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A View from the East

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In a job market clouded with uncertainty studying abroad can be an exciting an often life-changing opportunity for young people today. I caught up with fellow student Richard Butters, who is currently spending his third year abroad in Singapore, to find out what life on the other side of the globe is really like.

Richard, who studies International Management at Manchester University was born in Hong Kong to British parents and has always harboured a desire to work in the rapidly urbanising and culturally diverse Eastern metropolis. He told me:

“Singapore itself attracted me for two main reasons. Firstly it’s a global economic centre, which is fully developed and somewhat westernised but also retained some Asian charm. The three main ethnic groups in Singapore comprise of Chinese, Malay and Tamil, so it’s important to remember it’s not just Chinese but a melting pot of a lot of South East Asian cultures.

“Another reason was that they spoke English. Although I had learnt a bit of Spanish in Secondary school, I didn’t feel I was of a ability where I could just throw myself in the deep end and study in a country where English wasn’t  an official language. This is one thing I regret, although I have no regrets about Singapore itself, I somewhat wish I went somewhere where I had the opportunity to study a language. Although there were opportunities to learn languages here, I don’t have the money to afford them.”

Although Singapore remains one of the most developed and arguably westernised regions in Asia, Richard’s experiences have revealed some striking differences to life back home.

“The culture is very competitive and work orientated though, I can’t comment for everyone but one observation I’ve made is that Singaporeans work far too much and too hard. This might be down to the fact that a lot of their culture stems from Confucianism and there is a belief that you can’t ‘lose face’, in other words look bad in front of other people.

“Also, one thing I’ve noticed as well is government control. Many local people have shared their opinions with me on issues and it seems that although it is very safe, this safety is compromised through freedom.”

Within the classroom Richard has noticed a more “interactive” style of teaching than that of UK universities with “a heavy focus on learning from doing”.

“I have to do so many group projects, group presentations and individual projects. I prefer this style as I actually learn rather than doing last minute revision for exams that I forget about two weeks later. All the classes also grade you for class participation. This is one thing that stood out for me as many of my classes in UK everyone will sit around be silent and uncooperative. Whereas here there is an importance to interact and share viewpoints, this contributes to a more enjoyable learning experience.

“SMU operates on a bell curve grading system. This was something I never heard of before however it seems to be used in quite a lot of North American and European universities. It is good because it does make it more competitive, people do try harder instead of happily aiming for the safety of a 2:1, but it also makes it too competitive. People are so focussed on being in that top 10% that they work too hard. Lots of students suffer from stress and stay up for ridiculous hours studying. It can turn the overall university experience to one of dread.

“Because of this constant competitiveness and workload many students have very little free time. They do a lot of extracurricular activities. It’s not uncommon to find a Singaporean student who hasn’t been to a nightclub for 6 months or maybe never at all.”

With money a hot topic amongst students at the present time I asked Richard whether he felt his experiences abroad had been worth the money so far and whether they would benefit his future goals.

“I have enjoyed every experience I have gained and do not regret my spending. How I view it is that I may struggle financially now, but it just means I have to go and work hard when I get back home!

“I feel that to fully understand whether it is money well spent is also entirely relevant to the course you are studying or ambitions you have. For example I aim to try and work for a multi-national and want to work abroad. Therefore I view this experience as important to my ambitions. You will especially gain higher rewards if you study abroad to improve or learn languages. From my time here I feel that languages are important in an increasingly global world and being fluent in only English isn’t the best strategy to follow.

“As a whole though whether the exchange programmes will improve your employability or not, the experiences gained are worth it, regardless of what you study or what you aim to achieve. I can safely say that if I choose to go to any corner of the globe there is someone nearby that I know.”

Despite recognising the academic advantages of studying abroad Richard was also quick to underline the life-skills he has developed from immersing himself in a new and foreign culture.

“Obviously an exchange programme doesn’t tick all the boxes and going on exchange doesn’t mean that you are better or more employable than someone who hasn’t. To be attractive to employers you need to show a wide range of skills developed from different experiences, jobs, extracurricular activities, responsibilities etc. From this respect I just like to think that an exchange has benefitted my own personal development and can be used as a piece of evidence to back up this development.”

With his trip due to end in a few months’ time Richard just had time to share his top tips for anyone thinking of living and studying abroad.

“I think a lot of travellers in general would agree with me when I say be as open minded as possible. Go travelling on a clean slate; ignore the negative things people have told you. Yes things might be unsafe, yes you could get food poisoning, and yes you could get eaten alive by mosquitoes or ripped off by dodgy travel companies. But if you spend half the time worrying you’ll miss out on the fun things that are all around you.

“Finally save up or spend wisely! You’re not going to have a fun time if you have to end up coming home earlier than expected or maybe even find out you can’t afford to get home!”

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