Aaron Beng ’04 did not have to worry about financing his education. Nor does he have to deal with the stress of securing a job after graduation. His responsibility was to work hard and become a high achieving, unique student. After that, his government took care of the rest.
Beng is one of several Yale students from Singapore who earned a government-sponsored scholarship for study at a university outside of his country. Singapore, along with Thailand and Malaysia, offers a certain number of scholarships to exceptional students. In return — though the scholarship programs vary in their particulars — many students are expected to work for their home governments after graduation.
The terms of some of the programs, which dictate certain courses of study or require graduates to serve in their governments for set periods of time, might seem restrictive to an American student who entered college with no idea of what to major in, let alone what to pursue as a career. Nonetheless, most scholarship recipients said they do not feel restricted and rather are proud and grateful.
The scholarships themselves are highly competitive, and thus receiving such recognition is considered an incredible honor.
“I was really happy, and I’m really grateful for it,” Joycelyn Yik ’07 said.
Yik is from Singapore and received a scholarship from the urban planning branch of her government. Students receive scholarships from numerous different branches, and each branch has different requirements. Most scholars from Singapore owe their government six years of work after graduation.
Some students are excited for the opportunity and appreciate the guaranteed job; others find this requirement restricting. Either way, students must work for the government or else pay back the money. Choosing to pay back the money instead of working, or instead of working the full six years, is known as “breaking bond.”
“I don’t think I’ll ever break my bond; I think it’s a really good deal,” said Yik.
Likewise, some students such as Beng, who will serve in the Singapore military, are not only willing, but excited to go back and start work.
But one senior who wished to remain anonymous, because she felt uncomfortable talking about her government publicly, said many students from Singapore do find the bond restrictive and are tempted to break bond.
“There are quite a few scholars who feel trapped when they go back,” the senior said. “Some have even tried to break bond before they start work because they’ve been offered stuff when they were at school in the U.S., but there is a huge stigma attached to breaking your bond without even trying to work for the government.”
Other government scholars, however, do not have to work for their governments. Apinya Ruangthaveekoon ’06, a King Scholar from Thailand, has had an entirely different experience from that of Beng or Yik.
As one of only nine such scholars from Thailand, Ruangthaveekoon received funding for five years of study: for one preparatory year at a boarding school in New Jersey, and then for four years of study at Yale. She does not owe her government any service, although she must return to Thailand and work, either in the private or public sector, for five years.
Ruangthaveekoon, however, said the fact she does not have to work for her government has its advantages and disadvantages.
“I appreciate that I’m really free,” said Ruangthaveekoon. “But I’d like them to at least give me some guidelines. It would be nice to have some idea.”
Similarly, Ruangthaveekoon is not restricted at all in her program of study. But students in other government scholarship programs must choose their majors before applying and then are not able to change their course of study, or must at least approve any such change with their sponsoring agency.
Most students do not seem to resent this restriction. They point out that they would have had to specialize even earlier had they remained in their respective countries or if they had chosen to study in the United Kingdom. And some students even like the added structure.
Jeannie Wong ’04, a government scholar from Malaysia, could not criticize the system in any way.
“Looking back on four years, it’s been so nice having this institutional support behind me,” she said. “They support you financially and morally. It’s reassuring to know there’s an organization wishing you well when you’re so far from home.”
Yet other students were less supportive of the limitations.
“Yes, it’s a restriction,” the senior from Singapore said. “I would have loved to be a literature or history major. I found that writing papers was my forte here, but in Singapore, it’s more pragmatic to choose science, economics or social science.”
Yet government scholars were extremely grateful for the opportunity given to them. Beng thinks that the system is a good system in general.
“It benefits the students by getting an overseas education they otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford,” Beng said, “and on the part of the government, it’s way to attract the best and the brightest; it benefits both sides.”
Peter Chemery, associate director of undergraduate admissions who works with applicants from Asia and Africa, said the scholarships do not affect the admissions process. Nonetheless, he recognizes that Yale benefits from the program.
“It brings international students, who maybe otherwise could not have afforded it, to our campus,” said Chemery. “We benefit from the diversity. And the students have been through an elaborate screening process in their own countries, so we can assume this is the cream of the crop. From our own self-interest, that’s got to be good.”