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URA – A Many-Splendoured Life In London

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Most people who have studied in London say life there is not too different from Singapore. As one of the 30-plus Singaporeans doing Economics at UCL, it seems as though these three years of my life were conveniently road-mapped before my eyes.

Nothing could really prepare me for what London had to offer. Setting foot on London for the first time, I was amazed by the diversity and cultural richness of the city. I was confronted with the inevitable choice: to go down the competitive route, or to forge a path of my own.  A typical roadmap for the Economics undergraduate would go like this: fight for a Spring Week in your first year, network as much as possible, and have a job offer by the end of your second year.  Thereafter, you get to enjoy your final year, and hopefully, you might graduate.

Being on a URA Scholarship was perhaps the best thing that happened to me, in such a pressurised environment.  Despite that, I got to explore not just the UK but other places in Europe as well. I not only managed to learn more about the city but also got to discover and develop some personal pursuits.
Europe-trotting
Most Singaporean students make use of their overseas education to explore new foreign countries. Travelling is fun and it should not be just checking off a list of attractions.  I have a keen interest in understanding the way the world works, how people think, and how cultural differences shape the way they behave. It is those travel experiences – bantering with Polish bartenders, hitchhiking in Yorkshire, practising Spanish in Andalusia, crashing a friend’s place in Budapest, learning to dance the Ceilidh impromptu – that I find most memorable.

Those seemingly trivial conversations and experiences gave me an invaluable glimpse into the workings of different cities: the hopes, aspirations and struggles of their inhabitants, and also how in every glamorous city there is the ‘other side’ to it.  In an increasingly globalised world, understanding and working with people from all over the world is increasingly paramount. My experience and understanding in these soft skills could be the most vital area of my education.

Spoilt For Choice
We have been brought up to think that co-curricular activities are important.  The diversity of activities available in the university makes it hard to decide what to get involved in.  From mountain-climbing to wine-tasting to Wing Chun, there are hundreds of societies to choose from. For me, it was the allure of learning a new language from native speakers first-hand, that inspired me to pick up Spanish.

I also had the opportunity to be involved in a microfinance project in Ghana, West Africa.  This was one of the most impactful experiences I have had thus far in university.  Being in a rural community, away from the luxuries of city life, and observing and understanding how communities function, is a truly humbling experience.  In addition, the hospitality of the people and the cultural immersion will be some of the memories I’ll keep for a long time to come.

In my free time, I devoted many hours to doing volunteer work. It is not mandatory here but the enthusiasm with which students, both local and immigrant, show to help those in need is frightfully inspiring.  I got to develop my culinary interest working in various soup kitchens, interact with many homeless people who sleep on the streets everyday, mentor underprivileged youths studying for their ‘A’ levels, and teach Sunday school at the church I attend.

Apart from the glitz of its financial sector, the glamour of West End, and affiliations with the Royal Family, London does have a more vulnerable side to it. Meeting real ‘Londoners’ from various societal strata helped me understand the city much better.
I have developed endearing friendships with people from all over the world.  Apart from actually staying in the country, there is no better way to learn about it than to interact with people who hail from there. My many misconceptions and stereotyped ideas had to be cleared after interacting with these new friends. At the same time, having a network of URA scholars in London to meet up with means you never lose touch of your cultural roots, especially when it comes to bingeing during Chinese New Year!

Books, Books
Now for the more serious academic matters.  My decision to read Economics was out of interest, and I am discovering how important this is in college life.  I actually look forward to challenging problem sets, and discussions with world-class lecturers and professors.

The nature of the course is such that it is entirely possible to stay under the radar as a passive learner. However, if you do engage with these stalwarts of academia, you will find a rich cornucopia of knowledge and resources at your disposal.  In my last year, I am striving to understand some of the ongoing frontier research being done at UCL. This involves learning a lot of things outside the course syllabus, and meeting up with lecturers who are more than happy to share insights about their greatest discoveries. My main motivations are my passion for the subject, and the knowledge that UCL nurtures some of the brightest minds in the academic field.  If research is your thing, this university might well be your future home too.
My module selection led me to a concentration in econometrics – the marriage of economic theory and statistical tools. Being able to churn out meaningful inferences from a dataset, to forecast trends, to analyse the effectiveness of policy – these are all skills which I may invariably draw on, especially if I end up working in URA’s property research department where I interned during the previous summer. Dabbling in operational research will hopefully give me an insight into how to improve organisational and resource efficiency, something that the public sector continually needs to maintain and improve in order to keep the gears of our economy going.

It is indeed a pity that I only have three years in UCL.  But one thing is for sure – I have seen, felt, tasted and experienced a slice of this city that I might not have if I were not on a scholarship.  With these experiences under my belt, I am more confident of tackling challenges at URA in future, and hopefully to make Singapore a better place to live in.

BENJAMIN CHOW JIE MING
URA Scholarship
Age: 23
Now: Third year doing BSc
(Economics) at University
College London
From: Hwa Chong Institution