Aaron Ong finds his studies at Cornell University challenging, exciting and empowering.
I was originally set on pursuing Geography for my tertiary studies in the UK. However, as I was serving National Service, I had time to think through what I really wanted to study and applied to other universities. By then, I already had the URA Scholarship. My URA mentor working in the Strategic Planning Group suggested that I consider a degree in Planning from a US university, as it will be a better fit for my personality and academic goals.
I remember being in a dilemma. As I explored my options, many returned URA scholars who had either studied Geography or Planning, or who had specifically completed a Planning degree in Cornell, took time off to share their personal experiences and clarified my doubts. I eventually chose the Urban Studies programme at Cornell and never looked back.
According to American planner Paul Davidoff, planners frequently have to coordinate amongst many agencies and functions. From enforcing urban design standards to formulating social and economic policies, a planner’s education must be broad-based. It must not only include the technical tools of the trade, but also impart knowledge in areas such as social justice, law and environmental psychology.
The need for a broad-based education became evident as I embarked on my eight-week internship with URA in June 2014. During my four weeks in the Physical Planning (North-East) Department, I witnessed the deliberation of bread-and-butter cases, sketched a new design to reconfigure Serangoon Gardens, and developed a set of principles governing activity on Pulau Ubin. In my first month alone, I had already learnt and employed a wide range of skills.
My subsequent four weeks in the Planning Policies Department further exposed me to the complexities of macro-scale planning with a 50-year horizon. How do we increase public transport mode share? Is our supply of end-of-life facilities sufficient in the long term? How do we balance biodiversity conservation and our development needs? Under the close guidance of a senior planner, I gained a deeper understanding of URA’s comprehensive planning process.
Doing planning in a professional setting has been invaluable. In school, I am able to analyse urban theories from a practitioner’s viewpoint. Knowing the challenges facing Singapore, I am now able to select a mixture of classes that will best equip me for my future career as an urban planner. Beyond the classroom, my extensive travels during breaks have proved fruitful as well. As I explored major cities like New York, Chicago and Houston, I gained insights into the myriad strategies that city planners use to tackle urban problems. These ideas will certainly prove useful when I return home.
Ever since I received the URA Scholarship in 2011, this community of architects, urban designers, and planners has been most supportive. Perhaps it’s the unspoken commitment to our common goal – to make Singapore a great place to live, work, and play – that keeps this community such a tight-knitted and spirited one. I am thankful to have chosen this meaningful career, and more importantly, with an organisation that places utmost value in its people.
Aaron Ong Chee How
URA Undergraduate Scholarship
Now: 2nd year doing BSc in Urban & Regional Studies, Cornell University
From: NUS High School