International Outreach Roundup: thoughts from three officers on doing admissions work in Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, and Australia

From Austin Shiner, Admissions
As of a month ago, there were virtually no cash points, aka ATMs, in all of Myanmar, at least none that took foreign credit cards. The currency, the kyat, is not sold at most airports or international banks. Travelers need to exchange USD for kyats at a Burmese airport. Trouble is, not just any USD will do. Your bills must be immaculate, free of creases and stains. 50 and 100-dollar bills preferred, of course. The wrinkled and greasy 10s and 20s slowly decaying in the purses and pockets of the average American won’t do. So it was that I arrived in Myanmar and, if I hadn’t exchanged for a US$50 bill at Singapore’s Changi Airport, would have been fresh out of kyats and luck.

My currency experience underscores some important realities of doing business in Myanmar, which in my case constitutes visiting English-language high schools in Yangon to promote liberal arts education, broadly, and Yale-NUS College, Singapore’s first representative institution, specifically. Burmese students are practical, even more so, I’d say, than the Singaporean, Malaysian, or Indonesian students I’ve spoken with. It’s hard to explain the value of a history degree in a country where only a handful of buildings are taller than 15 stories (the tallest is 25) and people show up to banks with suitcases of cash. In Myanmar, engineering and accounting degrees spell secure employment. But as the country opens up and why to build and do becomes as important as how, the liberal arts will become more popular and make an important contribution to Burmese society.

From Angela Seah, Admissions
“Who here has heard of the National University of Singapore?”

Not a single hand raised, sheepish smiles across the room.

This was an unexpected, and bumpy, start to my Yale-NUS presentations in Australia. Later, the high school counselor explained that many Australian students stay in Australia for “uni” and rarely consider going abroad for college; if they do, it would be to the UK (Oxford or Cambridge) or to the US (to Ivy League universities like Harvard and Yale). Other countries, including Singapore, are just not on the students’ radar at the moment (though many have been to Singapore and are full of praise for the country). Hence the lack of awareness about NUS, Singapore’s oldest university and one of the world’s top research universities.

What they lacked in knowledge, though, the Australians more than made up for in terms of interest. Many were intrigued by the idea of an American liberal arts college right here in Asia, and after my series of presentations across Sydney, Melbourne and Perth, I had scores of excited students, parents and teachers come up to me to ask questions, express their interest, and find out more! In Melbourne, our public session was so popular that we even had to split it into two back-to-back sessions to accommodate as many people as possible. Counselors I spoke to at the different schools said that while going overseas for college is still a relatively novel concept amongst most of their students, they do have top students who are seriously considering this option. So I’m glad that Yale-NUS went in there early to create awareness and generate interest. Based on the reception I got in Australia, it looks like there is a good chance we may have a number of very bright, motivated and high-energy Australian students applying to join our first class next year.  I’m looking forward to reading those applications!

From Jasmine Seah, Admissions
It was the day after graduation and we were here, on a Sunday, because Khanh (a college student in Singapore who was home for the term break) wanted to give me a special tour of her school. It was a quiet dame of a building nestled in a city of growing office buildings (not quite sky scrapers) and surrounded by the perpetual throng of motorcycles. Here, it was quiet. French architecture and rich yellow coated the walls. Flags in pale red, yellow, green and purple were still strung across the courtyard. She said, my school is my favourite place in Ho Chi Minh City. It is not modern but it is a great school. She said she was glad she had the opportunity to study away from Vietnam, and she had plans to return and work in Ho Chi Minh City. I met many other men and women like her. It was refreshing, to hear them speak about Singapore with such enthusiasm!

In Bangkok, most parents and students I spoke to had been to Singapore. Yale-NUS is an appealing idea – a quality education in a location that many of them love. It isn’t just about Singapore, but being mere hours away from the growing, thriving hubs of Asia that attracts them. One young man I spoke to said he was just ‘popping by’ Singapore in couple of weeks to participate in a youth drivers event and would definitely come by to catch Formula One Singapore Grand Prix. These young people had travelled the world and they couldn’t wait to do more of it!  As my colleague and I left the building, I asked what the most common mode of transportation for these students was. The teacher said, “They come via the school boat. It crosses the river. The boat you see now is new; one morning we came in and the [old] boat was missing. A rice barge ran into it in the night and it sank.”

I guess you can never really prepare yourself for what comes next. What I know is, there are really a lot of amazing young people with energy that I’d like to meet out there – not just in Vietnam or Thailand, but just anywhere where there are students who want to explore the world.

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