“Something old, something new”: The past semester for exchangers

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“Same old, same old,” is a phrase I’ve heard no fewer than five times upon asking my friends how they have been doing for the past semester. True enough, Singapore is known to those of us born and bred here for its not-so-fun-size, and sometimes the nearly Groundhog Day-esque routine of attending university classes on weekdays and frequenting our regular cafe-hopping spots on the weekends can become mundane. Yet, to a select few of us here at NUS now, Singapore was the first destination they hopped to once this semester’s exchange programmes opened. What made Singapore and NUS their top choice, and what on earth do they do here? Four exchange students divulged their plans for their semester abroad at NUS to The Ridge.

Warm and Sunny

A warm, balmy introduction to Singapore seems to be a common thread among all exchange students The Ridge spoke to. In fact, the tropical climate Singaporeans have grown so dreadfully accustomed to was one of the first reasons why Larissa Tse, a fifth-year student from the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, chose Singapore for her exchange programme. Explaining that the average temperature lies at around -30°C where she comes from, Larissa added that the ease of walking outdoors without having to lug a bulky jacket around was, to her, worth the heat and humidity.

Likewise, Konstantin (Kossio) Korshumov, a third-year student from Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden, said the warm climate made even his busy school term feel like a holiday. He said, “I loved it and still do…I had never experienced this kind of temperature and environment for that long at once.”

Another pleasant surprise exchangers found awaiting them upon their arrival was the sheer abundance of greenery here. Jamie Booker, a fourth-year student from Case Western Reserve University in the United States, said he stared “in awe” at how much greenery there was around the streets on his first taxi ride from Changi Airport to NUS, feeling like the city was “completely immersed inside of a tropical forest.”

Even more awe-inspiring for Jamie was Gardens by the Bay’s Garden Rhapsody nighttime light show, which “literally made [him] cry.” Jamie said, “I love waltzes and I’m a huge fan of classical music, so seeing the show reminded me of how impactful the genre could be, and seeing those giant trees illuminate the night in perfect sync was nothing short of mesmerising. That was a core memory for sure.”

Diverse Cuisines

Besides Singapore’s Garden City allure, the vast array of colourful cuisines here was a huge selling point that all four exchangers unanimously agreed on. Kossio admitted: “I was mainly looking forward to eating good food since I knew Singapore is a main food destination with a bunch of different cuisines.” As did Larissa, who emphasised how deeply she appreciated the opportunity to sample various local foods, such as nasi lemak, bak kut teh, and carrot cake. Most simply put by Maxime Gratereau, a fourth-year student from École Nationale Supérieure de l’Aéronautique et de l’Espace (ISAE-SUPAERO) in France, Singaporean food is “nice and cheap”—and isn’t that all a university student needs it to be?

Centrality in Asia

The convenient, central location of Singapore within Southeast Asia was another pull factor for Maxime, and even more so for Jamie and Kossio, who had previously never stepped foot in Asia. All three also added that the English language medium of communication and instruction here made their introduction to Asia all the more seamless.

Naturally, many exchange students then seized the opportunity to travel from Singapore to other Southeast Asian countries under appropriate travel and social distancing restrictions. On utilising Singapore’s “perfect central location” as a gateway to the rest of Southeast Asia, Larissa stated her excitement to visit Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia once she completed her final examinations.

This same centrality of Singapore in Asia also meant having access to an exciting mix of diverse cultures and peoples for the exchangers. Even before travelling to other Southeast Asian countries, Larissa told The Ridge she found great opportunities to learn about multiple Asian cultures in just one place within Singapore. She even learned about European countries, such as Poland and Hungary, from fellow exchange students whom she befriended.

She said, “Having the opportunity to share ideas, customs, and social practices with people around the world was one of my favourite aspects [of] studying abroad. I never would have experienced and learned the cultural lessons I have without having studied abroad for a semester.”

Social Culture

On the note of newfound connections, Jamie added that what he liked most about his semester was the warm and sociable culture in Singapore. Having met many friendly peers in his residential college who were more than willing to include him in social gatherings, Jamie felt that his last-ever semester living in a dormitory—given that he is in his fourth (and final) year of university—was more than well-spent.

Kossio agreed that “Singaporeans are one of the nicest and kindest people I’ve ever met. I have extremely good impressions of the people here. Everyone is willing to help you with anything.”

Maybe Singa the Courtesy Lion has no need for a successor after all!

Global Reputation

The cherry on top of the cake for exchangers was NUS’ reputation among global universities, and the wide array of academic opportunities. Maxime felt that NUS was the best university in Asia to meet his goals of exchange, and similarly, Kossio preferred to attend NUS over others given its “status worldwide” and the “opportunities it provides.”

Yet, all this may come as no surprise to the average Singaporean NUS student: from Singapore’s notoriously pristine roads to its reputation as a culinary hub, most Singaporeans are familiar with the same few points of appeal touted by the Singapore Tourism Board and its promotional rhetorics. Still, there remain aspects of Singapore that we may take for granted or fail to notice, and which fresh eyes can perhaps prompt us to ponder.

Larissa offered us one way in which we can look further within Singapore—literally. She recalled telling a fellow student about her visit to Lazarus Island and being asked, to her surprise, where the island was, by someone who had lived right next to it their entire life. Reflecting on the sheer number of places she had yet to explore even after a packed four months here, she suggested to The Ridge and to Singaporeans as a whole to “go out and explore your beautiful city! I know it’s something that can be easily taken for granted, but it can be really refreshing and a great reminder that there’s beauty even in your own city.”

With that, the exchangers’ time with The Ridge and in Singapore came to a close. It is not often that we are given the opportunity to learn about cultures that are continents apart from ours and, in the process, enjoy the wonderful byproduct of learning more about ourselves. To future exchangers who have finally secured a ticket to your dream destination, go forth to explore your schools and countries with as much love and fervour as these exchangers have. And as for those of us staying in a place we think we’ve always known, perhaps take a step back to appreciate your city with fresh eyes, rooting you even deeper in a position to make fascinating discoveries that await you in other parts of the world.