Please Mind the Platform Gap (Universities Edition): Washington University in St. Louis

By Ashley Tan (18A13A)
Photographs courtesy of interviewee Cai Minglu

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.

Washington University in St. Louis – more affably known as Wash U amongst its students – is a private research university located in the St. Louis metropolitan area of Missouri, United States. Boasting an affiliation with 24 Nobel Laureates and a diverse student body hailing from almost 90 countries around the world, Wash U is one of the more prestigious and coveted colleges in America.

While Wash U may be lesser known to students in Singapore, its strong sense of community and abundance of research opportunities speak volumes of what it has to offer to prospective students. Its commitment to providing academic flexibility is particularly appealing to students, especially those who prefer room to explore a wide variety of disciplines before narrowing their academic focus.

In this article, Raffles Press interviews Cai Minglu, an alumna of RI who graduated in 2015. She is currently in her second year at Wash U and will graduate in 2020.

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View of the South 40, the residential area for most underclassmen, at dusk (taken the first day Minglu stepped foot on campus).

1. Why did you choose to study at Wash U?

A couple reasons! The first reason was that I liked the academic rigour and flexibility offered by Wash U, where I’d found specific academic programs (e.g. Text and Tradition) that matched my academic interests.

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The campus auditorium packed with first-year students during Bear Beginnings (orientation).

My college decision process was one that I did a lot of research for. I started out by finding out everything I could about the colleges I was choosing between from the Internet, my friends, and my college counsellor. I was drawn to Wash U’s inter-disciplinary focus: I looked up the proportion of students who had more than one major, or who were doing interdisciplinary majors and minors. I liked the unique programmes that Wash U offered. There’s something called the IQ curriculum that encourages students to take courses in a variety of fields while giving them enough academic flexibility to study what they are interested in. There were programmes like the Praxis Program, the Interdisciplinary Project in the Humanities, Text & Tradition, and so on that I felt catered to my academic interests and that I was really excited about exploring and taking part in. Beyond that, I felt that Wash U also had a good reputation in academic fields that I was interested in, including English, Political Science, Psychology and Education.

The second reason was the extensive support system that Wash U provides to its students. There is extensive academic advising – every student gets a four-year academic advisor for every major that they are studying for. There is also an Office for International Students and Scholars (OISS) that provides lots of information, guidance and opportunities to international students. There’s even an International Students Orientation, which isn’t something that is found at every college, to help integrate international students. This helped me feel more confident and comfortable in the campus, and integrate more effectively into college life. There’s also great career counselling at Wash U – I’ve made use of the career centre’s opportunities quite often, and even though Wash U is in the midwest region of the U.S., an area that that may not have as many career opportunities as, say, New York or Washington, Wash U makes up for this by providing extensive career networks and support through their career counselling opportunities.

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A biking trip through the nearby Katy Trail organised by the OISS (Office for International Students and Scholars).

The third reason I wanted to go to Wash U was because of what I had heard about its social and academic environment. I had heard that Wash U is not a pressure cooker, but at the same time, there’s enough academic rigour to push students to work hard in the areas that they’re interested in. I’d also heard a lot about the vibrant campus life – there is a very balanced social atmosphere because it’s not a “mugger” school, but it’s not a “party” school either, and I like that balance. From my experience in my first year, I would say that your social environment matters more than what people might expect because if you don’t feel supported and confident both socially and culturally, it can be difficult for you to make use of the academic opportunities.

I had heard a lot about the high crime rates in some parts of St. Louis, as well as the issue of racial segregation grounded in St. Louis’ fraught history of race-relations. I saw it as a very real issue that was deeply hurting local communities, and the more time I spent at Wash U and in St. Louis, the more I began to care about the issues that local communities cared about.

I liked that St. Louis is a suburban balance between a city and rural environment, and I wanted to try removing myself from the metropolitan environment of Singapore that I’d grown up in and become used to, while not being in a completely rural area with few amenities and facilities. I wanted a mixture of both, and I felt that St. Louis fit what I was looking for.

2. What do you intend to major in? Why?

I’m thinking of majoring in either sociology or political science. I’ve taken classes for both of them, and they were really interesting. I took two sociology classes – Order and Change in Society, and Sociology of Work. In Order and Change in Society, we looked at the microinteractions in society that influence larger social structures. In Sociology of Work, we looked at processes and systems in the workplace in the American context that influence people’s experiences of work. These classes were fascinating as they gave me insight into the processes that we take for granted on a daily basis. For instance, what are the dynamics that underlie the conversation that we’re having now? They showed me how these small social factors actually contribute to larger phenomena. Part of the class included dissecting factors of race, class, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation… It’s like when we were all obsessed with Facebook in secondary school and trying to figure out who was friends with who – sociology is like taking that and turning it into an academic subject or discipline, such as through analysing social networks, or how our social lives matter in ways that we might not expect. It’s really fascinating.

I’ve also always been interested in politics. Politics always seems so baffling to me, so studying political science was like demystifying the news that we read every day. The class I took that introduced me to political science was Introduction to Political Theory, where we read texts by political theorists that gave us different opinions on topics like democracy, immigration, power, bureaucracy and liberty. It was a very challenging class, but I loved it.

I have to declare my major in the Spring of my Sophomore year, but I’m currently at the beginning of my Sophomore year so I still have a bit of time to explore before I decide.

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Front view from Brookings Quad in the university campus.

3. Did your subject combination in JC have any impact on your class choices in university, or affect your ability to grasp the content covered?

Definitely. I took Knowledge & Inquiry (KI), Physics, Math and Literature, with H1 Chemistry, in JC. Because it was a mixed subject combination, it gave me a better idea of what I am or am not interested in. From that subject combination, I developed an interest in the humanities because I loved my Literature and KI classes, and struggled with my Physics and Math classes, so that gave me an idea of where my intellectual interests lie. At Wash U, I took a range of classes in diverse fields including Environmental Studies, Religious Studies, Sociology, Political Science and Philosophy. KI definitely developed my interest in Philosophy, while Literature developed my interest in reading, so both were very helpful when it came to navigating my Humanities and Social Sciences classes. I’d say that my JC subject combination informed my choice of classes that I wanted to explore as well as the intellectual interests that I wanted to continue pursuing.

4. What is the teaching style like, and how does it compare to the lecture-tutorial style RI?

It varies widely depending on the classes you take – there are some large lecture classes, and there are also smaller seminar classes. The smallest class I was in had four people including me. Lecture classes are similar to JC lectures, except that they are slightly more interactive – the professor was more open to changes in the curriculum and teaching styles, depending on the students’ feedback and needs. For example, we had weekly quizzes, and we initially felt that the quizzes didn’t really target the main points in the articles we had read, so the lecturer ended up tailoring the quizzes every week to the pace that the class was moving at. I would say that there is more flexibility in the lecture classes I attended as well as more professor-student interaction. For instance, there were 15 minutes at the end of each lecture specifically for the professor to answer students’ questions, compared to JC lectures which were more packed and structured.

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Minglu’s four-person sociology class (Sociology of Work), with their professor.

The seminar classes I’ve been in were very discussion-based with a lot of student involvement. There was a freshman seminar that I was in where half of class time consisted of student-led and student-facilitated class discussions, while the other half was taught by the lecturer. Overall, my classroom experience in Wash U has been a lot more interactive. It’s more self-led and requires students to take ownership of their own learning and interests.

Another difference between lessons in RI and Wash U is that attendance and participation is part of your grade in Wash U. The emphasis on student involvement is greater than in RI. For instance, it’s common that about 10-15% of your grade is relies on class participation and involvement. There’s a lot of room to ask questions in college, and I really like this because I love participating in class.

5. What is something unique about Wash U’s campus life that outsiders may not know about?

There’s a great balance between academic rigour and learning how to have fun. I really appreciate how people are supportive of each other instead of seeing one another as competitors. It’s been pretty easy to make friends on campus, and Wash U has a unique culture that strikes a balance between academic rigour and recreation. Even the professors tell us to stop worrying about the grades, and to focus on the process and the exploration instead.

6. What are the extracurricular activities that Wash U offers, and which ones do you partake in?

Wash U offers over 300 student activity groups. There are so many areas of interest you can be involved in, such as sports, arts, advocacy or identity-type groups like the Chinese Student Association Group or Pride Alliance, which is the umbrella LGBTQIA* organisation on campus.

At the start of every semester, there’s an Activities Fair where students from these groups set up booths for you to find out more about what they do and whether you’re interested in joining them. In my first semester, I was involved in a student-run radio group on campus – KWUR 90.3FM – where I ran a music radio show every Saturday, and I could play whatever music I wanted within KWUR’s guidelines and rules. I played a lot of indie, electronic, R&B, and a bit of hip-hop. My aim was to expose the people who were listening to my radio show to different types of music and to share the music that I love with other people. It was a great experience, especially because I got to interact with my listeners through a Mixlr platform where people could write in to make song requests. It was another way of interacting with the Wash U community through our love for music.

The second thing I was involved in was Wash U Cypher, a breakdancing group which seeks to encourage free expression through breakdance. In the breakdancing community, cyphering is the practice of standing in a circle, and having a dancer go into the middle to dance for everyone. This dancer will then usually challenge another person, who then goes into the middle of the circle and dances. The great thing about cyphering at Wash U is that it’s a very inclusive and supportive community, and it’s not about competition or about who’s the best dancer. Everyone just dances for fun, and develops at their own pace. I went in as a complete beginner with no dance experience, but they were so inclusive. They guided me through baby steps and taught me the beginner moves, and it was an eye-opening experience to grow and learn from a community that was new to me yet very welcoming.

The breakdancing community can appear to be a male-dominated one, because power moves in breakdancing typically involve a lot of upper body strength. At first, I was quite intimidated going in because there were some moves that I felt women might find more difficult to perform. But the President of the Club, Jackie, really inspired me because she has a very empowering attitude: she encourages you to do the moves that you can and that you’re interested in, and to never be restrained by the fact that you’re a woman, or to be held back by thoughts like, “I have less upper body strength, so I won’t be as good at breakdancing.” This was really what made me want to push my boundaries and continue breakdancing.

I was also involved in Spirit of Korea, which is a cultural festival where I performed K-pop dance in a segment called Open Dance. Aside from this, I participated in a Spring Urban Immersion trip, a community service event where we stayed in downtown St. Louis and studied urban poverty through the lens of housing and homelessness.

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Underpass painting advertising the Spirit of Korea cultural festival.

7. Seeing that you are from Singapore, did you experience any culture shock? How did you overcome this?

Definitely. There are many small cultural differences that can make you feel quite out of place initially. The food, or the way people speak are all different. I had to change the way I speak so that people could understand me. I didn’t know some of the terminology that Americans would typically find quite basic – they say band-aids, but we call them plasters. There was once when my friend got injured and I asked around for a plaster, but they were like, “What are you asking for?” We say soft toys, they say stuffed animals. You also have to work quickly to learn the common lingo that the Americans use. For example, we say, “Are you up to hang out this Sunday?”, but they say, “Are you down to hang out this Sunday?”

Also, when people ask you where you’re from, you tend to lose the common cultural ground that other American students might potentially connect over. For instance, if someone were to say that he’s from New York, then a connection can be formed by talking about your experiences with New York or a common understanding of what living in New York might be like. But as an international student, you have to work harder to find connections and common ground with both Americans and non-Americans.

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An SSA (Singapore Students’ Association) gathering in 2016.

Another difference I picked up was my American friends’ concept of “space” – a metaphor that both stands in for the physical space that one inhabits, and the emotional and social characteristics that define it. For example, Americans might walk into a room and describe it as a “queer space” or an “oppressive space”, but no one I know in Singapore would say that. The idea that a space can embody characteristics that exert tangible effects on its occupants didn’t see to be something that permeated discourse when I was in Singapore.

There’s also a lot more discourse about gender and sexuality. One example was during the first day of orientation, when we were asked which pronouns we wanted to be addressed by. The whole idea of being able to choose your personal pronoun ensures that people are addressed by the gender identity that they wish to adopt, rather than making assumptions, and this makes the space friendlier to gender nonconforming people. When I was first asked this question, it was quite foreign to me. But eventually, you learn what all of this means, and you learn to speak the same kind of language and talk about the issues that the people on campus talk about. There was a lot that I had to pick up over the first few months.

This is why I would say cultural differences permeate almost every aspect of your life. The culture shock isn’t really something that dawns upon you suddenly, but it’s a combination of all these small things that make you see how a place is different. It makes you realise that you have to work harder to understand what all these differences mean, and how you can participate actively in the culture that you’re now immersed in.

Another thing that I appreciated was the greater awareness about mental health. In the U.S., there seems to be less taboo talking about it, and it’s taken more seriously too because of the realisation that everyone benefits from taking care of their mental health. The approach to mental health is more open-minded – there is a range of psychological and student health services at Wash U such as peer counselling services, mental health programming, as well as the Student Health Services, where every student gets 9 free counselling sessions with a professional counsellor. For me, going to the States and realising that it’s okay to talk about mental health issues, and that talking about mental health is just as important as physical health, was very eye-opening. It’s an approach that I wish the people around me could be more familiar with and exposed to.

8. What advice would you give to juniors who are interested in applying to Wash U?

For Singaporeans who choose to attend Wash U, brand name doesn’t usually seem to be a huge part of their consideration. Come for the educational experience, the environment, and the learning experiences. Make use of the vast number of learning opportunities and reach out to people for these opportunities because this is a place where you’ll have lots of chances to try different things. There are few Singaporean students at Wash U, so it’s not a school where you’ll have a large, solid Singaporean community. Because of this, you’re forced to reach out to people who might seem foreign to you, which challenges you. At the same time, Wash U has been a very inclusive environment to me too.

I would tell prospective students to talk to seniors who understand what each college is really like beyond the rankings. And once you’ve made your decision, don’t regret; make the most out of it.

9. Could you sum up your experience thus far in 5 words for us?

Transformative, eye-opening, challenging, fulfilling and enriching.

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Side view from Brookings Quad at dusk.

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