Image: (From left to right) Zac Zhou, Shiying Wong and Janson Seah

Many regard Singapore as a great location for tertiary education and learning. But with the rise of discussions that Singaporeans do not truly know the outside world, state universities have encouraged their students to go overseas on exchange.

To find out more about the exchange programme experiences of young entrepreneurs, I spoke to three Singaporean tertiary students.

Why go on exchange?

Experiencing China’s Rapid Growth and Startup Ecosystem

Zac Zhou, a Computer Science major from NTU, went on exchange to Beijing’s Tsinghua University for a year from August 2016 to 2017.

Wanting to build a business in Singapore after graduation, Zac applied for the Overseas Entrepreneurship Programme (OEP), a highly selective program that allows entrepreneurial students to experience first-hand the real world challenges of a startup.

He thought that it would be amazing to experience the competition and rapid growth characteristic of China, and that it would give him better insight into the startup ecosystem.

He chose to work as an Algorithm Engineer with Yi+, an AI startup which uses image recognition for digital marketing. He learnt many tech skills and counts himself very luckily to be mentored by the CTO, who had previously worked in Alibaba and Baidu.

To Silicon Valley, The Forefront Of Technology

In 2017, Janson Seah, a recent graduate of NUS FASS, went to NOC Silicon Valley in San Francisco during the second semester of his third year. Despite there being many tech hubs in the world, he chose the Bay Area as he believed Silicon Valley to be at the forefront of technology.

Rich Culture And Heritage In The Netherlands

Shiying Wong is a final year Accountancy and Finance student in SMU who went on an exchange programme to Maastricht, The Netherlands from Feb to June 2018.

On why she went for exchange, she said simply, “I wanted to travel and explore new places. I thought that an overseas exchange was the perfect opportunity for me to explore rich European heritage sites and beautiful landmarks of Europe. My experience, however, turned out to be so much more than just a personal travel indulgence.

“I chose Maastricht University because of its academic ranking. Maastricht is a popular destination for exchange students and is also safer than other parts of Europe. With a Dutch residence permit, I could also travel freely within the Schengen area using a single currency,” she shared.

What lessons did you learn while on exchange?

Shiying describes Maastricht as a small town and its university populated by exchange students from various parts of the world. “At least half of each typical tutorial group consisted of non-local students. That gave me the opportunity to interact with people from different European states, Australia, America and even other Asian communities. Each individual I interacted with gave me a window of insight into how their distinctive cultures were like.

“Active class participation is second nature to most Western students and despite having being trained to speak up in our home universities, I realised that Singaporean students were still, very often the last to speak in a classroom of various nationalities.

“Presentations, assignments and even assessments were a lot less structured than what I was used to; there was a lot more freedom for creativity. I felt that the local students were much less inclined to ‘template’-style submissions. It was overall a refreshing experience for me and it changed my perspective about learning and also taught me to be more open-minded.”

Janson, on the other hand, sums up his Silicon Valley exchange experience in two words, “The hustle”.

“People in the Bay Area hustle; they are willing to work hard for the things they believe in. In their startup culture, people are willing to quit their jobs and take risks. They also fight very hard for the causes they believe in. I think Singaporeans have things to learn not just from their risk-taking attitude but also their desire to change the world through their actions,” he elaborates. 

Over in Beijing, Zac realised many of the locals leave their hometown to study in different cities. That realisation made him feel fortunate to be in Singapore because the country’s small size means that “we don’t have to leave our family during our youth to study in a prestigious school.”

He reflects that his mastery of the Chinese language has also improved. “I had to attend classes taught in Mandarin, and write my weekly reports in Mandarin during my internship. It was quite challenging at the start as there were technical terms like ‘algorithm’ in Chinese that we don’t use in daily conversation in Singapore.

“It took me about 2-3 months to learn these new words properly in order for me to communicate better with my colleagues. The exchange also helped me widen my network in Beijing and in ShanghaiI now have contacts from Singapore, Malaysia and China.” 

He found the Chinese to be a very results-oriented peopleonce they have given you a task, they expect you to complete it on your own, by hook or by crook. They are also a very competitive, driven people who understand the need for sustained, lifelong learning.

How have your perceptions changed after exchange?

Zac felt like he gained a better understanding and awareness of the things happening around the world. The exchange experience allowed him to put himself into other people’s shoes to view things from a different perspective.

“Hunger for growth creates a competitive culture in China. They are good in manufacturing and quick in reproduction. There was this US kickstarter project called the ‘Fidget Cube’. When the Kickstarter had just started gaining traction, a Chinese factory ripped off their idea, manufactured the product and sold it for 10 times cheaper. Now you can find it everywhere.”

He also sees a lot opportunities available in large countries like China. “China has a huge market, and a large pool of talent ready for hire. Many new companies are created everyday.”

As for Janson, he acknowledges that Singaporeans are very blessed to be born and to live in Singapore. He really appreciates the infrastructure and support we have at home. His biggest takeaways from exchange were getting to see how different it is in various parts of the world and how he lives as a global citizen. He has also realised how important it is to learn from the successes from other cities.

Shiying, on the other hand, feels like she has been taking her life in Singapore for granted. “Although I was fully assimilated into the European culture throughout my time there, the experience ironically brought me closer to home. I always felt an endearing sense of pride when I shared with others about Singapore. I learnt that there is truly nowhere else like home.

“I faced some dangerous encounters while traveling, and also had the misfortune of dealing with blatant racism. These experiences tested my abilities to solve problems with limited resources and under immense pressure. Most of all, I had to deal with problems all by myself and this made me miss being able to rely on my family for support. While I struggled with home-sickness and making day-to-day decisions, the experience was a pivotal one that empowered me grow as an individual.”

What advice do you have for students thinking about going on overseas exchange programmes?

Zac feels that location really depends on the individual. His decision to go to Beijing stemmed from desire to start a business and to understand China’s startup ecosystem.

He thinks that choosing a location that is very different from Singapore will allow one to gain different perspectives, create valuable networks and help one grow faster. “Don’t worry about language barriers in foreign countries because it is part of the learning package,” he concludes.

Both Janson and Shiying shared similar views. Janson says, “Just go. Don’t give financial reasons as excuses because there are some locations where the standard of living is way lower than Singapore. Don’t just hang out with Singaporeans (seriously, even though one of my best friends was made through exchange!) and make local as well as international friends. Be open, empathetic, and learn from others.”

Shiying agrees. “Just do it. It’s worth it ☺. It’s not just travelling and making lots of new friends, it’ll also be a life changing, personal journey of growth. Don’t rush to cover destinations one after another; take time to savour the unique characteristics of each place and appreciate the great friendships you build along the way.

I made many wonderful international and local friends during my exchange. With these people I got to ride camels in the Sahara dessert, party on King’s Day, drink wine by the river in Greece, visit exquisite German palaces, camp in the Moroccan wilderness and do lots of bike-riding!

Also remember to join your exchange university’s student network and relevant Facebook groups, it will help you get connected to locals and participate in school parties, events and even food-sharing sessions.”