How stepping outside my comfort zone brought me to give an academic presentation in France

Sometimes we may feel overwhelmed or unmotivated when presented with a multitude of opportunities but it pays to take a leap of faith once in a while.

Fong Wai Kei

Enjoys writing in comic sans unironically.

Published: 3 August 2023, 5:22 PM

Soldiers donned in different uniforms stand in unison as passers-by weave in between them to go about their day. It’s Bastille Day, where some streets are cordoned off and I’m sitting at a cafe outside my hotel in Lyon, France, enjoying a Croissant and a coffee. 

But the main reason I’m here isn’t to enjoy some “R&R”. Instead, I’m actually here for a different type of “R” – namely research. 

Last year, I applied for the Undergraduate Research Experience on Campus (URECA) under Nanyang Technological University (NTU) to expose myself to the field of research and academia. For the past year, I contributed to a paper titled Social media, sexism and negative attitudes towards women politicians in the United States.

“This paper is about the relationship between using social media to interact with news and the impact on women politicians, especially with issues such as hostile sexism and misinformation online,” I explained. But my audience was no longer peers or family members curious about what I’m doing.

I was speaking to a panel of international academics, professors and students who are equally invested in such issues. 

It was like a fever dream to embark on this partially funded school trip to Lyon to present my paper at IAMCR 2023’s preconference. I had not expected that sending one email to my professor would present me with such an opportunity across the world.


My journey into the research programme all started with this email (left). PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/FONG WAI KEI


Like many university students, my inbox is often swamped with emails from different faculties and professors pushing out the latest talks, workshops and opportunities. While the volume of information can feel overwhelming to sift through sometimes, I was thankful enough that I chanced upon my invite for URECA. 

I first heard about URECA from my senior who enrolled last year, commending on the hands-on experience and flexibility of this four academic unit pass/fail module that spanned a year. I also considered how it would spice up my portfolio. 

Prior to my enrollment in this programme, I often felt inferior when I compared myself to my peers – I always seemed to fall short with one less internship or one less leadership experience than them. 

Eventually, I became tired of beating myself up for succumbing to the rat race mentality and decided to take charge of my own journey in a way that would be most meaningful to me. That manifested into joining this programme to take on a research project.

Although presenting at an academic conference may not have a direct impact on my education the way industry experience might, I still picked up a lot of transferable and relevant skills, including networking and planning. The mere exposure to a different culture and people from different walks of life was also an eye opening experience nonetheless.

Interestingly enough, I was the only undergraduate student in my session among the professors, academics and post-graduate students. It was a humbling experience to share the same space with them. 

The other students were surprised that my school had dedicated funds for undergraduates to travel as they had to pay out of their own pockets.

It was definitely not everyday you’d see an undergraduate fly to Europe to present their paper in front of an international audience.


One afternoon, I walked 5km under the sun to La Confluence, where the rivers Rhône and Saône met. GIF CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/FONG WAI KEI


This led me to reflect back on some of the sentiments my friends gave when I asked them if applying for the programme crossed their minds:

“I don’t think I’ll have time to juggle this on top of our usual school modules and the other hall commitments I’m in”, “The application process is too tedious, I don’t think it’s worth the effort” and “I’m too lazy to go through the application process.” 

And I think this conversation about taking up commitments is much more nuanced than it looks.

They bring up valid points in terms of trade-offs with how we spend our time and energy, which are limited. In their eyes, while I managed to gain better insights into research, I had also sacrificed the chance to clear a school module that would’ve mattered more towards completing my degree curriculum.

Furthermore, flexibility in my timetable during the semester meant spending hours after the semester ended and outside my summer internship hours to finish up my paper. 

However, the satisfaction I felt when I clicked ‘Submit’ on the portal made everything feel worth it – the back-and-forth messages with my professor and the hours staring at my screen researching, writing and formatting the paper.


One of my favourite meals in Lyon was the Salad Lyonnaise, a traditional Lyon dish, at Le Poelon d’Or. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/FONG WAI KEI


While it took courage to step out of my comfort zone, I was also aware of my limits at the same time and wasn’t afraid to speak out about it. 

When my professor asked how comfortable I was analysing the methodology and results, I admitted that I didn’t have the capacity to finish it well, knowing how short the runway was to do it and my capabilities.

As a result, we took one Zoom call to walk through the process together so I could still understand what the numbers represented and learn at a pace that sat right with me. 

With the end of the research programme, my paper now resides in the NTU archives. While my professor has ideas to rework the paper to be published in the academic sphere, I can’t help but take a step back and reflect on the bigger implications of this paper too.

Though the paper might not have a direct impact on the realities of the world, it might help to spur discussions and raise awareness about the issue of women politicians.

It’s no doubt that after sifting through archives of papers that I now have a greater understanding of the issue. And the dedication I felt from other researchers definitely fuelled my innate interest for research as well. 

And as I present it to an international audience at the conference and even talk about it to my peers when they ask what I’m doing, their awareness of the issue also increases. 

When I attended President Halimah’s S. Rajaratnam Lecture this year, I found my ears pricking up when she touched on the issue of women in political leadership roles. 

“For instance, sometimes, people ask about how a female leader is dressed. But how important is that to her work and performance?” she said. 

“Male leaders don’t get those questions. I’m not being frivolous, but it is a fact.” Hence, although my research focused on the Western context, I was reminded that these issues were very much relevant locally too.


There is more work that needs to be done with regards to women in politics. PHOTO CREDIT: RDNE STOCK PROJECT VIA PEXELS


So, while it all started with a simple goal to have another item to spice up my portfolio, applying for this research programme taught me the value of striving for something I didn’t necessarily have to take up. 

Maybe it’s time to head to your email and apply for that one thing that you’ve been thinking about for a while.

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