A liberal arts education and Asia have often been two worlds apart. Pre-professional degrees in engineering and medicine guaranteed to provide stable jobs straight out of graduation seemed far more beneficial than studies in the humanities which were both expensive and had limited returns on investment. At least that was the commonly held belief.
If anything, there has been a reversal in sentiment; the United States has begun a transition away from the liberal arts model it glorified while many Asian countries eagerly welcome the fresh perspective of an open curriculum. Yale-NUS College, a quickly rising institution in Asia, is one such venture undertaken by Yale University and the National University of Singapore. With two full batches of students, the school has established itself as a beacon for liberal arts projects in Asia and as a symbol of the yet-to-be-fully-tapped potential of East-West partnerships.
Founded in 2011, Yale-NUS has grown from concept to reality at an astounding pace. Determined to develop a novel curriculum spanning Western and Asian cultures, President Levin of Yale and President Tan Chorh Chuan set the foundation for an autonomous college truly unique from both its parent institutions. In the last three years, the school has accepted over 300 students from an application pool of over 20,000, boasting a highly competitive acceptance rate under 4%. While the school has yet to demonstrate its full capabilities, its unparalleled global student body featuring more than 40% international students is an indicator that administrators, parents, and students alike have been convinced by its potential. Indeed, the risk of attending a nascent institution is negligible compared to the legacy one has the ability to establish in a well-funded, highly respected school like Yale-NUS. Even in a seemingly conservative Asian culture where academic risks are rarely encouraged, the school’s remarkable success is a testament to the intricately designed collegiate model that has deterred people from the traditional path of technical education.
Yale-NUS’ Common Curriculum, much like those at the University of Chicago and Columbia University, requires students to take a set of mandated courses during their undergraduate career. Burdensome to many, this unique curriculum offers numerous advantages beyond the classroom. Since students across years primarily share the same texts – Great Works, as the school puts it – cross-class interdisciplinary dialogue becomes an intrinsic part of social interaction and daily conversation. The curriculum facilitates a community of learning like one envisioned in the school’s mission statement, where students share their successes and tribulations with one another in a genuine, empathetic manner. After all, everyone has gone, is going, or will go through the same struggles and joys – that is the beauty of the common curriculum.
One of the biggest challenges that new schools like Yale-NUS face is the lack of an alumni donor base. Without alumni to emulate the success of these schools, one would assume that developing an endowment is extremely difficult. In Yale-NUS’ case, however, the three-year-old school features an endowment of S$350 million, paralleling many of the elite, centuries-old American liberal arts colleges. Both the Singaporean government and foreign investors continue to see the school as a creator of success stories, and their growing investments are a strong measure of that belief.
By far the most convincing aspect of Yale-NUS, at least in the brief Experience Yale-NUS Weekend that admitted students are invited to, is the introduction to Yale-NUS’ signature Center for International and Professional Experience (CIPE). Funding student projects ranging from cross-continental train journeys to facilitating internships with venture capital firms, the office ensures that its students have every opportunity to pursue their passions. Given that the student body is so small, and consequently the endowment disproportionately large (compared to other colleges), students have more funds and resources at their disposal than arguably any other institution in the world.
The school is not without its problems. Students still do not have access to a fully functioning campus (which is to be officially inaugurated for the 2015-16 academic year). Administrative inefficiencies and miscommunications between students and staff continue to challenge the rapidly evolving ecosystem. A conflicted, ill-defined identity independent of both Yale and NUS is still a source of controversy within the student body and the administration. For a school of three years, however, these are understandable hurdles. To date, such routine struggles have been handled efficiently as they come, and the students are ready to voice their frustration otherwise.
The size of the student body is perhaps the most integral factor to the school’s successes thus far. In the span of three years, the school has fostered a community that has grown from a college to a family. At times, this high-school like atmosphere celebrates individual birthdays in grand fashion and at other times, impromptu concerts are held in common lounges for no particular reason, but while the size may deter from an authentic college experience, it introduces many more that traditional colleges inherently cannot include. With time, as the school reaches its full capacity of 1000 students across four classes, it will come to resemble many small American liberal arts colleges, all the while (one hopes) maintaining the charm and unity the community currently has. Often forgotten is that all the while students attend college, they have access to the vast metropolis that is Singapore, and it is only when one ventures out of the residential college bubble that one realizes an entire city is at their disposal.
Yale-NUS has successfully begun its journey towards academic and collegiate excellence. The school holds pioneers in various fields in its faculty with whom students have unparalleled access; this includes dinners in their apartments, babysitting their children, and private musings on shared interests. Logistically, the school promises a state-of-the-art campus that incorporates elements from both Yale and NUS. It has admitted some of the most talented students in the world, but it has yet to give them all the resources they desire. Yet, the school’s phenomenal retention and satisfaction rates suggest that it is moving in the right track. Institutions in other parts of Asia – NYU Abu Dhabi for instance – are pursuing similar projects with great success, and it only goes to show that the liberal arts in Asia has just begun. The result is certainly not in sight, but in success or in failure, being a part of this journey seems too great an opportunity to pass on.