I was in school last Saturday to help out for a University Tea Session (where they show students why they should accept the university offer) and I saw a flashback of myself four years ago. University is a privilege not a right, and these few years will change your life. I learnt many lessons and I’m listing fifteen (I started with ten, then my fingers couldn’t stop haha) specifically crafted for university students.
1. A degree does not guarantee you employment. Graduating with a degree is not sufficient to have a job. It might have been in the past, when the average education level was up to Secondary school. Today however, you are but one of thousands if not millions of University graduates with a degree from all over the world. A degree from NTU or any of the other local universities is helpful because it says this: this person came from a trustworthy university with high standards, so he definitely has the brains. If you want a good job, you need to work for it. Look, your degree occupies two lines on a CV, you have to fill two pages. You will need to have good relevant work experience, leadership and management experience etc Basically, it’s the whole person who is valuable, not the degree. The degree is the topping, the icing sugar, you are the cake.
2. Degree classification is important but not as important as you think. In an ideal world, everyone would like to have a first class honours degree, but don’t kill yourself over it if you can’t get it. If you want to go for further studies, you need at least a second uppers degree, so yes work to that goal at least. If you want to get a job, you don’t actually need to strive for a first class honours. Some companies (usually the really large ones) will demand this, but most will not. So if you want those large companies go for it, but don’t beat yourself up over it. Usually as long as you have a decent classification, you are in the clear provided everything else is good. If you are in NTU with direct honours, and do not classify for one, then yes buck up. Once you get a job, no one is going to say oh look, he only had a second lowers he’s not that good – it’s how you perform.
3. You have to be proactive and not reactive/ Don’t wait, do. University is a cushioned version of the real world. The real world is a painfully brutal one. If you do not make the effort to chase after something proactively, then you will be left with the scraps. Its a painful, but (I believe) truthful observation that Singaporeans are not the most proactive people, we are usually reactive. All our universities have foreign students, and while I cannot speak of other universities, my NTU experience has shown me that these foreign students tend to be more hungry and proactive then Singaporeans. Yet if you as a student are willing to be proactive (apply for programmes externally, ask for internships, seek career advice etc), you will find that many faculty and staff are really willing to help. If you find something wrong and you don’t like it, don’t go to your friends and complain, come up with an idea and calmly discuss with people who can change it. You have the power to change things, you just need to realise you have it.
4. There is no cool in learning. The nerdy kid who was not as cool as you because he stayed back to ask questions in year one? Guess what, he’s probably better off now that he is close to graduation. If he doesn’t ask stupid questions, then he has built a reputation for being proactive, hardworking and inquisitive, and everyone will be more willing to help him and see him do well. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, there is no stupid question (honestly). Just don’t ask if it is tested in the exam. Faculty do not teach for the exams, the moment they do so, it is usually because they are already so jaded by students asking them that question, they’ve lost motivation. If you cannot muster the courage to ask and learn in a university, you sure you can do it well when you leave?
5. Lecturers are human too. A lecturer once told me, “you call me professor only because I was born earlier and got my PhD earlier. If we were born at the same time, you would be calling me by my name.” Obviously, they deserve respect (all people do), but you should not fear them. The dynamics are not like your JC dynamics (can’t say for Poly), where the teacher is boss. Lecturers, being human, may make mistakes. So don’t assume that if its in the notes it must be right. Tell them gently if you think so or discuss with them if you disagee. Discussion helps everyone, debates don’t and snobbish pointing out doesn’t.
6. Money is important, but it might be better to do something you like. A degree in arts may not be as practical as a degree in science in getting a job. But I always thought this, every trade has its experts and masters. If you have real passion in doing something, the chance of you climbing high and enjoying the process is so much higher. A successful artiste can make a good living, but if you really want to be an artiste then don’t force yourself to be a banker. If you have no interest in something, you will end up as a zombie working in a field, you probably will make enough to survive but I’m not sure you will go far. Aligned interest is more helpful than money making potential of a course.
7. There are many opportunities, you need to grab them. The Singapore university experience can open many doors and provide you with many opportunities. They will come, and when they come you need to react. Like in point 3, its important to be proactive, and when an opportunity arises that you previously could not source out react appropriately to it. Don’t question, don’t doubt – the only one who doubts your worth is you. Just go for it but don’t expect an outcome. Sometimes you will be pleasantly surprised. When a train leaves the station, it will not stop for you. So when it’s doors are open, go on in.
8. Have an idea of what you want. You may think that having an idea of what you want in life at a pre-uni phase is premature. It isn’t. If you do not have an idea of where you want to go, you won’t know if you are going in the right direction. So in the midst of signing up for camps and all that, take some time to be on your own and really think about what you want for your life. And then make sure you have it somewhere where you can remember it. You will get lost in the forest and end up seeing the trees instead of the forest. Remember that you are in university to get a degree, not to find a partner (thats a bonus if you come across the right person) and not to be some master dancer or something, thats why you came here for right? Your degree is the icing, the other experiences are the colouring on the icing, you are the cake. Its your life now, you cannot be getting a degree for your parents sake, what are you going to do with it?
9. Rankings are not graded the way you think they are. Universites always talk about rising up the ranks, sometimes they interview students and these students will say its partly due to the better quality of students entering. Wrong. The major ranking indicators do not care about the student grades on entry. They usually grade universities based on the amount of good research done (how many papers, how many citations), how accomplished the faculty are (how many awards etc), how strong their links are with industry and to a lesser extent, how international they are. When a university rises up the ranks, it means their research is getting better, the faculty are doing better and are more prolific, and people are citing their work more often. These rankings tend to favour older schools. You as a student don’t affect the rankings. Does this mean you get a better education? If these researchers are the teachers and they are good teachers then yes. If the school goes by another system then maybe not. Always look at the fine print, even rankings are advertisements.
10. When you graduate, you have a new relationship with your university. It doesn’t end. You will bask in the reflected glow of your university (a guy can get a third class from cambridge and you will still go wah right?) and the university will benefit from the brilliance of its alumni (RI is not a university, but it has a wall of all its super famous alumni, and we think of these people and go wah, correct?) So when you leave, you actually have an interest in getting good students to come to your university, and making sure the university progresses. It’s a virtuous circle. When you start dissing your university degree and experience, you hurt your own value. Rather if you start to actvely feedback to the administration through the alumni office, you get better students. After you graduate you are more than a money withdrawing machine, you are an alumni.
11. Our local Universities are actually very good, we just don’t realise. In my three years in NTU (one year left), I had the good fortune to go to a number of countries on either international programmes or sponsored trips. I met people from the Argentina to Spain, India to Japan who knew about NTU and who told me it was a top university – some even applied but did not get it. I want to go to gradaute school outside Singapore (you can’t always stay in Singapore, you sometimes need to also train you mind outside this island too I believe). I asked some top faculty from these top institutions how I should stand out on an application. They asked me where I was from. When they heard it I was from NTU they went don’t worry, these (Singapore universities) are top universities, you will be at the top of the pile – then its down to other things. I used to think it was just advertisement when Bertil Andersson or Freddy Boey said that NTU was world class (I believed we were good, but I took what they said with a pinch of salt) then I realised what they said was true. We have good things in Singapore its ironically we Singaporeans who don’t see it.
12. The world is your oyster, not just Singapore. Singapore is a great place, I am a Singaporean and I will always be one, I took an oath at 18 to die for this country and I intend to uphold it if I have to. But striving for a future sometimes means that you will have to go to different places in the world. Family conditions permitting, don’t limit yourself to these shores, maybe a job you want is not available in Singapore, but it is somewhere else. For me, I’d go for it. Our forefathers came here searching for a better future, if my immediate future is better in another place, then all I am doing is following in their footsteps am I not? Don’t be afraid to get out there, you got an international education not to be stuck in a local context but to thrive in a global environment.
13. The real world is not University. University is wonderland compared to the ‘big bad world’. I have many friends who have become disillusioned with work because it has crushed their earlier dreams, you know the usual recital during convocation. You can push through that dreaded physics module for 12 weeks, but there is no end point for that dreaded day job. Don’t let that happen to you, realise that the real world is not university. There are no semesters and recess breaks. Many of your friends that you claim to be Best Friends Forever will change when they leave and your paths might not cross again. You will probably keep strong bonds with only a handful. Relationships have added layers of complexity. Reality can be a damning gaol if you have never been in touch with it. So get the keys to escape from that incarceration – don’t be shy about making friends, choose them wisely, have your head in the clouds but your feet firmly on the ground.
14. Success in University doesn’t mean much. Success before says nothing. When you enter university, you will see people from different backgrounds as you. Some of them will be intimidating because they had come from more branded schools or something. Don’t be intimidated, do not avoid them, they are flesh and bone just like you. You are all here now – you are all equal again. They are human too, they merely had a lucky break when they were younger. Then you will graduate and some people will achieve more then you, it doesn’t count for anything. You’re life is more than a degree, and your success in life does not count on a degree, it may be important for a first job. But its the decisions you make after you leave and the substance have gained from this experience that matter more. Life has no core curriculum, with requisite academic units, its an unending list of electives with undefinable graduation requirements and endless possibilities. It’s your own journey that you write you can only compete with yourself to be the best version of yourself.
15. There is more to the world than a piece of paper. Its not cool to be interested in current affairs, society, politics etc. You are always affected by these things, but many of us are insulated for it such that we do not realise. We are more interested in Confessions than Current Affairs. It’s the weird guy who is interested in current affairs. When we gradaute, the painful truth of the world hits us like a tonne of bricks, the ‘boring’ politics and policies and current affairs becomes reality for us, many people would begin to turn bitter. An invisible but apparent albatross slings itself around our necks. How did the world become this way? The injustice, pain and suffering… It has always been this way, the world is more than this piece of paper, are you ready to use this short sojourn into cushioned reality to learn about the world while going for a degree?