Joining Forces to Create Citizens of the World

June 18, 2009

It has been a little over a month since the class of 2009 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill donned their Carolina blue graduation robes and prepared themselves to leave the cozy confines of campus life.

Having worked tirelessly for the past four years, graduation day is a commendable achievement in any young person’s life.

Now, imagine if on this celebratory day, instead of graduating from just one university, you were to earn a degree from two distinctly different institutions: one from UNC and one from a university across the world.

Such will be the case for junior, David Crawford, the first UNC student to enroll in the innovative Bachelor of Arts joint undergraduate degree program between UNC-Chapel Hill and the National University of Singapore (NUS). Launched in 2007, the joint program offers majors in economics, English Literature, political science, geography and history and is available to students in the College of Arts & Sciences at UNC and the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at NUS. Eligible UNC and NUS undergraduates can take two to four semesters of classes at the corresponding university, culminating in a degree from both institutions at the end of four years.

Outside of a professional school setting, this program is the first of its kind at the undergraduate level of any university in the nation.

“The NUS-UNC joint-degree program joins the strengths of two great universities and takes a cutting-edge approach to a traditional undergraduate education,” said Dan Gold, Asia Programs Director with UNC Study Abroad. “It allows students to experience greater academic depth than a regular study abroad semester could offer alone, while also providing the opportunity for young scholars at both institutions to explore new areas of the world.”

UNC Associate Provost for International Affairs, Peter Coclanis, believes that this joint program is an exciting and effective way to meet the growing demand by students on both campuses who are looking for innovative study abroad options. And with NUS boasting an impressive number of faculty specializing in Asian studies, this program is yet another exciting program for the burgeoning number of UNC students interested in pursuing studies in this area. On the same note, NUS students will be able to take advantage of UNC’s academic strengths and diverse general education offerings.

And with globalization among UNC’s major academic priorities, the joint-degree program is just the beginning in what is fast-becoming a strong and progressive relationship between UNC and NUS.

“The JDP [joint-degree program], however innovative and important, is but one of an increasingly close, trusting and multi-layered relationship between UNC and NUS. We view our pan-university relationship with NUS – one of Asia’s greatest schools – as an exemplar of what is possible in international education today,” said Coclanis.

Stateside to Singapore: The Tar Heel Perspective
David Crawford enrolled in the joint-degree program in the fall of his first year at UNC, opting to spend the past two semesters of his sophomore year studying at NUS. Having developed an interest in Singapore as a child as a result of his father’s frequent business trips to the region, Crawford was eager to secure the title as the first UNC student to embark upon this new program. And with NUS ranked among Asia’s top three universities and 19th worldwide by the London newspaper, The Times, Crawford was excited about the prospect of earning an education at two such highly respected institutions.David3

Pursuing a degree in geography, Crawford has benefitted from having the opportunity to take a greater selection of courses in his major, while also experiencing the distinctly different approaches to teaching the subject that both institutions offer.

“In my Geography classes at UNC, it’s generally more about demonstrating your own personal perspective and effectively arguing your point,” said Crawford. “NUS, on the other hand, is very research based. I do a lot of scholarship in my classes, looking at different readings from a variety of scholarly sources…It’s been great having both sides – UNC’s emphasis on individual thinking and the scholarship process at NUS.”

Crawford also jumped at the chance to spend a year in the bustling metropolis of Singapore. A far cry from the shady groves of the UNC campus, it took a little while for Crawford to get used to his surroundings, from the unexpected cultural variations to the competitive academic environment at NUS.

“Each cultural difference was kind of fun to learn when I was here and you can’t really prepare for that. For example, the fact that they don’t use knives to eat, they only use forks and spoons, that’s kind of fun to learn,” remarked Crawford. “As for the school environment, it’s very competitive. There’s a word, kiasu, that means ‘to be afraid to lose,’ and that is Singaporean culture in a nutshell. That took a little while to get used to.”David1

Spending two full semesters at NUS gave Crawford the opportunity to truly immerse himself in Singaporean life, which he found to be surprisingly similar to the U.S. However, while many of his friends at NUS were studying abroad from other universities, and were therefore only in Singapore for a matter of months, he appreciated having the time to explore and travel throughout Southeast Asia. Visiting countries such as Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia and Cambodia, his favorite destination, Crawford believes that his participation in the joint-degree program has not only opened his eyes to fascinating new experiences, but has allowed him to mature both as a student and as a citizen of the world.

“The program is good in that you can come to Singapore and be used to a lot of the same amenities as in the U.S., but also be able to experience Southeast Asia in small doses and really see drastic cultural differences,” said Crawford. “I think it’s really important for college students to immerse themselves in cultures so completely unlike their own because you get to think beyond the island of North America and see things from the Asian perspective, which is very different from most places.”

However, as a full-time student enrolled at NUS, Crawford stressed the need to find a balance between his role as a student and a traveler. Unlike most study abroad students who take classes for transfer credit, Crawford’s grades are ultimately reflected in his overall GPA, making it integral that he remained on top of his school work in between his many trips.David2_b

In addition to a rigorous education, being a student at NUS also opened the doors to one of the most interesting experiences Crawford had while studying abroad: an internship with Transient Workers Count Too, a local NGO devoted to improving the conditions of Bangladeshi migrant workers in Singapore. Having worked with Burmese refugees while at UNC, Crawford was informed of the position from a professor and immediately took advantage of the opportunity to further his interest in migrant rights.

“The best part of the joint-degree program for me has definitely been interning with the NGO. I really enjoyed working with migrant workers and getting involved with a Singaporean organization outside of NUS. I now know people who live in Singapore outside of the academic environment and working for an internationally-based organization was just such a great experience.”

Crawford’s participation in the joint-degree program was sponsored by the Phillips Ambassador Program, an undergraduate scholarship funded by former U.S. Ambassador, Earl ‘Phil’ Phillips, to encourage students to study abroad in Asia. In addition to the monetary award, the ‘ambassadors’ complete an academic program, which helps them understand their experience in a global context and be able to share it with others. Crawford hopes to continue his studies in migrant rights next summer in Bangladesh and believes that his time in Singapore will only be the first of many stints living abroad.

“I don’t think I would have been as independent as I am if had not had this experience; moving to a foreign country and living there on your own for a length of time, having to adjust has really prepared me for a lot of things after I graduate,” said Crawford.  “I’ll be able to feel a little bit more independent, that after graduation, I don’t necessarily have to stay in Chapel Hill, or for that matter, North Carolina or even the U.S. It’s a global market for jobs and so it has allowed me to think more from a global perspective.”

From City Life to Chapel Hill: Perspectives from Singapore
Song Xiuhua Shafiqah Nadiah bte Ismail, better known as Nadiah, is a seasoned veteran in the joint-degree program. As an English Literature major from Singapore, she has spent the past two years studying at UNC.Nadia1

Having always had the desire to study abroad, Nadiah was eager to experience an education system outside of her home country, particularly at a historic American university such as UNC. And with plans to teach upon graduation, earning a degree from a U.S. institution, she believes, will open the doors to the possibility of teaching and working abroad in the future.

“Being abroad in itself has allowed me to understand and learn about a place other than my home country,” said Nadiah. “The JDP [joint-degree program] balances the benefits of each education system as it allows the student to study his or her major in depth, while still paying close attention to the importance of having a broad base of knowledge across all areas.”

Spending the past two years in the U.S., Nadiah believes, has allowed her to gain a better understanding of American culture, while also providing her with the opportunity to explore courses of study outside of her major due to UNC’s range of general education requirements. She also expressed an appreciation for the diversity of people and places in the U.S. that she had not realized before coming to UNC.

“Studying at UNC for four semesters and spending more time in the U.S. than in Singapore for the last two years has changed my perspective in so many ways,” reflected Nadiah. “The most valuable thing I think I gained is the ability to listen to both American and Singaporean viewpoints on different issues and relate to people from both countries. I think it’s a great skill to pick up, especially in the increasingly cosmopolitan world.”

Both Nadiah and Crawford remarked on the vibrant campus life and candid school spirit at UNC, a distinct feature of Carolina that never fails to draw new Tar Heels to the university each year. Attending meetings of campus groups such as the Muslim Student Association and Student Action with Workers (SAW) as well as living on the WELL (Women’s Experiences: Learning and Leadership) floor in McIver Hall, Nadiah likened the environment at Carolina to be more closely related to her experience in high school. Having the majority of UNC students living on campus, she believes, is more conducive to an active student body than the predominantly commuter population at NUS.Nadia2

And no experience at UNC would be complete without a confrontation with the acclaimed pit preacher – just one example of the open forum approach to education that Nadiah was surprised to discover while studying at Carolina.

“The U.S. is definitely big on freedom of speech, no matter how sensitive the topic- religion, ethnic relations, etc. In Singapore, we don’t talk about these things in public, much less have a Pit Preacher who is unafraid of broadcasting his opinions! I was a little uncomfortable with this at first, but I grew less shocked and became desensitized to it after a while,” said Nadiah.

With just one more year to go at NUS, the young campus globetrotter is looking forward to life after graduation and the opportunities available to her with the completion of this innovative program. Having had some time to reflect since leaving Chapel Hill life behind, Nadiah believes that enrolling in this exchange program allows its participants to gain a better understanding and admiration for what both these surprisingly similar nations have to offer. And with a lifelong tie to the U.S, and a little bit more Carolina blue in her wardrobe, Nadiah, much like Crawford, believes this is just the beginning of an exciting relationship between her two homes over the past two years.

“Singapore and the U.S. have a lot of diplomatic, economic and social ties, which I think a lot of people in the U.S. don’t realize,” said Nadiah. “Beyond a simple study abroad program, this joint-degree program allows students to understand the ties between these two countries and appreciate the significance of each country to the other.”
–    Story by Robyn Mitchell ‘09