About Yale-NUS and demystifying liberal arts

(This post by Monica Lim first appeared on her blog on 7 November 2016. It is reproduced with permission. Lesley-Anne is her daughter.)

When I tell people that Lesley-Anne is in Yale-NUS, I'm often met with puzzlement. "Oh, NUS?" Well, not exactly..."Oh, the medical school?" No, that's Duke-NUS.

Then when they ask what she's studying and I say that Yale-NUS is a liberal arts programme, the response becomes even more interesting. "Oh, arts! Cos she likes writing and stuff?" Then there are those whose faces show distinct alarm from which I know they've only heard the word "liberal" and think my daughter is gonna get seduced by dem wicked Americans keen on sex and drinking and turning people gay.

So this post is to clear up misconceptions and shed light on what a Yale-NUS education entails.


One of the main differences between a US and UK tertiary education is that for most UK universities, you have to choose a subject to study right from the start. Eg. if you wish to attend UCL or Imperial College, you have to apply for a particular subject like Econs or Engineering. Right from the start, your programme is designed around that course. The US, however, believes in a more holistic broad-based education, so for most universities, the first couple of years cover a wide spectrum of subjects to give students a good general knowledge across disciplines, including both sciences and the humanities. Only in the last two years (a US university education is typically 4 years) do students specialise in a chosen major. The intent is to create more well-rounded individuals and broaden minds.

Fundamentally, the latter is what a liberal arts education is about. Contrary to what its name suggests, liberal arts isn't just about the arts subjects. It covers the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences, although the proportion of each can vary quite drastically among universities. At Yale-NUS, all freshmen (1st years) and sophomores (2nd years) have to undergo a common curriculum to ensure that the students are knowledgeable across disciplines.

For Lesley-Anne's first semester, she's studying four compulsory modules - Literature and Humanities, Philosophy and Political Thought, Scientific Inquiry, and Comparative Social Inquiry. What she finds particularly interesting is that true to the liberal arts approach, the lines between disciplines are blurred, which better reflect real life. In Lit and Humanities, for example, they don't just study a lit text like you typically would in a traditional Literature programme. They discuss a lit text in relation to history, culture, other forms of art, etc. Eg in Comparative Social Inquiry, they have discussed how an economic principle can also be applied to politics and education.

The point of a liberal arts education is less about content and more about the application of content. If I could be uber simplistic here, it's to teach you how to think, not what to think. That's the reason why a student who may be very good in Science may not do well in Scientific Inquiry, and likewise a Lit student may not do so well in Literature and Humanities. It's less about the facts in science or the ability to annotate texts in Lit, and more about how to analyse patterns, and see logic and connections across different fields. In other words, it can get pretty intellectual, so to do liberal arts, you probably should enjoy reading and finding out about different things, and pondering about deeper meanings. Which Lesley-Anne does, as she has this innate thirst for knowledge. You can find out more about liberal arts and its origins in this article.

Campus and Residence

Yale-NUS College is an entity set up as a collaboration between NUS and Yale University in the US. Yale is one of the oldest and leading proponents of liberal arts education in the world, so the partnership was meant to establish a solid liberal arts programme in Asia. Yale-NUS College is situated in U-Town at NUS in its own self-contained campus, where its students live and have their lessons. It's very, very new - it enrolled its inaugural class in 2013, so 2016 is only the first year where it has all four years of undergraduates.

One of the defining characteristics of Yale-NUS is its residential programme. Following the Yale tradition, all Yale-NUS students have to live on campus throughout their four years in the programme. This is because the College believes firmly that the residential model allows students to move beyond academics to interact and work better with others. Having stayed in the hostel during my university years, I fully agree that hall life made all the difference in my tertiary experience. Learning to live independently and with others offers invaluable opportunities to learn life skills.

The advantage about this compulsory residential programme is that students don't have to "fight" for rooms, vs at other NUS hostels, because of the lack of supply. There are three high-rise residential colleges within the Yale-NUS campus and all students are guaranteed a room throughout their four years.

The campus is very new, just one year old and we had a chance to tour the place the day Lesley-Anne moved in. Can I just say it? It's gorgeous. The facilities are closer to those of a serviced apartment than a hostel. Everywhere we went, Andre was muttering, "This isn't a hostel! It's a hotel!" Yes, he was pretty envious.

The students stay in suites of 4 or 6, meaning that each suite has 4 or 6 single rooms, with a common living area like this one (the doors you see are to each individual room):

Each suite has a shared shower stall and toilet.

This is Lesley-Anne's room:

Each residential college has its own facilities, like laundry room (with washers and dryers):

Student-run buttery where you can buy late-night snacks and chill:

And a Harry Potter-esque dining hall:

Don't even get me started on the food. The residential fees cover three meals a day (two on weekends) and these are buffet-style meals, with vegan, Halal options, and the type of cuisine changes regularly. The food is provided by SATS Catering and the students are free to take as much as they need, no fierce server dumping blobs of unrecognisable mush on metal trays like in my time. Fresh fruit, milk, coffee, they're all for the taking.

The rest of the campus is equally picturesque.

Many other spanking new facilities including a library, fully equipped gym and indoor basketball court. Lots of indoor and open areas to study or relax.

Before you go "wah, so unfair!", I should state upfront that the tuition fees of Yale-NUS are much higher than those of regular NUS courses, especially once you take into account the residential fees, which are compulsory. So I guess you get what you pay for.

Overseas representation

One of the biggest plus points for us is that Yale-NUS has a very high percentage of overseas students. For me, it's important to meet different people with different points of view - that's one of the advantages of studying overseas. I find that students from the local JCs tend to have a rather similar mindset, as they have gone through similar experiences with similar backgrounds, and I don't think that's healthy at all. At Yale-NUS, the overseas student makeup is as high as 40% and that contributes to richness of diversity on campus. In Lesley-Anne's suite alone, she has a Japanese suite mate and an American one.

Academically, this adds a dimension to discussions. A professor was sharing that when talking about the Israel-Palestine conflict, they could actually hear the views directly from an Israeli student and a Palestine student, as well as those from the American student.

Lesley-Anne was recounting how she was in the buttery and an Egyptian student asked if he could play his country's dance music. Other nationalities later followed suit and they began jamming to different types of music, a lot of which she'd never heard before. It's instances like this that make for an enriching campus culture.

Another big draw about Yale-NUS is their abundant overseas opportunities, but I will talk about these in a later post.



Writing is my profession and my passion. I run a professional writing outfit, where I do all my corporate writing. Blogging takes care of the miscellaneous excess thoughts. I'm a mother of two completely polar opposite children. Maybe God figures the challenge would do me good. Or perhaps He just likes to have a good laugh. Whatever it is, I'm enjoying the roller coaster ride.


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