The world as classroom: NUS College’s Global Experience course

For about 60 students from NUS College, the recent summer break was spent in a faraway city immersed in a different way of life, where they discovered new dimensions to important issues such as culture, sustainability, governance, diplomacy and inclusivity – an unforgettable experience that left a huge impact on each of their lives.

These students were part of the inaugural batch of NUS College’s flagship programme, the Global Experience (GEx) course. A unique experiential course that ‘breaks open the classroom’, GEx lets students learn through immersive activities such as visits to research centres, governing institutions or heritage sites, participation in master classes or workshops to learn about culture and community, and engaging in dialogue with important personalities and leaders.

An immersion in city, culture and technology: GEx Tokyo

From grappling with technologies for a rapidly ageing society to keeping centuries-old traditions alive, Japan’s unique blend of innovation and culture continues to mesmerise people the world over. A trip to its capital city, Tokyo, allowed students to immerse in the ‘behind the scenes’ aspects of the functions that keep the megacity running, and the people and companies that create Japan’s identity.

The visit to JR East gave the students a glimpse of the role major transport companies play in shaping the living, working, and somatic experience in a megacity like Tokyo. In addition to learning about transport operations that keep the city moving, students also toured the famous shopping district within Tokyo Station, and were introduced to the development of the new station Takanawa Gateway, where they had the opportunity to pitch their ideas for the new station development.

To see first-hand how Japan was harnessing space technology, students visited start-ups such as Axelspace which specialises in nanosatellites, and Listenfield, an agritech company based in Chubu University, Nagoya, which utilises satellite technology to support farmers. The group also enjoyed a visit to Juchheim, a longstanding Japanese confectionery company behind the world-famous ‘Baumkuchen’ cakes, where they got to see AI-enabled robots work alongside human bakers to produce the cakes.

Reflecting on the trip, Year 3 History major Loh An Lin, who also served as a student tutor on the trip, said, “I deeply enjoyed our time with students we met from Waseda University, Tokyo University of the Arts, and Nagoya University. Having the opportunity to conduct fieldwork with some of the students, or simply have lunch with them, allowed us a glimpse of what it is like to be a student in Tokyo and Nagoya, and how these two cities are viewed through the lens of fellow students.”

Delving into environment and sustainability: GEx Stockholm

Sweden is widely known as a country that has put environment and sustainability matters high on its list of priorities in both the political and societal contexts. Through a curated series of seminars, tours, and fireside chats, students who took part in GEx Stockholm gleaned insights and different perspectives on environmental and sustainability issues aimed at developing a better understanding and appreciation of a multi-disciplinary approach towards sustainable urban development.

Guided walking tours through the cities of Stockholm and Malmo were a great way for the students to not only sight-see but also immerse themselves in the Swedish approach to sustainability through visits to train stations, harbourfronts and parks. Such walking tours have been effective in increasing environmental awareness and education among locals and tourists alike.

Visits to the World Maritime University and Stockholm Environmental Institute allowed students to engage with experts in the field of sustainability and learn about their research and impact, whether in terms of informing policy or shaping the livelihoods of locals.

Ng Sze Xuan, a Year 4 Geography major at the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, said, “We were exposed to topics including climate change adaptation, waste management, and urban liveability through engagement with various institutions, and professionals. Each activity revealed local, regional, and global perspectives towards the environment, helping us to develop a better understanding and appreciation of a multi-disciplinary approach towards sustainable urban development.”

While Sweden is doing well in many areas of sustainability, Ms Elin Bergman, the co-founder of circular economy company Cradlenet, spoke candidly with the students during a fireside chat about areas of waste management and resource extraction, sharing insights on improvements that can be made.

Exploring inclusion, diversity and governance: GEx Toronto

“GEx Toronto was designed to give students an interdisciplinary experiential learning programme on diversity and inclusivity in governance. More specifically, the trip exposed students to the complexities involved in creating inclusive systems of governance for a diverse population in Canada,” Dr Bjorn Gomes, who teaches Social Sciences, explained.

The students participated in meetings with members at City Hall and Parliament, along with representatives from various NGOs, start-ups and academics from the University of Toronto and Toronto Metropolitan University, architects, and residents in Toronto. These organisations and people were chosen to ensure that students understood the struggles for equity and inclusion from diverse perspectives across the social and political spectrum.

Students also travelled to Manitoulin Island, located about 360km away from Toronto, to meet with many First Nations Chiefs, Elders and community members. They also engaged with educational institutions and participated in a range of activities to learn about the histories, practices, struggles and resilience of these communities.

“I couldn’t help but feel that this trip was built on the openness and hospitality of our stakeholders, who were generous with their time and energy amidst their busy schedules. These conversations and spaces are not easily accessible to the average visitor or tourist, and it was a great privilege to have experienced all of this,” said Sarah Leong, also a Year 4 Geography major who took away a more holistic understanding of how stakeholders’ efforts work in relation to one another from the trip to Toronto.

Arts, diplomacy, culture, and social innovation: GEx Paris

Think of ‘Paris’ and immediately many clichés like art, fashion and romance come to mind – from the Mona Lisa to the Louvre, Champs-Élysées and haute couture, and the world icons and stories of love like the Eiffel Tower and Moulin Rouge. 

But the city has much more to offer, and GEx Paris provided students with opportunities to encounter things they had never imagined. Exploring locations such as Palais de Tokyo or the Musée du Quai Branly, designed to exhibit a collection of indigenous arts and culture, and even attending a session at the French National Assembly, the students experienced the French capital in an unparalleled manner.

Crafted through a collaboration with three partner universities (Inalco, Université Paris Cité, and Sciences Po), the programme enabled students not only to acquire French language skills but also to engage with local students.

France has a very strong tradition in cultural diplomacy, and GEx Paris students attended a Masterclass by Ms Eva Nguyen-Binh, President of Institut Français, where they gained insights into France's endeavours to globally promote its language and culture, while actively fostering cultural diversity.  

Like the other GEx trips, students who spent a month in Paris thoroughly enjoyed that the course was less theoretical and more experiential in nature.

Azcuna Alvin Cedrick Apuyan, a Year 3 Political Science student, said, “We met so many interesting people for our workshops and masterclasses, and visited so many heavyweight organisations like the EU and UNESCO. Often, the value in coming to these places and meeting these individuals is that we get to see the personal side of what they do – what skills these involve on a daily basis, what sorts of connections these people make, how these people achieve all that they have.”

Insights into media, finance and diplomacy: GEx New York City

A visit to New York City was the perfect opportunity for students to see how media, finance and diplomacy have been pivotal in establishing its status as a global hub, prompting students to draw similarities and comparisons with Singapore.

Dr Norman Vasu, who planned and led this trip, said, “While the formal academic learning element of the programme was at the forefront, what made this trip memorable was seeing how students gained confidence throughout the course of the programme. Shyness and misplaced apprehension ebbed away as they grew more confident to explore non-touristy parts of New York in order to attain a deeper appreciation of how New Yorkers really lived.”

Students visited locations such as the Museum of Immigration on Ellis Island and the Tenement Museum to understand New York’s history, while a tour of Wall Street and a visit to Bloomberg’s headquarters provided students a window into the world of finance and journalism.  

Additionally, seminars hosted by the United Nations (UN) Institute of Training and Research, which focused on non-traditional security issues such as food security, climate change and global health, not only deepened the students’ understanding of such issues but also allowed them to learn how the UN comes together as an inter-governmental organisation to anticipate future challenges and implement solutions to circumvent them.

Beyond the classroom

Regardless of the city chosen for their month-long GEx course, one common feature that students enjoyed the most was the time given to pursue passion projects, fostering both their academic and personal growth. 

In New York, some students took this opportunity to find out how urban planning has influenced the development of green spaces within the city while others questioned the authenticity of local cuisines present in New York.

Tan Armado Yi Zhou, a Year 5 student in Communications and New Media, decided to explore the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute Benefit, better known as the MET Gala, and how its annual themes signal trends in cultural globalisation.

He said, “I’ve always been amazed by the glitz and glamour surrounding the ‘Party of the Year’. Visiting the MET museum itself felt surreal. What made it even more special was the special access to museum archives that I was given by our generous hosts. Correspondences, invitations, guest lists and seating charts that I otherwise would not have been able to access gave me deeper insights for my research to understand the motivations and intricacies of the event over the years since its inception in 1948.”

Similarly, students in Paris had the opportunity to ignite their creativity through projects that developed video essays on art movements, photobooks about urban development, paintings on diplomatic affairs, as well as poems and short stories about language and culture.

Another outstanding feature of the GEx course is the access it gives to students beyond what they can learn in the classroom or even experience during their own travels.

Dr Lee Chee Keng, who joined the students on their visits to Tokyo and Nagoya, noted the value in going behind the scenes to see things usually unseen or unnoticed, citing the example of how TESSEI has perfected the process of getting Japan’s bullet trains cleaned within minutes before they make their return journeys.

“I have been reflecting and discussing with the GEx teams as well as some partners on how to improve the GEx experience, and I am confident that we can look forward to deeper engagement with some key partners to create a deeper immersion and insights for our students,” Dr Lee said.