Please Mind the Platform Gap (Universities Edition): University of York

by Karen Cuison (16A01D) and Qiu Kexin (16A13A)
Photos courtesy of Gan Yu Neng (09A03A)

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.

Situated within the modern comfort and scenic expanse of North Yorkshire, England, the University of York is an established institution with plenty to offer. Among other things, it is renowned for its reputation within the Russell Group of Universities, its eminent standing among the UK’s Top 20 universities, and also its own brand of quirkiness partly borne out of its vibrant student-led culture, and — not to forget, partly out of an exceptionally large on-campus duck population (for which there exists a Duck of the Day blog that posts photos of them).

Recently, Raffles Press caught up with Gan Yu Neng (Year 2009), a Literature graduate, to find out more about his fascinating experiences at this University.

Profile:

Press (P): What CCA were you in back in RI, and what subject combination did you take?
Yu Neng (YN): I was from 09A03A, and I took Theatre Studies and Drama, Economics, English Literature and Mathematics (MEL TSD). I was the vice-chairperson of the Writers’ Guild, and also casually performed in the Piano Ensemble.

P: What course did you take?
YN: I have just graduated from the University of York, from the Department of English and Related Literature.

College Living

P: Describe a typical day in your life as a university student.
YN: At eight in the morning I awake with a start, check the time on my handphone and go back to sleep.

At half past eight my handphone wakes me. I brush my teeth and shave, then spend some time on my laptop clearing emails and notifications. I then put it into my bag (which already has my texts and notebooks) and leave the house at 8.45. My first seminar at 9 AM is twenty minutes away but I can make it in fifteen if I walk fast.

From nine to eleven, I discuss technical elements in the staging of Samuel Beckett’s later work, adapted from originals written for film and television. By this point in the term, it’s easy to guess who has done the reading and who hasn’t; which coursemates may be able to respond credibly to your points and which coursemates would be unable to contribute. The seminar tutor for this particular module requests each of us write a small essay-standard paragraph each week in order to have discussion material and also in order for each of us to maintain a fluency with academic language over the course of the term; now we draw on these for our discussion.

Occasionally I come up against someone who makes a point that I have not thought of, or substantiates an easy point in an incredibly eloquent or an unusual manner. These are the times when I hurry to scribble things down in my notebook, either because these would be useful in my essay, or simply because I have learnt something new. Swot that I am, I quickly learn to secretly despise people who regularly make me feel this way!*
(*not really)

I have a break from eleven until noon, and I had planned to do some reading after my class. On the way out I start chatting with one of my coursemates and we both mention that we haven’t eaten breakfast; we end up at one of the campus cafes having sandwiches until twelve. From noon to one I have a lecture on the Interregnum period, which is meant to complement my understanding of the poetry of Andrew Marvell and his obsession with Oliver Cromwell.

Immediately after the lecture, I have a meeting with the Teaching Committee – a group of staff and student representatives that regularly meet to make decisions on issues to do with undergraduate pedagogy and course structure. I sit on the Teaching Committee as chairman of the student representatives. The Interregnum lecturer is also on the Teaching Committee and we head to the meeting room together. At the meeting, I put forward a small report made from collated student feedback about the recent assessment, and make some suggestions; there is some discussion about this.

The meeting ends at half past three. I run straight for another meeting, this time organised by the International Students’ Association, which I also chair. This is a coffee afternoon, an event intended to foster an international student community with regular free coffee, snacks and conversation; it allows the ISA committee to learn more about the current issues international students are concerned about, and also gives us some rapport with the National Societies which we would draw on each year for Global Week. At this point it is too late for lunch, so I steal as many snacks and biscuits as I respectably can. At half past four, I have a quick meeting with the ISA committee to update everyone on the status of our university-wide event, Global Week (more on this later!) – venues, budget, participating societies.

By the time I leave campus, the sky is already dark. I walk home briskly in order to stay warm, and cook myself pasta for dinner. I spend the night reading for next week’s seminars with my laptop and Facebook open in front of me to catch any notifications. One of my housemates joins me in the living room and we chat about the latest conventions she’s traveled to; she shows me selfies with actors from Lord of the Rings and The Flash. I go to sleep around one in the morning.

As you can see, university life is pretty similar to JC life, with some small but significant changes here and there!

P: Tell us about the extracurricular activities/enrichment programmes you’re currently involved in.
YN: I am the Vice-President of the International Students’ Association (ISA) – I effectively lead the organisation, as the President sits on the Student Union and is neither elected by the ISA nor holds any actual power in the committee. The ISA’s mission is the Integration, Representation and Support of all international students in York, and we organise regular welfare events and trips around the UK, as well as annual college-wide events (attended by thousands of students) for international students to put up performances and exchange different foods and beverages.

I am also the chair of the Student-Staff Committee (SSC), a group of student representatives that sit on the English Department’s Board of Studies. The Board makes decisions that affects the entire Department, and frequently looks to the student representatives for the student view on events or changes. I sat on the SSC for all three years of my degree, and became the chair in my third year. It is largely thanks to this role that most of my year-group knows who I am – and all of my professors, too. It means I have excellent references, and a place to stay in every part of the UK!

I’m also the Performing Arts Editor for The Yorker, an independent magazine (i.e. the student union doesn’t fund us, we have to make our own money from advertising) – my job is to procure free tickets for people who wish to review theatrical productions, and then proofread and publish the reviews.

In my first year I was also the Production Manager for the Juba Anthology, which collects works from students in York and students in University of Juba along a common theme, and publishes them side by side as a comparative work.

P: What other extracurricular activities/enrichment programmes does the university offer?
YN: York has an enormous number of student societies catering to all interests. To keep up my post-National-Service fitness, I was a member of the Boxing Club for a while; I was also a member of Hitch Society, which organises an annual charity-stunt hitch-hike from the UK to Croatia or Morocco. There is a Harry Potter Society, a Pokemon Society, a Taylor Swift Appreciation Society… Some of you may be interested to hear about Fetish Society, which trains couples in different forms of rope-bondage (“Remember kids: safe, sane and consensual!”); others might be interested in York Student Cinema, a society with a proper professional projector that can effectively create a mobile theatre, which screens current films every week.

P: Tell us more about the student profile. Do people come from diverse backgrounds?
YN: As a member of the ISA, meeting people from diverse backgrounds is par for the course – but the type of student you meet will depend enormously on how wide you spread your social circle.

Diversity also takes diverse forms – people can have incredible family backgrounds, but they can also be interesting because they are particularly talented, or particularly intelligent, or have particularly involved stories to tell. On my course are twin girls with German citizenships who identify as South-African, have Orthodox Greek families, and were educated in an international school in Singapore. One of the regulars at the ISA events is often mistaken for being Latin-American – he tells me he is a mix of Swiss and Caribbean. The girl who persuaded me to join the Boxing Club is one of my closest friends – aside from Boxing, she does Lacrosse and Pole-Fitness, and is incredibly skilled at painting.

P: Are there any major university-wide events, and/or events organized for the entire course cohort?
YN: Yes, and I organise them! Global Week is organised by the ISA every year, involving almost thirty different national societies and thousands of participants. Global Week always comprises three headline events: a Cultural Performance, a Beverage Festival, and a Food Fiesta.

A mouth-watering stall set up by York’s Brunei Cultural Society, as part of Global Week’s Food Fiesta.

As a student rep, I also leveraged on my position to organise book fairs to allow students to sell used books to incoming students. I started this initiative in my first year, and it became so successful that the student reps began organising one each term.

In addition colleges regularly organise balls (fancy dinners) and smaller events over the term. The student union also has occasional large-scale events, usually at the beginning and end of each year.

P:  Tell us about the school spirit. How deep is it compared to what you felt in RI?
YN: School spirit is an odd question for me. I love the university and I’m sure many of my coursemates and friends do as well, but this doesn’t tend to find expression in big banners and painted faces and loud cheers (except during our annual sports tournament War of the Roses, with the University of Lancaster). It’s probably not really in any culture outside of America and Singapore to go around with university-logo shirts with university-logo decals on your car and university-logo pennants hanging on your bedroom wall. But what do I know! I express my love for York through sharing posts from Duck of the Day.

Still, in York, as in RJC as well, I identify deeply as a member of the university and the Department. I really believe that how deeply or “intensely” you feel a sense of belonging is directly proportional to how intensely you were involved in the machinery of the institution!

Yu Neng (4th from right, standing up) poses in this photo taken at one of York’s winter balls with his college-mates.

P: Did you have trouble acclimating to York’s environment (e.g. homesickness, cultural shocks)?
YN: I had no trouble acclimatising to university whatsoever. There was a day in my first year when I had a sudden and (for all I know) unprovoked stab of homesickness, and I had to go back to my college room and have a chat with some of my friends in Singaporean universities.

I know that many other Singaporeans do get occasional bouts of homesickness – I’m told that it helps them when they group up together. My own advice is to throw yourself with gleeful abandon into your new life, knowing that it will not last.

P: Does the school provide student support?
YN: Student support in the UK is far more professional than student support in Singapore, and to some extent that makes it better. In Singapore, having learning difficulties is stigmatised, emotional problems are regarded as inconveniences to be shoved aside when academic matters come into play, and reports of anxiety and mental issues are regarded with deep suspicion.

In the UK, I have helped students with welfare issues ranging from inability to cope with grief to crippling anxiety find the support they needed among members in the Department – all I really had to do was assure the students involved that the Department would be willing to help them (and it was!).

All students have a pastoral supervisor that is essentially their advocate – if they find themselves facing any difficulties with their studies, their pastoral supervisors would help argue their case and arrange for them to take the necessary measures that would allow their studies to proceed smoothly — whether it’s an adjusted deadline, a medical appointment, an assessment resubmission, or even a leave of absence.

Course:

P: Could you provide us with a brief overview of the course you took?
YN: I’m studying a single-subject English degree in the Department of English and Related Literature. The degree structure will be changing in the next few years, but in essence, first all students are exposed to a quick “tour” of the development of English Literature through the Medieval, Renaissance, Romantic and Modern periods, as well as another introductory module in classical (Greco-Roman) influences on literature through the ages.

Following that, all students also take a module titled Global Literature which introduces them to Literature in English written in non-EuroAmerican countries – generally (but not always) postcolonial nations. In the following years, students choose between three types of modules – period modules, which focus on one of the four periods listed above; special modules, which focus on specific areas or types of text (e.g. a module focused on the life and works of Samuel Beckett, or introducing students to different movements in European film, or even a module centered around texts that base themselves in urban landscapes); and topic modules, which are like special modules but with more independent research which is assessed by presentations.

Throughout the degree, there are modules that train students in thinking critically and theoretically, and in third-year there is a dissertation module that wraps up the course.

P: Why did you choose this course, and why study at the University of York?
YN: I chose early on to study English Literature, but I chose York thanks to a recommendation from a senior in RJC. Something she told me that left a big impression on me was that York didn’t assess English students with closed examinations, but with essays. I decided that I preferred a mode of assessment that rewarded research and in-depth thinking as opposed to one which demanded brilliance under timed duress.

Yu Neng (1st from right) with friends during graduation.

P: What is the teaching style like at the University of York? How does it compare to that in RI?
YN: Although it varies from tutor to tutor, in general, seminar teaching with English tutors in York tends to be pretty similar to seminar teaching with Literature tutors in RJC. Student exchanges are more demanding and in-depth; at the same time however texts tend to be covered in less breadth which can also make seminars easier. If I remember right, tutorials in RJ tended to march sternly through passages of the text itself, which made it great in preparation for examination essays and passage-based questions – in contrast, seminars tend to bring in a good deal more secondary or theoretical material, and topics discussed can end up diverging wildly from the text itself.

P: What do you appreciate about the course?
YN: I appreciate many things about my course but most of all I appreciate the tutors. In the university, we are taught by the writers and editors of our own texts; we engage with and argue with (and against!) academics who are considered the experts in their own field. This all sounds very intellectually grandiose but what I most appreciate is how incredibly nice they are – as teachers (in seminars), as colleagues (on the Board of Studies), and as people (in pubs!).

After my time in York, I am beginning to believe that a study of Literature is a study of the construction of narratives and the staging of ideology. History creates a narrative out of events and uses them to explain ideology; sociology creates a narrative out of policy and attempts to use it as evidence of ideology. Literature is more primal than either of these – it is the study of the construction of narrative itself, and the staging of ideology in all cultural production – from art film to advertisement poster; from the choice of colours on a canned drink to the Chew On It comics on the Reach! Singapore information pamphlet. Literature is to the rest of the humanities what mathematics is to the sciences.

P: Are there ample opportunities to get to know students from other courses, or do you tend to only meet people from the English Literature course? Is it hard to make new friends?
YN: Something I end up saying to many international students is that York is full of opportunities to meet people, to get involved, to have fun – but it doesn’t really prompt you to do so. If you wish to make friends in a UK university, you’ll have to deliberately reach out for yourself in a way you never had to in RJC – you’ll have to look for societies and then attend their meetings, you’ll have to approach people and introduce yourself and then make conversation, you’ll have to go out (and I do mean “go out”) on socials, talk to drunk people and sometimes help carry them back to their rooms.

It can be difficult to make friends outside of your course and country at first, especially since it is so easy to make friends from Singapore and then just stay close to them instead.

Personally, I have multiple friendship circles as part of the many things I do in the university. I have groups of European friends due to my involvement in the ISA; I have a large number of Chinese friends that I am quite close to as a result of Chinese events that I have volunteered as a bilingual host for; I have a number of South Asian, East Asian and South-East Asian friends from the National Societies as well. With each circle I tend to do different activities – my European friends are more the coffee and cake sort, while my Chinese friends enjoy big hotpot dinners and karaoke nights. These are all in the general case, however – there are always exceptions between groups. In exchange for having so many non-Singaporean friends, I tend to be slightly estranged from the other Singaporeans in their group activities, although I am close to several of them individually.

In my experience, the most difficult person to befriend in a UK university is a British student – there are some complicated reasons, but Tan Teck Howe explains it best in his novel The Secret Goldfish and Other Follies. The book mentions how it’s easy to think the British are friendly, but later realise that they’re merely polite, that there is a warmth and personality in their interactions with each other that is absent in their interactions with internationals – even those who speak English fluently. English students are unerringly polite and careful, and after living with them and studying with them you begin to recognise that while they would loudly proclaim you as one of them, you find yourself left out – for the most part – of their social events and personal dramas, with the expectation that you would always just take care of yourself. Over the years I have become close friends with many individual English students, but I am not in any social groups of English students; at a big party I could be friends with half the people there and yet feel entirely left out.

Physical Environment:

P: What is your accommodation like? Do you live on-campus or off-campus?
YN: I lived on-campus in my first year, and off-campus for the second and third year. In my first year I was in Alcuin, which was the college closest to the library. The accommodation was a set of flats with a common corridor and a large shared kitchen – the room was small but had plenty of shelf space. For the past two years I lived in a house on a main road, with an enormous room and a double-bed (apparently it is the norm for students to get double-beds. LUXURY!). I chose to live off-campus not because campus accommodation was bad, but because off-campus was simply much cheaper. I also decided that I may as well experience living in a house while I’m in the UK, since I’m not likely to have the chance back home…

Students enjoying a brief respite in the accommodation building’s cozy kitchen.

P: What’s the general ambience of the campus like? Tell us more about its architecture, environment, etc.
YN: The University of York is not, architecturally, a pretty university by today’s standards. It was built in the 1960s when really efficient brutalism was in vogue: to hell with architectural flourish, it’s time for good, square, modernity!

York is tremendously improved by its green spaces, its flowers, its lake, its waterfowl; I try to focus on those rather than on the university buildings themselves.

central hall and lake

A view of the University of York’s premises. Of note are the beautiful central lake, and the abundance of lush greenery.
Source: University of York

P: What are some of the facilities available on campus? How adequately do they meet your needs?
YN: Facilities on campus are as you’d expect. Campus-wide WiFi (much more generous with that than RJC as far as I remember), two gyms (one on each campus), a number of cafes and bars (some of which are pretty good!), a library with spaces for discussion and spaces for quiet study (24 hours! A real treasure, and equipped with a shower too!), a number of study spaces, some equipped with computers (not everyone has a laptop, and sometimes the library fills up), as well as an on-campus supermarket for groceries…

While I was at York I never lacked for anything – as a student. As a society leader, I wish student societies were allocated offices or storage spaces, because the SSC, the ISA and the Yorker all frequently relied on the generosity of committee members and people we knew to store the logistics for our events.

Some of the university’s resident ducklings basking under the sun: the subject of many Yorkians’ affections.

P: Tell us more about the surrounding town/city. What activities do students do there?
YN: What activities do students do in town? Clubbing.
York is a beautiful city, and it’s very small. It’s difficult to get lost because walking straight in one direction for long enough will lead you either to the river or the city wall, and the Minster is visible from most of the city. York has many little cafes, a number of pubs (I am told one could visit a different pub every night in a year without repeating a pub) and a good number of restaurants with Western, European and international cuisine.

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