By Rachel Koh (15A01A)
Photos courtesy of Chew Chia Shao Wei
Thinking about which university to apply to, or already a J2 beginning your early admission applications? Raffles Press brings you our Please Mind the Platform Gap (Universities Edition), a series of articles dedicated to providing information on Rafflesian alumni’s experiences at their respective universities. Read our previous interview with University of Cambridge undergraduate Samantha Chan here, or MIT undergraduate Liu Aofei here.
The alma mater of eight US presidents and household names like Mark Zuckerberg and Al Gore, Harvard University needs no introduction. Boasting 150 affiliated Nobel Laureates, its influence and prestige have been well-documented throughout the almost-four centuries since its establishment. Little wonder, then, that those skilled and ambitious enough to secure a place at this Ivy League college are regarded with the utmost awe. We speak to one such individual, Chew Chia Shao Wei (RIJC alumna ’12), on her experience at this hallowed institution thus far.
Press: What CCA were you in back in RJ, and what subject combination did you take?
Shao Wei: I was in Soccer Girls, and took HELKI (History, Economics, Literature, Knowledge& Inquiry).
P: Tell us about the university, course, enrichment programmes and/or extracurricular activities you’re currently in.
SW: I am currently in my second year at Harvard University; it’s a liberal arts school so I only have to declare my major at the end of this semester. I don’t know what it’ll be but maybe Social Studies, or History and Literature. Sadly I did not continue my RJ CCA. With regards to extracurriculars, I’m co-president of the Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia Association, I’m working with the new Journal of Singaporean Policy, I’m in the Harvard College Conflict Resolution Association and Harvard Effective Altruism, and I volunteer with Health Leads, Harvard Square Homeless Shelter, and the Small Claims Advisory Service (but I’m thinking of discontinuing the last two because they have more than enough willing to volunteer for them and I can make time for other things).
P: You successfully applied to Harvard through the Early Admissions exercise. What was it like and what were the implications of making it in through EA?
SW: The thing about applying Early was just that I had to be more on top of things earlier in the year, rather than having the time to flail around and figure it out. The second thing was that I was doing my application – and I found it somewhat demanding, taking extra care with every single component, every single word in my essays and short answers – at the same time that I was studying intensively for A levels. It wasn’t too terrible; sometimes it was even nice to switch and have that change of pace and something different to focus on for a few hours, and there was time as long as I planned things out. I was so happy to have done it in the end because when I got admitted I didn’t have to do the rest of the applications I had planned, and there was a bit of glee in getting to relax.
P: Why did you choose to study at Harvard?
SW: I chose Harvard for its abundant opportunities to get engaged, learn different things from all sorts of different angles, and the multitude of perspectives I might encounter and have to grapple with. Also, I needed something that would allow me to explore possible disciplines and academic interests rather than locking me in to one particular field of study.
P: What extracurricular activities/enrichment activities does Harvard offer?
SW: Truckloads of stuff, and everything is interesting depending on what you’re interested in I guess! There are sports clubs, pre-professional stuff, magazines and journals, creative & performing arts stuff, lots more volunteering opportunities, advocacy initiatives, all sorts of cultural societies, religious groups – the list goes on and on.
P: Are there significant differences between the JC and university teaching formats? What are lecturers like there?
SW: It’s basically a similar lecture & tutorial format, but the tutorials (or “sections” as they’re known) are really interactive and require active participation, and are taught by TFs (“teaching fellows”) who aren’t the professor (who does the lectures). Some classes (“seminar classes”) don’t have lectures and are small, 15 people give or take, and very discussion-based (for the humanities/social sciences at least). There’s a wide range of professors and personalities of course, but I’ve only encountered great ones. Generally, I find them super into their subject, really keen to give students an enriching experience, and a lot of my professors have gone above and beyond to engage the undergrads they teach.
P: What’s the dorm experience like?
SW: Both this and last year, I share a bedroom with another person, and we share a common room (like a living room) with another bedroom, so four in total. Last year two common rooms shared a private hallway and bathroom so it was like having seven roommates. But there are lots of different configurations depending on which dorm one ends up in.
I love having roommates; I love my roommates. They’re the people I spend the most time with and feel most comfortable with, and they’re a great support system. I’d be a hermit without them. There’s always random stuff we have to figure out and negotiate of course, but it’s nice to practise compromising, talking things out, being sensitive to another person’s needs and perspective. I ate a lot of ramen last year but not that much. We have a meal plan and dining halls close by so it’s pretty easy to eat healthy. Sometimes people get lazy though… and when it’s cold outside… well…
P: Describe a typical day in your life as a university student.
SW: It starts by waking up later than I ever could as a JC student. Go to a class or two. Do volunteering shifts or have extracurricular meetings (these can be in the mornings, afternoons or as late as 11pm). Lots of meetings. Eat with friends. While hanging out with/around people someone might suddenly announce an eye-catching talk/activity/pursuit and we head off to do that. Study. Go to the gym, or if you have roommates like mine, work out together in the common room. Sleep. It may sound a little boring… but it’s a wonderful life!
P: What do you do during your leisure time? What do other students do during their leisure time?
SW: What I usually do with leisure time is… to fill it up. But with activities I enjoy! Even my time spent hanging out is rather carefully planned (although I get dragged into doing social things a lot more often than I plan). I don’t think it’s as sad as it sounds, but then I’m biased towards my own choices. People go running along the river, do yoga, watch TV, sit around on their friends’ sofas, watch funny YouTube videos, take walks and party. And other stuff that I’m not thinking of right now.
P: Do you visit the surrounding town or city frequently? Are you involved in the local nightlife scene?
SW: If by surrounding city you mean Cambridge, well, I kind of stick to the bit in between all my classes and my room/my friends’ places. I venture towards MIT sometimes, dinners and stuff. If you mean Boston, I go once a week to Massachusetts General Hospital for one of my volunteering things, but that’s just across the Charles River so I’m not sure we should count it. I’ve been into Boston for dim sum once and a movie once and to shop once… I really should explore it more. If nightlife refers to the clubs and bars, not really, because of the higher drinking age here and I don’t have a fake. House (dorm) parties are pretty big here though.
P: Does Harvard have a strong school spirit? How do people demonstrate it?
SW: Personally I feel like it’s hard to have school spirit because being proud of Harvard/being at Harvard can just come off as being… proud. I think the biggest demonstration of school spirit is at the Harvard Yale football game : ) But I think I demonstrate my school spirit when I talk about my experience of school because I’m having such a good time, and I end up plugging it to juniors because I think they should consider coming here and so on.
P: Do you feel a sense of belonging to Harvard or your faculty? What is it like compared to RJC?
SW: Yup! Well… I think Harvard has a more tangible identity and sense of itself as an institution. Could be related to the fact that it has/is a brand, while RJC does not (seem to) have to really consolidate and sell itself (or didn’t from the perspective of a student). There are really a lot of similarities – like when I was younger, it was sometimes weird to say you were from Raffles because of assumptions people suddenly make (and express) about you, and now, I also find it hard to say I’m from Harvard and I sort of have to mumble it. (I should get over that.) Also how like people ask you if everyone around you is smart? People ask us that because we’re from RJ, right? And the answer is still that there are smart people and people who don’t seem that bright and people who have all different kinds of intelligence? I also personally found RJC super stressful because of the immense focus on A-levels and university applications, so it’s hard for me to discount the emotional side of all that when I look back on my time at RJ (wonderful as it was). I find Harvard less stressful; people don’t hold your future over your head, and there’s a lot more room to explore and find yourself and do your own thing. I think I’ll always feel tied and grateful to both institutions, and that isn’t mutually exclusive or anything.
P: Did you have trouble acclimating to the university environment? How did you manage to adapt?
SW: Okay so weirdly enough I totally surprised myself by suddenly doing what my teachers have been telling me to do since primary five i.e. I pulled my socks up. I really buckled down and I learnt to work hard! Sometimes, I observe myself turning in an assignment a week early and I’m like, who are you, and what has college done to you? It’s sad that now I actually have a GPA I’m proud of, people are telling me not to study too hard, and to focus more on people and stuff as apparently learning social thingies will serve me well in future. I dunno, man. Culture shocks, not really. But my JC classmate called me a westernised bleeding heart liberal tree hugging hippie so…
Okay to be candid there is one thing. The wearing shoes inside thing weirded me out for a while. Everything feels a bit less clean. I hope Americans will not be offended if they accidentally see this. I just told myself it wasn’t a big deal – and it really wasn’t.
P: Did or do you feel homesick? Does Harvard provide student support?
SW: Harvard provides SO MUCH student support. There are really a megaton of resources but one usually does have to reach out to benefit from them. One of the things everyone experiences is having the support of a community called the entryway (basically the group of people who use the same door you do to enter your hall of residence) which is guided by a proctor. My proctor was basically the best human being, and created a close-knit and warm community, and I could go to him with any question. He encouraged us to look out for each other, so I guess in this case, you could be struggling and not reach out and still get help. But for a lot of things, you’d kind of have to call a hotline, or drag yourself at least partially out of whatever it is to go get what you need. But that’s life anyway; it’s up to you.
There is everything, though. Dedicated advisors for classes, concentrations (majors), careers, our own police department to keep people safe (there’s a service that picks you up at night if you need like secure transport), all sorts of peer education and counselling groups. I haven’t accessed a great number of these services myself, so I can’t report on how they are in practice. But I think they really try.
P: Tell us about the nature of the student profile. Do people come from very diverse backgrounds? Have you met anyone particularly interesting?
SW: Yup! People come from all over. For example, my three roommates this year are from California, Turkey and Belgium. This particular circle includes people from Israel, Greece, the Czech Republic, and the US. I also hang out with people from Japan, Azerbaijan, the UK, Germany, Korea, Brazil, India, New Zealand… My roommates last year were from Connecticut (but recently moved to Shanghai), D.C. (but recently moved to Paris), Connecticut (but Swedish and goes back every year), Hawaii, California. So you kinda get the picture. Other than geography, I think we have a huge range of perspectives too. And… everyone is interesting. It’s terrible. I could listen to just one person for hours and hours on end. But then where would my GPA be? College is all about tradeoffs.
P: In your opinion, is there any particular type of student that would thrive in Harvard?
SW: I think a deep-seated measure of self-assurance would be very useful. And because there are so many opportunities and you just have to go for it, it would help you make the most of it if you were really driven, energetic, and had some way of organising and keeping it together. But I think it’s okay if this doesn’t describe you. It doesn’t really describe me either.