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Confessions of An Ex-Poly Student In NUS

When I received my acceptance letter from the National University of Singapore (NUS) three years ago, I was on cloud nine.

Here I was, excited and ready to embark on the next phase of my life in a highly-ranked global institution.

Entering NUS had been a seemingly unattainable dream of mine since my ‘O’ level days. However, my feelings of being over the moon were short-lived. Coming from a polytechnic, I felt like a far cry from students from top junior colleges (JCs) here in Singapore. Can I cope here? Will I survive? Such thoughts ran through my head.

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My polytechnic friends and I, posing for a shot after having successfully put up a photo exhibition of our service learning trip to Dumaguete, the Philippines, at The Arts House.

Polytechnic students are a very un-/under- recognised bunch.

Only very recently, I realised that I was not alone in my fears. Over casual conversations with my closer polytechnic friends who had just matriculated this year, I was surprised to learn that they felt just as fearful about starting school as I did three years ago. Yet, it’s easy to understand why.

Polytechnic students are a very un-/under- recognised bunch. Even before school starts – in orientation camps and whatnot – typical conversation topics start with, ‘What JC are you from?’ Feelings of exclusion start from there, and change little even after the school term commences.

In class, more often than not, I was the only ex-poly student present. When friends make conversation of their JC days (as they will and as they very often do), it’s hard not to feel a little left out.

Sometimes, professors and lecturers will casually mention that they’d be teaching material which “will build up from what you probably already learned in your JC”, without bearing in mind that there are students from all walks of life in NUS.

Some of my friends and I could barely keep up with the heavy workload in the beginning. We had a lot of catching up to do. Let’s not even mention the distancing effect age differences create. (Panic mode: ON)

I’ve learnt that it really doesn’t matter where you’re from. As time progresses, you will catch onto the rhythms of university life.

Now, I am in my fifth semester in NUS, and my fears and insecurities about coming from a polytechnic are firmly located at the very back of my mind. Because I’ve learnt that it really doesn’t matter where you’re from.

As time progresses, you will catch onto the rhythms of university life. You get used to the ebbs and flows of the school term – the very slack first few weeks of school, the xiong periods of catching up in recess week, hell in weeks 10 to 13, death during the exam period, then a burst of freedom for a few weeks before it starts all over again. You’ll get to know the system inside out, and develop your own learning strategy.

My fellow Geography friends and I on a field trip with Professor T.C. Chang to Clarke Quay.

You also realise that while you may be the ‘minority’ in practically every class you take, in more ways than one, you are also privileged. As your poly seniors will tell you, the style of learning in a university is very similar to that in a polytechnic. You’re used to being an independent learner with the lecture-tutorial system and you don’t need to be spoon-fed to get your stuff done. You also know all about the joys and pains of group work, so handling less-than-stellar partners isn’t new to you. Besides, you are used to doing everything yourself, if need be.

Everyone, regardless of where they come from, has to come to terms with their fear of not belonging in a new environment.

Of course, I should probably catch my breath for a minute. All the fears I expressed here could just be things specific to me, myself and I. No two people walk down the same road. But I’m pretty sure that it’s more than likely you’ve felt the same way before.

Even if you did not come to NUS from a polytechnic, most of us can relate to being the awkward, quiet one in class. Everyone, regardless of where they come from, has to come to terms with their fear of not belonging in a new environment.

This article is for you. You aren’t any better or any worse off than your peers. So don’t let your reservations overwhelm you. As The Ridge’s current Chief Editor, Wendy Wong, wrote in a similar article two years ago, “Ignore what the educational culture and societal norms have pounded into you all these years. NUS has accepted you based on the same grounds and merit as all the rest, and where you came makes no difference at all.”

In any case, it’s just school, right?

Elizabeth Kamaldin
A mass communications student turned human geographer, Elizabeth loves travelling and immersing herself in new places and spaces... and writing about them later! When not busy finding pet rocks, considering adding them to her ever growing collection (every geographer must surely have one!) she also dabbles in art and craft, and likes to think of herself as an amateur watercolour/ink artist (check out her ig @littlecorals)!