Just in case there aren’t enough cheesy one-liners out there about studying abroad, I’d like to add that it’s definitely an unforgettable experience. It’s quite a bittersweet feeling to have finally landed back in New Zealand. The places I visited, the friends I made and the memories I formed make me want to do it all over again.
Engineering at UoA has a very specific schedule and NUS is notorious for being strict with their initial acceptance of modules (courses). So like many exchangers before me, I went over with only two confirmed classes out of the four I needed. There was nothing I could do until the module add/drop period that happened during the first week of classes. Looking back, it was the biggest hurdle that I had to overcome, mentally, before I could commit to my exchange. At the time, the idea that I might have to delay my graduation did not sit right with me. When you add in all the pre-departure anxiety and the various concerns, I felt very hesitant about it all. Now at the end of the tunnel, I would like to report back that the experience definitely outweighed all my worries. If I were to decide again, I wouldn’t miss it for the world.
And of course, you’ll experience ups and downs when you’re so far from home, the occasional wave of loneliness, the sporadic moments of FOMO hearing the stories of your friends back home and the odd time and time again of feeling a bit lost. For me, I did find some comfort in recognising that it was okay to feel such, and its human to feel the ups and downs no matter where you are.
My exchange may very well be the part of university I look back to the most fondly, for I would encourage everyone to take a leap of faith and, just go for it.
Singapore, the financial hub of southeast Asia, is located not only to the benefit of its economy, but also to the benefit of those wanting a glimpse of life beyond the clean and fast paced city. The travelling culture amongst exchangers is very strong, whereby it’s extremely difficult to run into anyone who hasn’t made a single trip outside of Singapore. Now that Singapore’s Changi airport has recently opened its Jewel terminal with the world’s largest indoor waterfall, there’s no reason not to fly out every once in a while. I’ve personally been out and about to quite a few places and so below are some my favourite moments and sights captured (in a fun combination of both landscape and portrait, some would say I’m a professional photographer).
Bangkok – Thailand
Although not official, the main religion of Thailand is Buddhism, and so this leads to a lot of temples. To be respectful when visiting them, long pants and covered shoulders are a must. Although don’t worry if all you packed was shorts, because you’ll spot plenty of vendors selling those Thai-elephant-patterned pants, and plenty of people wearing them too. The markets are also well worth a visit if you want to get some shopping done. One of our friends, the least excited for the markets, ended up going home with the most amount of shopping!
Kuala Lumpur – Malaysia
This destination is essentially everyone’s first baby trip out of Singapore. Only an hour by plane or five hours by bus – although if you’re travelling during the peak hours of Friday afternoon the bus trip can be as long as ten hours!
Li Island – Indonesia
So I had always thought Bali was a city of Indonesia, but turns out it’s a province which includes the island of Bali and a few of the smaller, nearby islands. Bali is perfect holiday location as it has a lot to offer in terms of variety when it comes to activities and sightseeing. There are some amazing beaches around Nusa Penida, and some great waves around Kuta beach. This is in contrast to the very-green rice terraces in Ubud, the uplands of Bali, and the heights of active volcanos, like Mount Batur.
Hanoi – Vietnam
Oh how I would go back to this place in a heartbeat. My favourite food being Vietnamese, I went with some great expectations and I was beyond impressed! Most places we went to specialised in only one dish, which meant the flavours were fantastic and made ordering with our non-existent abilities to speak Vietnamese a breeze. Watching locals ride on by, carrying up to four people on one scooter, and pedestrians strolling through the chaos calmly is a vibe that I miss very much to this day.
Siem Reap & Phnom Penh – Cambodia
I knew very little about Cambodia prior to this trip, so after seeing the sights of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, we made an overnight trip to Phnom Penh where I learnt about the Cambodia Genocide during 1975 – 1979. During this time, the Khmer Rouge Regime led by Pol Pot resulted in the death of approximately 1.7 million people, almost a quarter of Cambodia’s 1975 population. I had the humbling experience of visiting the killing fields of Choeung Ek, a former orchard and mass grave of the genocide, as well as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former security prison used for torture during this time. For something so horrible that happened not that long ago, I was grateful for having the opportunity to learn about it.
Where you live can have quite a significant impact on your experience abroad, whether that be on or off campus. At NUS, most of the exchange students can be found in a residence or college in UTown, while the other exchangers are scattered amongst different NUS halls or have found off-campus accommodation. The residential towers in UTown can be likened to Carlaw Student Village at UoA, but instead of greeting the motorway on your way to class, you would be exiting straight into the ‘quad’ where many of the uni-wide events are held.
For me, I had chosen to live in a hall, with the hopes of being able to meet more of the local students. While I do not regret this choice, it was difficult at the start when almost every one of my exchanger friends I had met during O’week lived in UTown. This meant that everything always seemed to involve the hassle of a small bus ride (the uni has blessed everyone with free buses to get across its enormous campus), which you can imagine wasn’t all that fun. But despite the initial hurdles, I’ve come to really love living in my hall and I would choose to live here again in a heartbeat. Without getting too biased about why halls might be the greatest, I thought I’d share some of my favourite memories so far, as well as some of the things I’ve learnt along the way.
DnD (Dinner and Dance) Regalia Formal dinner
Everyone dressed up in their formal attire for formal dinner, located in and catered by a hotel. We had waiters that would bring out the food, dish it out into individual portions if it was soup or noodles, then bring out the next dish after we were done. While all the food was happening, there were band performances and a pageant happening at the same time. Each block nominated a guy and a girl to run for king and queen, so everyone was solidly entertained as each pair put on a dance/song/skit performance that quite literally had the crowd screaming
The suppers seem to always have a punny name that would score a 10/10 for effort (e.g. B-A-E supper night for blocks A, B and E on the week of valentines). This is where the block committee would prepare food and activities on a random night once every two or three weeks, and everyone gets together to have a jolly time. Sometimes there are even prizes!
Random celebration get-togethers
We always have card signing and surprise cakes for the birthday kiddos, and we also got together to celebrate Chinese New Year. Everyone got their hands dirty trying their hand at creating them delicious dumplings.
Some of the things I’ve noticed and learnt while at halls:
Since halls are mostly populated with local students, they all tend to go home over the weekends. Now, this was a strange thought for me until I realised that their trip home was not likely to take up more than an hour. This also explains why the compulsory meal plan (breakfast and dinner each day) skips out on Saturday dinner and Sunday breakfast – may as well give the lovely catering team a day off while most of the students are back home anyway.
Singaporean students take on a lot more responsibility for their extra-curricular happenings. A lot of the events (sports practises, block suppers, camps, and the formal dinner) are organised by the students themselves with minimal input from the staff here. This is on top of all the assignments and studies that they have to do. Granted, involvement in hall activities earn them points which help them secure accommodation for the following year, but I am in complete awe of their participation and dedication within the hall.
The first floor of every block are always the male floors. I didn’t think much of it until someone mentioned that it was likely to be a safety measure due to the obvious foot traffic of anyone and everyone walking around. Safety is taken very seriously in Singapore; there are CCTV cameras around the hall and a security guard who is always present during the night.
Sports run from semester one to the beginning of semester two, which means I didn’t get to experience this part of life. There seems to be a team for every sport imaginable and it appears that everyone I spoke to played in at least one of the teams (and my hall is not at all known for its sporting abilities)
People here are really into wearing NUS merch/promotional t-shirts around here. It could be a sport-team shirt, an orientation camp shirt, an NUS faculty shirt or a shirt from a particular committee/culture group, 70% of people seem to be wearing one at any given time.
Now this isn’t a hall-exclusive thing, but on my way to breakfast every morning I’m almost guaranteed to run into a squirrel or a gecko/lizard (re: my reptile identification skills are still awaiting improvement).
Living in a hall has given me an amazing opportunity to expose myself to the life of an NUS student and it makes me sad even now to think that at some point I’m going to have to leave. I’ve been able to grow really close to the small handful of exchange students who live here, and I’ve had some of the most entertaining banter and hangouts with the local students.
Despite the lack of AC, I’ve definitely found my home.
One of the best ways I’ve found to knit myself into the community here at NUS is to partake in the different events that happen around campus. So many things happen all at once, so I’ve decided to share with you below little snippets of what’s been going on thus far.
In the first week of arrival before university courses start, a multitude of orientation activities happen, something almost every day. An added bonus: a lot of the people I’ve been lucky enough to go travelling with I met at these events.
Clementi Shopping Trip – The first event of the season which happened the day of arrival. I was able to grab all the living essentials that didn’t make the cut into my check-in luggage while having my first introduction to people with many many different accents and backgrounds.
SG Kaki Group – An afternoon of ice breakers and little challenges. Ice breaker-like games seem fairly popular around here, because according to one of our Kakis (meaning buddy), most of his time during his first-year orientation camp was spent doing similar types of activities.
Singapore Food Hunt – We went around to three different Hawker Centres in one afternoon and pretty much didn’t stop eating. I was introduced to biryani, cendol, qing tang and many other popular foods among Singaporeans.
Amazing Race – More exploration around the city. We followed clues and hunted for murals and elephants around little India, and tried to dress up one of our group members as the Merlion (official mascot of Singapore) with newspaper and string at Sentosa Island.
A day of carnival-like games within the Engineering department was a perfect way for everyone to ease back into the study grind. NUS students are known for being academically focused and driven, so believe my surprise when I found out that most of the classes within the Engineering department were cancelled from 12pm onwards! I’m starting to think the locals like to follow the approach of ‘work hard play hard’. There were different stations dotted along outside the lecture halls, grouped by different colours. The goal was to collect different coloured stamps from different stalls, which we could then use to exchange for goodies like free burgers, ice cream vouchers and ENGIN day t-shirts! Some of my favourite games/challenges that day were:
Angry Birds real life edition (a life-sized slingshot with dodgeballs hitting down boxes and teddies)
Beer pong (minus the beer of course)
Learning common phrases in sign language
Guiding a distance sensing drone across an obstacle course with our hands
As with any carnival, there was a raffle of course! So some people walked away not only with the buzz of an afternoon of fun, but also with a tablet, a TV, and even season passes to Universal Studios.
Dragon Boat Race
Dragon boat racing is a canoe sport, and is a competitive sport many Singaporeans take part in. A team is usually made up of 18-20 people, sitting in rows of two with a paddle each. Each semester the Peer Advising Programme organise a day out where we get to experience this fun sport. .
This event took place on the Kallang River, which is actually part of the water catchment area for the Marina Reservoir storing water that gets treated for drinking. This meant that whenever someone on board would threaten to flip the dragon boat, we would (kindly) yell at them saying that none of us wanted to eventually drink each other’s bath water. There was a total of six dragon boats on the river that day, and the natural rivalry between the boats meant that a lot of splashing happened as we were racing up and down the river.
I often don’t realise how many different things I’ve been up to since embarking on my exchange until I catch up with my friends back at home. The fast pace of life in Singapore means I’m always on my toes, something I’m finding myself to really enjoy. I think I’ve found a good balance going on here between me having fun and me studying, despite what my family must think when I spam them with photos that aren’t of my books.
Hello! So I’ve had some time to explore the wondrous country-city that is Singapore, and I’d say I’m pretty well settled now. “Oh, going overseas sounds like an awesome time, I’m going to do it” sums up pretty well my thought process to pursue an exchange. I love the idea of exploring the different cultures around the world, and so, an exchange seemed like the perfect opportunity. This was of course until all the admin details and logistics started to roll at me in a bunch of different directions. But being here for a few weeks already I can tell you that every stressful moment was 100% worth it, and so I thought I’d share some of the things that I found useful to research/keep in mind before departure, to prepare you to hit the ground running.
1. How will you stay connected?
Some people prefer to roam with their phone company back home, while many others decide to get a local SIM card. In the initial frenzy of everyone rushing to buy one, the options can be quite overwhelming – which SIM card do you get? In Singapore, the main service providers are Singtel, Starhub and M1. Personally, I went with a $15 prepaid SIM with Starhub. On top of the $15 credit, it came with 1GB of local data valid for 6 months, 200MB each month for six months and some pretty neat data roaming locations, handy for travelling! Singtel do have some cheaper plans, so see ahead of time which you might prefer.
Money is one of those things that everyone has to deal with, but sometimes can be a bit of an elephant in the room. For me, it was really hard to gauge how much money I would be spending, because I had no idea what price range to expect.
So, my observations so far of Singapore is that a meal, on campus or at Hawker Centres (food courts that are less McDonald’s and more like your Asian Grandmother’s) can range from about S$3 – S$6. If you go into AC restaurants, you can start seeing prices to rise to something similar to New Zealand, a meal that may cost around S$20. Getting from one side of Singapore to another on MRT or bus can cost around S$1.10 – S$2.00 depending on the distance, and a Grab or GOJEK ride (Southeast Asia’s alternatives to Uber) from the NUS campus to Changi Airport can be about S$25. In terms of clothing or food/daily life things from the supermarket, the prices here are pretty similar to that of New Zealand.
And in terms of how to deal with the money logistically, I personally have been making cash withdrawals from the ATM with my VISA debit card. The conversion fee for me hasn’t been too different from the currency exchange bureaus back at home. Another common option is to open up a Singapore bank account. Popular banks are DBS, OCBC and POSB, with easy to find ATMs around campus. Different banks operate differently, but most of them have an early closure fee of around $60 if you close your account within six months. Seeing as cash had worked well for me and my exchange is only a semester long, I decided to stick with the cash. Cash is super common in Singapore, especially around Hawker Centres. I have however noticed a push on cashless payments, with payments being made by scanning QR codes from the stalls through an app which is linked to your bank card – so you never know, I soon might be a bit behind the times!
3. What do people wear with the high temperatures and humidity?
I had wondered, do people just wear the bare minimum in Singapore to deal with the heat? But despite the 35-degree average heat, people dress the same as back home, as if it was 25 degrees. Lots of indoor places (e.g. the mall, MRT station, lecture theatres) have AC, so people do brave it out and wear long jeans and long sleeve shirts when they commute from AC room 1 to AC room 2. On that note, when you’re packing all your favourite summer items, don’t forget to pack a long sleeve because sometimes, the AC rooms can actually get a little chilly.
When we leave the house, many of us are programmed to check that we have our phone, wallet and keys, so leaving for an exchange should be no different. So before you start the adventure, doing a little bit of research beforehand can help ease a lot of the in-the-moment stress due to unpredictable events. Once all the tedious stuff is out of the way, time flies by so fast!