“Nothing is so common-place as the wish to be remarkable.”
Oliver Wendell-Holmes Sr.
When I first stepped into this school we wore “best and brightest” proudly brandished on our sleeves. I remember sitting in the MPH, looking around and genuinely believing that I’ve found safety and security. I’ve worked so hard in junior college and I’ve slept over in the art studio for so many nights and now I’ve finally found my Eden. Years of the Singaporean education system have led me to believe that once I set foot into the pearly white gates of NUS, my life will be an air-conditioned cruise. I looked around at the bobbing blue and orange balloons and the bobbing heads of equally starry-eyed students and beamed. We are the 0.something accepted students. We are smart. We are special.
Now fast forward four years and I’m hurriedly typing my yearbook write-up from a beige cubicle at my internship. Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t an article about the grand failure of the liberal arts college education system. It’s about its success and, more importantly, about my expectations. I do have a little bit of a save-the-world thing going on, and if anything it’s been amplified through my studies here at Yale-NUS College, but I also learnt something crucial for every fledgling adult – I am not special. I may be passionate, I may be smart, but for the most part, so are other people, and it is mostly my socioeconomic position that determines where my cards fall in the game of life.
Above everything, my college experience has taught me that life isn’t about me. The fabric of the world is made up of 7 billion subjectivities, all woven together in a network where I am but a data point. The world doesn’t owe me anything. It doesn’t have to realise how supposedly wonderful I am. Instead, I have to be useful to the world. Much like Liam Neeson in his endless pursuit of stereotypical Eastern European mob bosses, I have a very particular set of skills, but I have to work hard to make them relevant to the people around me. Not a lot of people have been given the opportunity to learn things at an intersection (most people learn things narrowly, or they didn’t get to learn at all). I need to use this knowledge to lift communities and perform my little bit of the world’s act, and if I’m not doing my job well, then I better roll my sleeves up and put some elbow grease in it. There are things far bigger than myself that are worth fighting for, and I’m going to devote my time and my skills to them.
I know it doesn’t look it, but I’m optimistic about the future. Call it the foolishness of youth if you will, but I think we’re at a pivotal point in human history. More information is freely available on the internet today than in the last hundreds of years combined. Young people continue to innovate to close both physical and institutional gaps in our social environment. There are more literate people today than in any point in history, and rapid globalisation has made it possible for us to identify the common humanity in vastly different peoples. Who knows, maybe after the Big Robot Replacement, we’ll overcome the ravages of capitalism and then all of us will be freer to work jobs that require human interaction. In any case, I’m excited to be a part of all this, and I have been fortunate enough to be educated and to understand how the world is evolving. Former colonies are negotiating their relationship to the West, the rise of secularism has been met with a resurgence of religious fervour, the supply chain is expanding (further separating workers from their products of labour), populations are slowly congregating and homogenising, and the internet has formed new visual vocabularies (literal memes). Interesting times to live in.
In situating myself in functional society and in writing my final thoughts down for the school yearbook, it would be odd, and even suspicious, to leave school culture unmentioned. I still stand by the opinion that the school doesn’t produce special geniuses. What the school has a knack for producing though, are people who would walk with me to Cheers at midnight, and people who make a really good cup of genmaicha for a sobbing friend. This school is more than a school to me. It has been my home for the last four years. And it doesn’t matter what building we’re in, because we’re not held together by institutional rules – we’re friends. I know every single face from the Class of 2017, and I know at least one factoid about each person, because we’ve all crossed paths at some point in our college career. I don’t talk to everyone on a regular basis (regrettably), but everyone plays a crucial part of our community, and every absence is felt. The school didn’t quite feel complete when so many of us were abroad in our third year. The dining halls were noticeably quieter when David wasn’t around to tell me about some independent play in Malaysia. Drawing sessions were duller when Chen Xi left for a bit. I remember returning from my first summer internship and everyone was excited to see other Yale-NUS students again.
It’s easy to lose sight of all this when we’re in such a competitive environment. We live from deadline to deadline. Work is never done. In the first two years, we had problems with event attendance because we were all too busy planning our own events to be audiences for someone else’s. We are preoccupied with ideas which are either spatially or temporally distant, such that we don’t live in the proverbial here and now – upcoming interviews, case studies, model conferences, exhibitions, fellowships. These things are important, but so is the reality in front of us. We are, immediately, human.
I’m struggling to find the words to close this write-up. I’m typing this at the end-of-year break, a good semester away from our actual graduation, so I only have a vague understanding of how anyone would be feeling. It’s a quiet kind of sadness that wells up in my chest when I walk to the dining hall with my friends. I know drifting apart is inevitable for most of the people I’ve met here. But I hope that after our graduation, every Class of 2017 student reading this knows that they have a friend in me, even if we didn’t quite speak to each other. I hope Facebook does what it’s supposed to do and gives me updates about your new experiences, and you can always count on me to provide a scathing feminist comment on your political statuses.