The interview will be split into two parts owing to the amount and variety of experiences both recipients were more than happy to share. Compressing these experiences into one article would certainly not do them any justice. This is testament not only of how much USP have given them, but how much they have given back. The first part will be devoted to Zhe Wen and the second part to Yan Zhi. Enjoy!
About Zhe Wen
Zhe Wen is a Year 3 Chemical Engineering Student. He is the President of USC’s 13th Management Committee. He has clinched several awards while representing USP, including the Best Delegate Award at the Princeton Interactive Crisis Simulation Conference, and Runner-Up of the Young Speakers Contest at the 14th ASEAN+3 Educational Forum. He is also currently in the Chua Thian Poh Community Leadership Programme.
Going right back to the beginning, what was it that drew you to USP?
To be very honest, when I first found out about USP, the only interesting thing to me was the idea of getting to interact with people from different majors. I have always come from a very science background, so I never really touched anything beyond that. When I entered university, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to pursue science, but because of parental pressures, I eventually stuck with Chemical Engineering. But I wasn’t so sure about what I wanted to do, and USP seemed quite interesting. Other than that, you can say the pretentious name of “University Scholars” might have appealed to me a bit.
What are some of the activities that you have been involved in since then?
I came to USP not wanting to be so active, because I led quite an active life, in terms of CCA and non-academic life, back in JC. So I wanted to take a break in university.
But when I came to university, the first thing I was thrown into was Rag. Mind you, I’m not the strongest proponent of Rag, but it involved interaction with a large group of people. That really got me into what the potential of this place could be- in terms of the diversity of the people, what you can begin to do, and the conversations you can have with people. That prompted me to run for the Management Committee (MC) in Year One. At that time, I ran for Director of Freshman Orientation Project (FOP), not so much because of the concept of orientation, but just because it is a large scale project, and I thought the environment would be fun and challenging. It was also seeing the potential to create a community of learning and community of initiative that really prompted me to do it in Year One.
In Year One, I also started hearing about the idea of international programmes. So I went for my first one in Year One, Semester Two, to George Washington University (as part of the George Washington University-USP Twin Cities Dialogue Series). I went there for a conference on lifestyle. It was interesting reading up for the conference. I went to George Washington University, and then hosted the George Washington University students here. It wasn’t so rigourous per se, but it was a good eye-opener.
When I came back, it really prompted me to think. What can I begin to do for this place? What can I add value to, in terms of the kind of the intellectual bandwidth and ground-up community initiative bandwidth? That was where the next international programme came up, that is the Forgotten Communities: Study of New Villages in Malaysia. It was in Year Two, Semester One. Again, it was very random, which perhaps epitomises what I like about USP, that not everything has to be nicely planned. It all happened in chaos, and I really enjoy this chaos. I still remember distinctly, that it was over a dinner conversation that I had with a Prof and two other students. He casually mentioned that he had recently been to Malaysia, and that he saw this phenomenon [of New Villages]. At first, I didn’t give it much thought. But after I went back, I Googled it through the internet, and spoke to my parents. Somehow that very random conversation manifested into an interest that I began to sell to other USP students. It started very informally, with me convincing my friends that this is something worth starting. We managed to get a group of 15 students to embark on the first study trip.
In Year Two, Semester Two, I went to Princeton, representing USP in the Princeton Interactive Crisis Simulation (PICSIM) Conference. Debating with Americans was an interesting experience. I was very fortunate to have won something (Zhe Wen clinched the title of Best Delegate at the PICSIM Conference).
In June, with USP, I participated in the ASEAN+3 Educational Forum to take a different perspective on how our youth counterparts in different national universities are like. It was very eye-opening. It contextualises where Singapore is vis-à-vis the rest of ASEAN.
After that, I worked for a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) in Cambodia. All this while, what I believe in is that we have a social responsibility, because we are a privileged class. So I’m always looking out for community work to do. It was also during this period that I interned with two other NGOs. Somewhere in July, earlier this year, I went over to Cambodia to run a research project. It was about studying a community before conducting any aid intervention. More specifically, we went to an area around Phnom Penh, with not the best of living conditions. They were well below the poverty line, living on something like USD55 cents a day. This project came under the view that before we embark on an intervention project we should study a community. Together with a bunch of business students, we ran a series of studies around the dumpsite, and interviewed about 80 people. We gathered a lot of qualitative and quantitative data to see if we could formulate an action plan for the NGO.
What are your thoughts on having received the Scholars Programme Recognition Award?
To be frank, while I am very honoured to have received this award, I do think that if USP were truly to give such awards, it should be one that is more all-encompassing, that recognises people for their contributions to society in general. At the heart of it, I don’t see them as separate goals, that you should recognise someone for his footprints in USP, as much as you should recognise him for his footprints in society at large. While I feel honoured, I also feel humbled because I know that there are a lot of people around, especially in USP, that are way more deserving of the award for their contributions to society.
Anything particularly memorable that you can share with us?
Something memorable is the people that I have worked with. I must say that my journey in going through this programme has really been a breeze. While I faced challenges and difficulties that I must overcome, all in all, it just seems very natural as a whole journey of learning. The environment that I am subjected to is not one that is very negative, where people try to shoot you down for the sake of doing it. Maybe I’m lucky. But what I have are people who support me along the way. People from the faculty, from the admin staff who support whatever crazy ideas I might have, that might be more disruptive than helpful to them. I also have friends who are very supportive of me, whom I can bounce ideas off, even when we’re talking casually. So all these have come very naturally, to the point that I have taken it for granted. Especially more recently when I have had to work in a real world environment, I really see that the opportunities I have here are really one of a kind.
Having participated in all these activities, what is your greatest take-away?
After participating in all these activities, coming now in Year Three, a lot of times I ask myself what is the point of me learning all of these things? No doubt I have developed a very critical faculty of mind, but sometimes I find that I am being critical merely for the sake of it. It is thinking for thinking’s sake. So that is something that I always struggle with. That’s where I think the reconciliation really comes with what I want to do. I am quite sure that when I graduate, I want to go into a social policy work-related field. This is because I do believe that all these things that we have learnt, and all these privileges that we have received should be given back to society. In Year One, I would think that it is good to brush up on my critical faculty and thinking skills, and that it is good to brush up on my exposure. But after going through all of these experiences, I would wonder what’s next? So to me the next step is then how do I become a member of society who can serve others.
Balancing between USP and their home faculty is a common problem that USP students face. Being so involved in USP, are there any difficulties in balancing that dual identity? Are there any trade-offs that you have made?
My degree is a professional degree in Chemical Engineering. But for me, I use that as a platform to hone my thinking skills, rather than as a platform where I can really incubate my ideas. Because in Engineering, per cohort, the number of engineers that we have is more than a thousand. The environment is also one for technical competency training. So it is not the most ideal place for incubation of ideas. But it is the ideal place for training a very disciplined way of thinking. So how I balance my time between USP and Engineering is also a reflection of how I want to hone the different skills. Beyond the very pragmatic approach of dividing it that way, of course, I would say I generally enjoy interacting with people from different backgrounds. So in that sense, I would say that I spend more time interacting with USP students.
But that said, I do recognise that staying in USP can be problematic because it can be quite insular. While it is supposedly diverse, we are also very similar in terms of the kind of thinking we have, and to a certain extent the socio-economic class that we are in. And it can be dangerous if you stay in this environment for too long, in terms of introducing different perspectives to how you think. So I think that it is always good for me to remove myself. That is why I like to go away from both Engineering and USP to an entirely different context outside. For instance, I spent most of Year Two doing community work outside. I worked at the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre, which involves a lot of advocacy and policy work. The key thing for me is that you get to meet people from different backgrounds. Especially when you are in the non-profit sector, you get to meet a large class of people who are normally hidden in Singapore. That, to me, introduces a lot of perspectives, and grounds what I learn in USP to something more meaningful, more worth serving.
In terms of balancing all these commitments, I’ll be very honest, the very first thing when I came to university was to give up the idea of First Class Honours. I believe that the value of a university education is not in my degree, or my formalised education. Rather, it comes from my informal education. To me, a Second Class is good enough for me. I consciously made that sacrifice. It was a choice I made then and I’m happy with the choice.
On top of that, I guess you have to really love the thing that you do. Every time I take on something, you can call me crazed, but I will work until late into the night, and not sleep. I can’t do that for everything. I can only do that for the things I really care about. So my advice would be to take on only things that you love.
As an individual, how different are you from that freshman who just entered USP two years ago?
The first one, and I think I am speaking for quite a few of my friends here, is that I am more sceptical. You start to develop a more sceptical approach to things. That, fortunately or unfortunately, is the training that a very academic kind of setting provides you. You doubt, you question. There is nothing good or bad about it. But to me I used to have this crazy opinion that doubt or scepticism is a bad thing, that we should instead be positive. But I have learnt to embrace it, to embrace the objectivity in doing so.
Also, what really changed is my perceived understanding of interactions with people. I used to classify people very nicely. I used to think a lot of things in the world can be predicted, in a very scientific way. The more I come into USP, the more I realise that the world is so uncertain and so complex. I used to like clean solutions, like one plus one equals two, or dy over dx equals to certain solution. Increasingly, I found myself being unable to find solutions, and increasingly, I found myself appreciating, even loving the complexity of problems in life.
Looking forward, what are your plans for the next two years ahead?
Actually, I planned not to return to USP (to stay in Cinnamon College) this year, because I planned to further my work with the organisations I am working with outside. But I was convinced to come back to USP to serve in the MC. So for the next one year, I’ll be here. But beyond that, beside the mammoth called Final Year Project, I think what I will really be doing is going back to the organisations that I work with to carry on with my work. I intend to further my studies, so before I leave, I hope to finish the work I have left off.
Stay tuned for our next article where Yan Zhi shares his equally diverse experiences in USP, including a certain USP prof who has inspired him to greater heights! Plus: we quiz Zhe Wen and Yan Zhi about residential life in Cinnamon College!