HALL-PALERM: The real Yale-NUS

The Notorious V.H.P.
The real Yale-NUS
Photo by Annelisa Leinbach .

This spring break, my a cappella group and I took the whole two weeks to go on an international tour; we spent the first week singing in Hong Kong and the second in Singapore. We had picked the locations strategically, hoping to take advantage of Yale connections in both cities. Especially promising, or so we thought back in May, when we chose the location, would be the Yale-NUS connection.

HallPalermVIf we’re being totally honest, my secret hope was for the fledgling Yale campus to put us up in their dorms in Singapore, thus saving me some effort and anxiety in securing accommodations. Sadly, they didn’t, and that’s about where my interest in Yale-NUS ended in the lead-up to our trip. It wasn’t until I really looked more closely at our itinerary in the days before the trip that I noticed, tucked among other performances and sightseeing activities, that we were slated to spend an entire afternoon at their campus on our second-to-last day.

Again, I didn’t think much of it. To me, like to most Yale students, Yale-NUS is rather more of an abstraction than it is a real thing we spend time thinking about. The name evoked little more than dimly-recalled controversy, a number of headlines and prominent names butting heads about whether the venture was appropriate or not. I’m not at all trying to belittle the concerns about the partnership between Yale and the Singaporean government. But rather, thinking of Yale-NUS as simply a concept and debating its merits in the abstract causes us to us to forget the existence of a real school with real students.

As a result, when the day came for us to head over to Yale-NUS, I didn’t quite know what to expect. Despite the writings around it, very little of the discussion of the campus had actually addressed what the day-to-day student life would be like. But I guess it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me that it felt, quite simply, like a college campus. We walked in through a random building entrance and were immediately surrounded by walls papered with announcements, flyers, and photos of students. The dining hall, where we met our student hosts, was loud and crowded (and even, like our own Commons, had a few stray birds fluttering through). The students were bright-eyed and eager to talk about their classes and extracurriculars.

It was altogether eye-opening, not for how different it was to college life at Yale, but for how shockingly similar it was. New Blue, my a cappella group, spent the afternoon with members of their fledgling a cappella groups, so newly formed as to not have even named themselves yet. Despite differences in our cultural backgrounds, we were all easily able to find common ground talking about everything from the musical (comparing vocal warm-ups) to the academic (professors are thinking of starting a program resembling Directed Studies) to the staples of teenage life (Instagram, Scandal and the like).

The first moment in which I was reminded of just what a new and bold project these kids, and Yale, had taken on was when we went around introducing ourselves. While members of New Blue sprinkled in information about our other extracurricular activities and majors, every Yale-NUS student slightly sheepishly introduced him- or herself as a freshman. They had limited other extracurriculars to offer to the conversation simply because few of them have even been formed yet.

It was unmistakable, both to us and to them, that these students were incredibly fortunate to be present at the creation of this new and exciting educational experience. Yale-NUS is the first (and only) liberal arts college in Singapore. Unlike at other technical institutions we visited while on tour, which offered students concrete degrees in website design or in aviation mechanics, students at the Yale campus talked with us about their core classes in philosophy and literature. One boy we met turned down his admission to Yale in New Haven, choosing instead to be part of the pioneering class that will shape the future of Yale-NUS. He chose Yale-NUS not at all because of the statement the University was making by opening a campus in Singapore, but rather because he knew that in going to Yale-NUS, he would have a hand in creating something new.

It’s almost impossible to describe the exhilarating feeling we all got from our hours there. It was an inspiration to watch young men and women, awfully similar to us, setting out to create what will some day be a haven to bright young students from around the world.

Yale-NUS is not at all an abstraction. It is a vibrant reality for 150 students and counting. Seeing it in action, it leaves one with the feeling of hundreds of lives being touched — and not of any lingering controversy or hint of oppression.

Victoria Hall-Palerm is a junior in Berkeley College. Her columns run on alternate Thursdays. Contact her at victoria.hall-palerm@yale.edu .

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