the rules and fulfil society’s wishes for you means there isn’t much time for work and play. I found this tough to get to grips with, especially when the detrimental impacts of this way of life are very obvious yet nothing is done about it. During my two semesters at NUS, I heard of three suicides, committed by NUS students on campus. It’s not a coincidence that all three happened during exam periods. Don’t let this put you off studying at NUS though; whilst it’s tough for locals, it’s the opposite for exchange students. Local students have to take a minimum of 6 modules per semester; I took 6 modules over the course of one year. Meaning you get to study at a world-class institution at a fraction of the effort.
Of course, it’s important to talk about NUS as an academic institution, after all you’re there to study (sort of), however this is not the thing that defined my study abroad journey. What defined my experience were the people I met, and my own personal journey. My year abroad felt like a perfect bubble, even if there were a few bumps along the way and I am amazed at how much the bubble changed me.
I learned that I have a remarkable ability to form extremely strong bonds with people in a very short time. They say your friends for life are the ones you meet at uni, they don’t tell you that they can also be the ones you meet whilst studying abroad. Of course I expected to make friends, but I never expected that I could be so comfortable around strangers after a couple of weeks. This also taught me to value my friends and family back home more. It’s easy to take for granted those relationships that stand the test of time, but going away will show you that nothing compares to them.
My year abroad taught me the true meaning of resilience. I have always thought of myself as resilient, but not in the way that I now define it. I used to think resilience meant powering through any situation with a complete disregard of any emotion and thought that could prevent you from reaching the end goal. I have now come to understand that resilience means accepting when things get tough, and being willing to accept help from those around you to overcome those obstacles. Taking the time to understand your emotions is not a sign of weakness, and accepting vulnerability and being okay with it is perhaps the most resilient one can be. It can also be a lot easier to reach out to people that don’t know you like people at home do. After all, my friends abroad only knew the Maria in Singapore, so it’s a lot harder to be judgmental when you’ve only known someone for a short time in a very specific environment.
I was absolutely petrified to move to Singapore. I had such vivid visions of the worst-case scenario for every situation, so I put a lot of pressure on myself to make sure that I had the best time possible. I assumed that because I was studying abroad, everything I did had to be a ground-breaking, life-changing moment. It took me a while to realise that just because my physical environment had changed, it’s ok for most days to just be normal. Of course I made sure to live each day to the full and take advantage of every experience I had, but I came to understand that less exciting days still contributed to my experience.
There are many epic moments that make up my year abroad, from Whale Shark watching in the Philippines, to a surprise visit from my best friends for my 21st birthday – yet it is the smaller, less significant moments that made my year as special as it was. I thank the company I kept for this. Even the simplest of activities like watching a film in the common room were made special due to the people around me. So, whilst you will create many extraordinary memories whilst studying abroad, never underestimate the importance of those more ordinary experiences.
There is a Japanese saying “ichi-go, ichi-e”, meaning “one time, one meeting”. Treasure meetings with people, no matter how big or small, as many meetings in life are not repeated. I have made some friendships that will last a lifetime, however each encounter with the same person will never be the same as the ones before it, or the ones to follow. While it may seem strange that I will miss just hanging out in the common room, I know that it will never happen again in the same way, making the moment extra special.
This blog would have been a good opportunity to talk about the practicalities of living in Singapore. Obviously this is important, but there is a wealth of resources already out there on this. Singapore is a wonderfully weird and unique island, so research is essential, however I thought it would be worthwhile to talk about some more personal topics that often don’t get mentioned but are still vital to think about before embarking on a study abroad journey.
With that in mind, however, here are my two pieces of practical advice:
1) Get off campus. Campus literally has everything you could ever need/want (even a hairdressers), so it’s easy for weeks to go by without leaving it, especially if you’re lazy like me. Nevertheless, Singapore is a tiny yet exciting island and there is so much to see (don’t listen to locals when they tell you Singapore is boring!!!). Get out in the city as much as possible, otherwise before you know it your year will be over and you won’t have ticked off everything on your SG to-do-list!
2) Get off the island. Now don’t get me wrong, Singapore is an amazing city to explore, however its size means you can quite easily feel trapped and claustrophobic. There is only one solution to this: TRAVEL. You will be in the heart of Southeast Asia, with access to some of the region’s best travel hubs so get out there and explore a truly magical part of the world. And know that you will always have your utopian Singapore bubble to come back to, which you’ll start referring to as ‘home’ sooner than you think.
Written by Maria Christodoulou – National University of Singapore