Please Mind the Platform Gap (Universities Edition): Brown University

By Lim Jing Rong (18A03A)
Photographs provided by interviewee Shayna Toh

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.

Brown University is the seventh-oldest college in the United States. Brown is an independent, coeducational Ivy League institution comprising undergraduate and graduate programs, alongside the Alpert Medical School, School of Public Health, School of Engineering, and the School of Professional Studies. Undergraduates pursue bachelor’s degrees in more than 70 concentrations, ranging from Egyptology to cognitive neuroscience. Brown is frequently recognised for its global reach, many cultural events, numerous campus groups and activities, active community service programs, highly competitive athletics, and beautiful facilities located in a richly historic urban setting.

In this article, Raffles Press interviews Shayna Toh, an alumna of RI who graduated in 2015. She is currently in her second year of at Brown and will graduate in 2020. 

Pre-University

Why did you choose to study in Brown/in the US?

I was very attracted to the whole idea of a “liberal arts education” which only the US system offers – as opposed to a Singapore/UK/Australia system where you apply for a certain major and take most, if not all, of your courses in that department. Although I wanted to study more academic subjects, I also really wanted to have the option to take music or theater classes, and a liberal arts education allows you to take courses in any discipline you fancy.

I applied to Brown in particular because of its “Open Curriculum”. Unlike other colleges which stipulate that you have to take one course in the sciences, one in the arts and so on, Brown has no distributive requirements – which to me, meant that I never had to take a math class again! Yay! But more than anything, when I visited the campus in 2013, I felt like it was such an open and welcoming place where everyone was doing their own cool thing, and that sense of individuality and drive that I saw in the students was very inspiring.

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Brown looking beautiful in the fall.

What was the admissions process like?

Stressful. I applied during the Regular Decision cycle through the Common App platform, which is a portal where you upload your test results, achievements, awards, and a common essay that you send to every college.

In addition to the Common App Essay, Brown had about 4-5 essays (e.g. Why Brown? What do you intend to concentrate in? Where have you lived?) and they were challenging but I actually had a lot of fun writing them. I submitted a music supplement to Brown where I submitted a portfolio of my classical/musical theater compositions, and I had to write a supplemental essay about classical music and which my favorite piece was (for anyone interested, it’s Debussy’s La cathedrale engloutie. It’s such a beautiful piece). Around a month later I was called for an alumni interview – which is a very casual interview given by an alumnus of the school which has relatively little bearing on your application unlike interviews for Singapore/ UK. It’s just for them to find out about you in a more personable manner than a list of awards you’ve won, and also for you to have a first-hand recount about Brown and hear about how much they loved their time there.

And then, results come in on April 1st! I woke up at 4.30am to check my results, which was the most nerve-wracking period of my life ever.

What compelled you to choose International Relations as a major?

I was attracted to International Relations because it’s one of the concentrations (that’s the fancy term they use for majors at Brown) that is very interdisciplinary, so the courses come from a range of departments – it’s not like a Physics major where 90% of the requirements are Physics courses. In the IR core (the mandatory courses you have to take if you want to concentrate in IR), there’s an anthropology, economics, history, political science and sociology course. Learning about how states relate to each other in these sort of disciplines, e.g. International trade in economics, the US-Mexico relations over the border wall in Anthropology, the legacy of America’s imperialism and how it affects 3rd world countries even in present day, gives us a comprehensive understanding of how international relations affect every academic discipline, and the lenses through which we analyse and delve into these problems provide us with the application skills to look at the issues we have today.

Adjustments

Was the shift from life in Singapore to life overseas difficult?

It was actually fine! I was nervous because I’ve heard stories of people feeling completely lost and lonely but the transition has been very good to me. I guess for the first few weeks, having fellow Singaporeans in my batch (I had around 8) really helped because we could navigate this new scene together while also having a safety net if we felt overwhelmed or homesick. I think what helped me find a sense of continuity while there were so many changes was carrying on with extra-curricular activities that I’d been doing all my life (i.e. Music and theatre) because it gave me something to hold on to, and in this area which I felt comfortable in, I found the new college landscape to be exciting instead of daunting.

Was it hard to socially integrate into such a different environment? Was it difficult to find friends with common interests/whom you could click with?

I think it’s hard if you try and integrate yourself into a lifestyle you’re not familiar or comfortable with. There are many different scenes in college and there are such different ideas of what it means to have fun, so my advice would be to find a crowd you can be yourself with. I think finding friends you really like and click with takes some time, and at the beginning of the school year everyone is eager to make friends and create a good impression but with time you’ll gradually gravitate to the people you have a stronger bond with.

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Downtown Providence – the first protest Shayna went to, which was against Trump’s travel ban. About 2000 people showed up, despite it being deep winter.

Life on Campus

Describe a typical day of your life as a university student.

For this past semester, two or three times a week I’d have a 9am, 11am and 12pm class, and from 1-2pm I’ll go to the Ratty, Brown’s main dining hall, to have lunch with a bunch of friends and I have my last class from 2-3pm. After that I’d be in the library doing homework/in my dorm hanging out with friends trying to do work/sometimes conducting interviews for the Brown Daily Herald which I write for. Nights are spent differently – if I’m involved in an upcoming show, rehearsals can range from half an hour to four hours a night. By the time I get back, it’s around 10.30 or 11pm and I do more work until around 1am where my friends and I go to the Commons in the building next to us to buy apple turnovers. They’re good apple turnovers.

What is the teaching style, and how does it compare to that in RI?

In RI I never believed the lecturers when they said they were “hand-holding” us but now I actually do see where they’re coming from. Lecturers go at very fast paces, and they expect you to go to class prepared. RI gives you lecture notes which they tell you to read but go through them in the lectures, but in college you have to be largely responsible for all your readings. Each class normally has 2-3 lectures a week and some have sections, which are basically tutorials where you have to share your thoughts on the assigned readings or discuss problem sets. Of course, there are also support systems, and professors and TAs (teaching assistants – undergrads/ grad students who conduct the sections) hold office hours for you to answer queries or doubts. I will say though, one good thing is that because of the frequency of exams, there’s never that much material tested in each exam – it’s not like prelims where you have to show up retaining 2 years’ worth of knowledge.

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Writing her show The Olive Trees in the Steinert Practice Centre, which is where she spends 90% of her time. Her senior from Brown (who was from Hwa Chong) once told her, “The amount of time you spend in Steinert is inversely proportional to the number of friends you have.”

How heavy is your workload? How much leisure time do you have, and what do you do during your leisure time?

It depends on the classes you take and the time period in the semester it is. A key difference between Brown and RI is that RI has 3 exams in a year, but Brown has two midterms and a final all within one semester (which is around 4 months), so sometimes it feels like the exams just keep coming. This semester, I took 4 classes – Beginner Italian, Intermediate Economics, American Empire since 1890 and Theory of Tonal Music. Your workload also depends on your strengths and weaknesses – I’d study for my Econ exam two weeks in advance while my friend could get away with cramming it one day before, but I didn’t have to spend as much time on music assignments as some of my other classmates. It’s give and take.

Apart from weekly assignments for some classes, this semester the workload hasn’t been crazy insane (although the Computer Science concentrators would beg to differ), but for humanities/social science classes, you have to make a conscious effort to keep up with the lectures and do all your readings so as to not be bombarded by undone work when midterm season arrives.

Having said that, I do have a fair bit of leisure time, especially in the periods right after midterm season. When my friends and I have more time, we take the opportunity to go to the dining halls that are further from our dorm but have better food, or stay in and binge-watch The Bachelorette, occasionally go to parties, or devote an hour every weekend morning to stand in line for a breakfast burrito.  

What is your accommodation like? Do you live on-campus or off-campus, and what is the experience like?

All freshmen and sophomores live on-campus, so last year I lived in Miller Hall which is the love of my life – I still strongly argue that it’s the best freshmen dorm on campus (WE HAVE GLASS FLOORS). It’s been fantastic. Some of my closest friends and the girls I’m rooming with next year are all from this building. Having a “unit”, which is a community of 40-60 people from the same building, gives you a really good support group and a home base especially in your first few weeks of school, and the people in your unit end up being really great friends and people you can always come back home to. The many common spaces in Miller like the lounges and kitchens also allowed all of us to congregate to bake cookies at 11pm/ stress over midterms and papers/ watch the Oscars – this year there were at least 30 people in the basement lounge watching the Oscars and it went WILD when the whole La La Land/Moonlight debacle went down.

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Shayna’s housing group for next year! (Shayna, pictured center right).

What is the student profile like? Do people come from diverse backgrounds?

Yeah, completely. I think around 10+% of every class are international students, and within the American students, all 50 states are represented in each class and 40+% are students of colour. There is a conscious effort to have a diverse student body. I have close friends who are both international and American, and just hearing about the differences in their ways of life (even within America, between those who come from the North and South) or the way things are pronounced or the words they use has been so entertaining and intriguing. Furthermore, the strong friendships that can emerge from such a melting pot and the common ground we can find despite all our differences is really a testament to the merits of diversity and it’s just been such an enriching experience for me.

You are currently staging your own musical, “Firefly in the Light” in New York. How has that enriched your university experience?

I’m not sure how it will enrich my university experience going forward but I’m excited to find out! Next semester, I’m assistant directing Pippin, and directing is something I haven’t done before, but this experience with Firefly has helped a lot. My show Firefly in the Light, which was written in 2014 but has been since expanded to a full production, is an official selection presented by the New York Musical Festival. Having this opportunity to work with an amazing team and being in the rehearsal room with my director and seeing how she does scene work with the actors gives me a much better idea of how a director is to conceptualise and analyse a story and bring life to the plot and characters.

I spent the bulk of the 9-month gap between graduating RI and going into college reworking Firefly and adding new songs. During the second month of school, I sang one of the new songs I wrote in a showcase organised by Musical Forum, a theatre group on campus, and after the showcase they approached me to apply for their Mini-Musical Festival, and my second musical, The Olive Trees was selected for it and performed this March! Having previously written Firefly definitely gave me experience, familiarity and a passion for writing shows.

What do you think are the benefits of participating in extracurricular activities?

From what I’ve found, it’s not the easiest thing to make friends in your classes – especially lectures where there are several hundred people in attendance. So one big plus of participating in extracurriculars is that you’ll get to meet new people! When I wrote for the Herald I mainly interacted with the people I was interviewing and my editor, but even then, writing about the local Providence news or reporting on protests other members of the Brown community were organising was very eye-opening and it introduced me to other aspects of university life I would not have otherwise known about. I had never been involved in journalism and writing for a school paper until I got to Brown and I ended up really liking it, so going into a completely unknown field may also pleasantly surprise you! The biggest benefit participating in extracurricular activities bring is being able to come together with people who have common interests with you and forging strong friendships with them.

This year, I was involved in three productions – The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Modern Major Musicals: A Cabaret (the latter which I co-music directed) presented by Brown University Gilbert & Sullivan (BUGS) and Musical Forum’s (MF’s) Mini-Musical Festival, and they’ve allowed me to interact with a bunch of like-minded people who are talented and hilarious and inspiring all while doing what I love. I’m also on the boards of BUGS and MF, and just having an opportunity to contribute to the societies and help shape the direction of theatre on campus is immensely gratifying.

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The cast and pit of Modern Major Musicals: A Cabaret, which Shayna co-music directed.(Shayna, pictured in the middle, 5th from the right).

Advice

Any advice for juniors who trying to figure out what university course to take?

What you’ve heard is true – I’ve had so many friends who go into Brown who start off wanting to be engineers but end up concentrating in Theater Arts because they just really fell in love with the discipline. So what I’d say is be open-minded, if you see a course that sounds interesting go shop it (shopping courses is a process in the first two weeks of a semester before you lock in your course choices where you can drop into any course you fancy and check it out) and don’t be afraid to venture into disciplines and departments that you wouldn’t normally consider! 

Any advice for juniors who will be studying at or applying to Brown in the future?

Enjoy every bit of it! The four years in college pass by so fast (I can’t believe my first year is over), so spend your time doing things you love. Be open to trying new activities, make new friends, and don’t forget to have fun!

Shayna is happy to entertain questions from readers about Brown or studying in the US. She is contactable at shayna_toh@brown.edu.

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