From classrooms to cultural crossroads: 4 insights from my Ivy League semester exchange

My Ivy League semester exchange became a personal odyssey, with transformative moments that taught me profound lessons.

Jamie Lee
Jamie Lee

Published: 30 October 2023, 5:25 PM

When I first started university, my initial attraction to the Nanyang Technological University-University Scholars Programme (NTU-USP) was the multitude of interdisciplinary courses it offered – spanning the sciences, engineering, humanities and social sciences. 

While the prospect of global learning opportunities was certainly appealing, it was not my primary motivation. But as I navigated my first semester in the programme, an unexpected e-mail sparked a chain of contemplation, excitement, and uncertainty. 

“NTU-USP Study Abroad Indication of Interest,” reflected the e-mail subject. 

My friend had then texted me to ask if I wanted to register for a placement at the University of Pennsylvania through the Study Abroad Programme. Though I had some initial hesitation, one thing led to another. 

A year later I arrived in the US with two massive 32-inch suitcases, a stuffed duffel bag, and a backpack. The weight of my five-month journey felt both exhilarating and daunting. 


My friends surprised me at the airport at 7 a.m. on the day of my flight. I had stayed up all night with two friends in particular, imagining what my exchange experience would be like. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/JAMIE LEE


When I first walked onto the UPenn campus, the grandeur and timeless beauty of the buildings made an indelible first impression. Yet, as the days turned into weeks, the significance of my experience was beyond mere aesthetics. 

It blossomed into a deeper appreciation of my identity as a Singaporean as I navigated the challenges of my academic journey and embraced the opportunities within a fresh cultural landscape.


On a beautiful sunny day in Spring, my NTU-USP friends decided to have a photoshoot around school. College Hall, pictured here, is one of the prettiest buildings on campus. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/JAMIE LEE

1. New teaching methods and educational environments

Class was a whole new ball game. The first couple of weeks presented an unexpected hurdle – localised examples. As an exchange student from Singapore, my best friends soon became Google and ChatGPT as I sent them frantic texts throughout lessons. 

With time, I adjusted to the unfamiliar academic terrain. Discussions on social issues such as racism, gun violence, housing and healthcare accessibility, were incredibly insightful as these topics are less prevalent in Singapore. I also gained fresh perspectives on the US’ success in music, culture, sports, and technological innovations.

Even as assignments and tests piled up, there was an emphasis on savouring the learning process. Final exams accounted for about 30 per cent of the overall course grade, significantly lower than the range of 50 to 60 per cent typically seen in Singapore. Moreover, the enthusiasm for learning was palpable, with students consistently arriving early and actively participating in class discussions – something I wasn’t used to back home.


During one lesson of a course titled “Telling Stories from Photographs,” we visited the Penn Museum to look at archived photographs of native Americans shot in the 1920s and learn more about their history. The rest of the class was conducted in a classroom within the museum. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/JAMIE LEE


Naturally, I held back from participating during my first week. However, I quickly observed my classmates constantly supporting each other, and the professors encouraging active participation from students, irrespective of their grasp of the content.

Still, my Singaporean accent worried me, prompting me to code-switch. I practised adopting an Americanised accent when speaking to my table partner and the friendly receptionist at my apartment, steadily gaining the courage to engage in class discussions. I quickly realised the reward of making meaningful contributions to the class rather than remaining silent.

READ: Are Singaporeans ashamed of the Singaporean accent?

Tutorial classes were also incredibly small in size, with one having just 12 students. Classes followed a workshop-style approach, fostering a conducive environment to review and critique each other’s work. This format encouraged open discussions, with everyone comfortable expressing their opinions during lessons. That particular class became my creative haven, where I could freely experiment and explore new ideas.

2. Cultural diversity

During my time there, I had the pleasure of meeting students from diverse regions, including those from Europe, Australia, India, Korea, Japan, and various countries in Southeast Asia, as well as fellow Singaporeans.


My classmates from the workshop-style tutorial comprised white Americans, American-born Chinese, immigrated Indians, as well as people of Hispanic descent. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/JAMIE LEE


Similar to Singapore, the US is a melting pot of cultures. Through interacting with people from diverse ethnic backgrounds, I delved deeper into their unique traditions rarely encountered in Singapore. 

The streets were lined with an array of restaurants representing various cuisines, with Turkish, Greek, Mexican, and Peruvian eateries standing out the most to me. I even had the opportunity to savour Jewish food for the first time during their weekly Shabbat dinner. Another time, I had the privilege of attending a presentation conducted by the African-American community at UPenn, where I absorbed slang from various African languages, explored the culinary diversity of different African cultures, and immersed myself in traditional folk songs.

Yet, amid this vibrant mosaic, I noticed varying social dynamics that could be attributed to cultural differences. While I wasn’t excluded by any particular group, I realised white American students often formed close-knit groups with each other. In contrast, students from African, Latin American, or Asian backgrounds tended to establish multiple social circles encompassing various ethnic backgrounds.

These distinctions might be linked to how American culture places a strong emphasis on individualism, focusing on personal growth and achievement, which naturally draws like-minded individuals together. In contrast, many Asian, African, and Latin American societies prioritise collectivism, highlighting community solidarity and well-being. These cultural nuances subtly influenced how students interacted at UPenn.

3. Networking with professionals

Interacting with my UPenn professors was a remarkable experience, given their exceptional accomplishments. One had an illustrious career as a 30-year journalist at the Washington Post and authored seven books, including New York Times Bestsellers and National Book Critics Circle Award winners. Another brought unique insights as a former prison psychologist in high-security English prisons.


Professor Paul Hendrickson, a senior lecturer of the Department of English and a former journalist at the Washington Post. This selfie was taken on the last day of class. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/JAMIE LEE


These professors significantly enhanced my understanding of various subjects and provided invaluable career guidance.

Notably, a class with the Associate Director in the Psychology Department revealed my deep interest in less-explored areas of psychology, offering the potential for further studies at renowned institutions like UPenn. I’m currently contemplating pursuing a Master’s in Positive Psychology at UPenn, the first institution globally to offer this program.

4. Appreciation of Singapore as my home

All these experiences are not to say that I didn’t miss home. I did – very much. Beyond yearning for the familiar comforts of my home university, I missed feeling a sense of safety. 

Back home, I could venture out alone at any hour, unburdened by fear. In stark contrast, my life in the US had transformed into an exercise of caution. Daily reports of incidents, assaults, and robberies in the neighbourhood left me anxious and vigilant.

Moreover, an encounter with strangers who offered us drugs in a “tough” neighbourhood was particularly unnerving. My friends and I ensured we returned to the safety of our apartment before the clock struck 10 at night.

READ: ‘Soft heart, hard head’: Singapore’s approach to drug trafficking as a needed deterrent

One unforgettable incident was a water contamination scare in my city, which ignited a panicked water-buying frenzy, reminiscent of the mask-buying madness during the COVID-19 pandemic. Supermarket shelves were stripped bare of distilled water, and we had to drive to a neighbouring state in search of water. Yet, this episode only deepened my gratitude for Singapore’s unwavering commitment to securing water supply for its people.

Gripes about waiting 15 minutes for a bus in Singapore paled compared to the extended, bone-chilling waits I endured in the US. Singapore’s extensive MRT network ensures convenient access islandwide. In contrast, locating a nearby subway station in the US was often a challenge, and finding one without cleanliness issues and unpleasant odours was impossible. Additionally, Singapore’s pocket-friendly MRT fares, typically ranging from $1.10 to $2, are a sharp contrast to the steeper US fares of around $3.40 (US$2.50). These factors combined make exploring amenities around the island a breeze. 


Walking down the stairwell was always a nightmare for me. Urine puddles, trash and dirt often littered the ground. Each time, I took a deep breath and held it for as long as possible to evade the unpleasant stench that would inevitably attack my nose. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/JAMIE LEE


Finally, I can’t help but express my deep gratitude for the unwavering support of my family throughout the journey. As an extrovert, my bonds with friends and family had always been a cornerstone of my life.


The first photo I took with my family – taken outside the restaurant where we had dinner. They came to visit after my semester ended and we toured the West Coast of the US together! PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/JAMIE LEE


Their frequent texts and video calls served as a lifeline, a reminder of the connection to my roots and my cherished loved ones. I feel privileged to be able to say this is where I truly belong and it’s alongside these cherished individuals that I will continue to thrive and grow.

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