By Angus Yip (18A01A)
Photographs courtesy of Isabelle Tay
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.
New York University (NYU) is one of the largest private universities in the United States. Apart from its main campus in Manhattan, NYU also operates international campuses NYU Abu Dhabi and NYU Shanghai, and centres in Accra, Berlin, Buenos Aires, Florence, London, Madrid, Paris, Prague, Sydney, Tel Aviv, and Washington, D.C. Offering more than 150 majors, enrollment has grown to more than 50,000 students in its numerous campuses worldwide.
In this article, Raffles Press interviews Isabelle Tay from RI’s class of 2012. She graduated summa cum laude this year from New York University with a B.A. in Psychology. During her time at NYU, she was a teaching assistant, a research assistant, and an Honors student in Psychology.
Why did you choose to study in NYU?
I chose to study in the US because I felt that I needed a change to a more flexible education system. I specifically chose NYU over a few other US universities that I got into because of its diversity of courses and its location. New York is an amazing place for the arts – visual, performing etc… and also the Stern School of Business is great for students who prefer econs/finance. I found myself a few dance trainers in NY before I moved there, so that I can also pursue my professional dance career alongside my studies. The shift was not difficult, perhaps because I had traveled often around the world for competitions prior to moving to NY. I imagine it may be difficult for some, but you learn to be independent!
What compelled you to choose Psychology as a major, especially since it’s relatively unconventional compared to more well-trodden routes taken by Rafflesians?
I don’t think I’ve been following well-trodden routes since secondary school (triple humanities?) and JC (Lit, Geog, Econs, Math). I actually went to New York thinking I’d major in Dance, but I took a couple of courses in Psychology and realized that this is exactly what I want to concentrate in. I especially like the research component – it’s a platform to be creative in your specific field of interest.
Life on Campus
Could you describe a typical day of your life as a university student?
I leave my apartment in Brooklyn at 9am to take the subway to my 10am class. After class I have a lab meeting, I teach a recitation section, have more classes, and another lab meeting. I finish my day at 3pm on early days and 7.30pm on later days. I then rush to Brooklyn for my evening dance lessons and “stamina training” rounds. I arrive home at 10 or 11pm, and work till 1–2am. Note that this is not a typical day of life as an undergrad student (most NYU students probably have a more colorful social life).
What is the teaching style, and how does it compare to that in RI?
Unless you are in certain programs such as Liberal Studies or Honors programs at NYU, the classes in NYU are usually large. In a big lecture hall, you are responsible for your own learning. You also have recitation or lab sections which are smaller. However, in my experience, all professors and teaching assistants are available during their office hours for help. For example, the professors I’ve met in the Psychology and neuroscience department are all great and extremely helpful.
How would you describe the workload at NYU in general over the three years?
Frankly, my third and final year in NYU was spent buried under a mountain of work because of my choice of classes. In the honors program, students usually team up with a PhD student to conduct research for an existing project. I decided to be adventurous and led a completely new research project, titled “The Champion’s Mindset: Active Goal Pursuit in DanceSport”, which was not previously researched in psychology. I interviewed and surveyed 238 professional DanceSport athletes from 24 countries, translated their surveys, and examined their spontaneous ways of thinking as they aim for certain goals on their competitions. Through this study, I identified the “modes of thought” that appeared to set apart champions and expert dancers from the rest of the athletes. I was awarded the “Dean’s Undergraduate Research Fund” grant and the “Doris Aaronson Award for Outstanding Research” for this project, and it is currently being reviewed for publication.
The workload is hectic largely because I chose to take 18 credits per semester (rather than 12–16 credits like most), in addition to being a research assistant and teaching assistant. I also spend all my free time training for dance competitions and doing other miscellaneous jobs. It has always been this hectic, even during Freshman year. I was studying in Florence, but I was traveling to other cities for dance training/competitions almost every weekend, while my friends went out partying. It all depends on what classes you take and if you choose to take on other roles/jobs.
What is the student profile like? Do people come from diverse backgrounds?
In most of my classes, there are about 60% Americans, 30% Asians, 10% other ethnicities. I had close friends from South Africa, Russia, Panama and Korea. You might find yourself more drawn to the Asian crowd, but you will learn much more about other cultures if you make friends with students of other ethnicities.
Were there any opportunities for you to study overseas through an exchange programme?
I spent my Freshman year in Florence in the Liberal Studies program at NYU. It was a refreshing and memorable experience studying art history, philosophy, literature and politics in a close-knit campus in Florence, Italy. I wouldn’t say that I was in love with the curriculum, but the professors and staff are wonderful, extremely caring and helpful. The campus is absolutely beautiful, as is the city. Out of a (rather random) passion for Italian, I started learning Italian in JC and took the SAT Italian subject test through self-study, so it definitely helped me during this year. I was placed in the Advanced Italian class which was fun as we had many outings with the architecture students of the University of Florence. I also volunteered as an English teacher at an Italian kindergarten. I love children, and this was one of my best experiences in Florence – teaching the most adorable Italian preschoolers!
You’ve mentioned being a research assistant and a teaching assistant at NYU – could you tell us more about that?
I was a research assistant in the Motivation Lab at NYU. The Motivation Lab is led by Professor Gabriele Oettingen and Professor Peter Gollwitzer, who specialize in metacognition – specifically, using mental strategies to achieve targeted goals. As a research assistant, I attended lab meetings twice a week where we discussed current projects of PhD students and had a myriad of interesting guest lectures. This was the most fulfilling experience for me, being able to work closely with the doctorate students and even giving them some input for their research. I personally did a project on improving memory in healthy adults via planning, which I am currently working on (from afar) for publication. Most importantly, Prof. Oettingen and Prof. Gollwitzer are amazing and their involvement in discussions give you lots of insight into their field of expertise.
I was also a teaching assistant to two professors during my senior year, where I taught “introduction to psychology” to my recitation group. It was honestly quite intimidating, as I had some doctorate students and adults in my classes who were taking Intro to Psych as a requirement. I feel that this was one of my most important and meaningful responsibilities. Teaching makes you understand the material much more, via organizing material in the most effective way for students to understand. This was a big challenge at the start as I am not the most outspoken person, but I thoroughly enjoyed and treasure this experience.
Could you tell us more about your dancing experience in New York?
In Italy and New York, I went to different dance schools and travelled around Europe and Asia for DanceSport competitions (Latin American dance). My partner, Kostia, and I are Singapore’s national champions. We recently won the Asian Championships, and were ranked 15th in the world at a World Championship in China, which was during my hectic senior year at NYU. I spent all my spare time in the dance studios in Brooklyn, where I had wonderful trainers and friends. It was definitely difficult juggling my professional dance career with school, work, teaching, and research, but this taught me some important time management skills. DanceSport is extremely costly, so I funded my dance lessons by setting up a company, selling dance shoes internationally and doing some graphic/web design.
Do you have any advice for juniors who are trying to figure out which university course to take?
If you have an opportunity to do something meaningful, even if it is out of your comfort zone, do it!
You may not know exactly what you are going to do in the future. Just follow your interests, and not just what you think others think you should do. After all, you cannot truly excel at something that you don’t like. Psychology may not be as lucrative as finance/law/medicine, but this is something in which I feel that I can be creative and benefit others via research. I am currently applying for my PhD in psychology, so perhaps I will return to the States.
Also, don’t limit your courses strictly to your intended major. Take courses that are useful (I also recommend learning to code), but plan your courses wisely, starting from freshman year.
For now, focus on the things you have at hand – getting those grades and recommendations, but don’t kill yourself over it. If you don’t get into the university of your choice, it may just be a blessing in disguise.
Do you have any advice for juniors considering NYU?
Most Singaporeans go to the Stern School of Business. It’s undeniably an excellent school and I heard that students who graduate from Stern are heavily recruited. However, if your interest doesn’t lie in the finance/accounting/econs/math sector, don’t force it upon yourself. Don’t be afraid to take unconventional classes, such as psychology, social entrepreneurship, arts, and even foreign language. During your freshman year, try to identify your potential majors/minors, and don’t waste time (and money!) taking “easy A” classes if they will not benefit you. Meet with your advisors to make sure that you are taking the right classes in a timely manner. Meet your professors outside of class if you need the extra help. Finally, take up an extracurricular activity outside of academics that you enjoy, in addition to going out and exploring New York City.