USP Lives: Open Day Thoughts

Every year on the NUS Open Day, I seriously question why I bother burning a whole Saturday walking around NUS telling prospective students and worried parents about the University Scholars Programmer (USP) as a USP Ambassador.

Every year, the answer becomes clearer, as I continually refine and sharpen my responses to unconvinced army boys, xiaomeimeis, non-committal fathers and bored mothers. As I answer their skepticism, I am also forced to answer my own self-doubts. Because, truth be told, I’d more-or-less simply signed up for USP because they sent me a letter, and I shrugged and said “why not”. I didn’t understand the genuine difference between an MC and a module, a degree and a major, until maybe my second semester in University. 

Beyond the standard “cheatsheet” of figures and statistics issued to all Ambassadors (“yes it’s an academic programme, no you don’t get a scholarship just cos it says SCHOLARS; 70-30 curriculum, international opportunities abound”), I rediscover every year, with every encounter, the deep, unspoken and grudging love I have for this place which has brought me from Tehran to Toa Payoh, from Bhabha to biomolecular revolutions. I am forced to reconsider anew the little Faculty that showed me that curiosity was a thing to be wanted, nurtured and fanned.

“So,” asked a skeptical parent this year, when she found out she was speaking to a group of Fourth-Year USP Ambassadors. “Have you enjoyed being in the USP?”

She chortled good-naturedly at our polite pause, which was followed by an uncertain “um.”

Because no: USP isn’t a smooth-sailing programme. Its modules are challenging, demand very much from students from any major. It can be lonely sometimes to be living on campus. ‘Smart’ people are eccentric, but they are not always the most compromising nor the most kind. It can be heart-breaking to see the demographics and quality of intellectual conversation go down. It can be crushing to feel all alone amidst (seemingly) cleverer people who are clevererer than you. At times, being in USP can be the most lonely moments of being in the university.

But then again, I have always believed that it is better to suffer meaningfully, and to find meaning in suffering, than simply to complain that the world will not accommodate to one’s own problems. There are steep learning curves, doubtless – but they lead to summits where you can see brighter, stranger horizons.

As we finished our brief chat with this parent, she asked a penetrating question that made us pause again.

“So is the future bright for USP students?”

I know what she meant, because we all need to fill our stomachs in the end, and feed our families, and drive our dreams. Would USP students get jobs? Would we have stable secure futures, for all the rhetoric about being multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary and having intellectual responsibility in a complex world?

I could only give her the answer that I’d been thinking about for years. Was the future bright for USP students? Honestly, I didn’t have the statistics to muster a convincing job-search response.

But USP gave me the freedom to explore and experiment, to try and fail and fall and try again. It didn’t equip me with knowledge; instead, I learned how to learn how to learn. I sat humbled in the shadow and on the shoulders of giants, who were sometimes only eight-years old. Coaching primary-school kids in Connect Tuition; facilitating discussions as a USS mentor with curious but uncertain freshmen; learning to listen and to empathise as a Writing Assistant to frantic, demoralised student writers; sharing a sublime moment with an Iranian friend as we beheld the Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul on a quiet morning…

I told her that the future was bright if we chose to make it so.

That ultimately, the ability to light up the world was in our hands and in our hearts and in our minds.

I think she quite liked that answer.

And after four years in a Programme that has relentlessly challenged me to be curious, critical and engaged , I think I quite liked it too. #nusbeyond#usp #usplife #curiouscriticalengaged

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The readership for my previous post is now standing at 10,000 views, a disturbing number which makes me wonder if I have offended anybody out there, and when the penny/hammer/shoe will drop. I am, after all, just a hapless undergraduate with a loud voice and an unfortunate contrarian streak. 

In response to my previous entry, I heard someone ask: HOW DARE an Ambassador of NUS be so scathing and SO RUDE? Well, it is precisely because I am so proud of my university and all it has done for me that I felt compelled to write. Let me be clear: for all its imperfections and loops and flaws and jagged edges, it is not the University I was criticizing in my previous post, but the way FASS was presented. It was a critique of presentation.

Because I am not a good writer, and because online perspectives are occasionally deliberately/accidentally misread, conflated, misrepresented, I thought I should post a blog entry of a more peaceable, but no less sincere nature, to avoid startling potentially flighty parties who may misread the intention of my posts. And hence this entry that you have just read.

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