Internationalization of Higher Education Platform – Yale-NUS College and International Education

Speech by Professor Tan Tai Yong, President, Yale-NUS College 

at the Internationalization of Higher Education Platform organised by The Office of Higher Education Commission, Ministry of Education, Thailand, and Mahidol University

30 November 2018 at Sofitel Bangkok Sukhumwit, Thailand


Good morning everyone, and thank you Professor Nathisuwan for that kind introduction.

A community of learning,
Founded by two great universities,
In Asia, for the world.

This is Yale-NUS’s vision statement, the foundation on which we’ve built a distinctive, internationally-driven college experience for our students.

As educators and administrators, we are all too aware that a global, broad-based education is rapidly becoming more relevant than a purely technical or vocational one. So how do we stay ahead of the curve?

We at Yale-NUS are fortunate to have the resources and traditions of two great universities —one in the United States and the other in Singapore. The best of East and West. Our academic approach emphasises not only specialist knowledge but also interdisciplinary intellectual pursuits and practices that will help students see global problems from broader perspectives and flourish in any field.

We’ve taken Yale’s strong liberal arts traditions and its residential living model and melded it with the excellence in science, innovation and research that the National University of Singapore—NUS—is known for.

We’ve also built a global student body. Our College now has more than 900 students from over 65 countries across six continents. The ratio of Singaporeans and permanent residents to international students is about 60 to 40, with locals chosen from post-secondary institutions from all over the island. These include, our junior colleges and polytechnics.

The result is a pioneering way of living and learning. Together. Not just in Asia or for Asia, but in an interconnected world.

I’d like to share a few other features of a Yale-NUS education that exemplify our international emphasis and our commitment to an ethos of multicultural learning with a purpose.

Since our launch in 2011, we’ve adhered to admissions criteria that are holistic in order to welcome the widest pool of qualified students possible. This means we look for academic achievement, intellectual curiosity and leadership in applicants. But we also put equal weight on global mindedness, community engagement and a sense of adventure.

In bringing together students from more than 65 countries, we looked at how we could unite them in a common purpose and experience from the very beginning. The solution is our signature Common Curriculum, which strives to answer the question: “What must a young person learn in order to lead a responsible life in this century?” It comprises 10 mandatory, multi-disciplinary courses, nine of which have to be completed within the first three semesters.

Examples include “Philosophy and Political Thought,” “Scientific Inquiry” and “Quantitative Reasoning.” All are designed to expose students to different modes of inquiry and understanding, and drive critical, creative and active thinking.

By taking the Common Curriculum together, the students meet peers of different nationalities and backgrounds, with different life and career goals.

Despite these differences, all students begin their college experience in the same way. This gives them a common foundation for advanced work and more importantly, their common experience creates bonds around learning. Faculty, too, work in teams with each other outside of their research areas for Common Curriculum classes. They are one another’s teachers as well as teachers of their students.

Another signature offering is Week 7: Learning Across Boundaries. These are faculty-led projects in which first-year students explore themes of the Common Curriculum and their real-world applications in Singapore, regionally and even internationally.

This year, we had a fascinating range of topics. Planetary health, love and marriage, writing about Singaporean food, and the creation, transmission and preservation of knowledge. Week 7 culminates in a symposium, where students and faculty share the insights, solutions and knowledge they have gleaned with members of the Yale-NUS community.

Week 7 falls under the umbrella of our Learning Across Boundaries programmes, in which faculty collaborate with students outside of the traditional classroom and create opportunities to explore themes of the curriculum in a wider context. Projects have addressed notions of identity through art as well as the connected histories of global empires. One programme that starts next month will focus on international climate diplomacy at the 24th Conference of Parties.

All of this is overseen by the Centre for International & Professional Experience, which houses traditionally separate components of experiential and service learning under one roof.

Things like study abroad, which invites students to leave their comfort zones and fosters intellectual nimbleness, emotional resilience and openness to others. Or summer programmes, in which students can learn Japanese in Tokyo or study transitional justice in South Africa. Or internships in art and culture in Italy and social impact in Washington, DC.

All carefully curated opportunities that will enhance students’ global experiences, broaden their perspectives and hone the skills and character they need to succeed as tomorrow’s leaders.

But the ethos of multicultural learning shouldn’t be rooted just in travel beyond campus. For us, it’s also about bringing “international” home to the College. It’s about weaving the community’s diversity of culture, expertise and experience into the fabric of daily life.

As I mentioned earlier, Yale-NUS is a four-year fully residential programme. Our students live in three residential colleges along with about 30 faculty and staff.

We’re proud to be the only tertiary institution in Singapore to have this model, which ensures lively exchanges of ideas and opinions between students, faculty and staff that extend beyond the classrooms—and are key to community building.

There are regular and robust efforts to promote tolerance, problem solving, communication skills and global mindsets. Examples include a curriculum-based eight-week dialogue focusing on identity and intergroup communication, and an intercultural peer advisor programme. One professor teaches Zumba while another played on the Yale-NUS men’s basketball team.

And because eating always brings people together, especially in Singapore, we have a ‘Food from Home’ programme that encourages individuals to share their favorite dishes from their country.

There’s also the Lunch Tag initiative which randomly pairs participants over a meal. Many unexpected friendships have been sparked by the initiative. In one former student’s words: “Our conversation over baked pasta and roast chicken eventually turned into a discussion about sociology and religion with Marx and Weber.”

While living and learning together is key to fostering a strong international community, there’s one more element I’d like to mention, one that’s close to my heart. And that is serving together.

This year’s orientation featured a new residential college community building activity in August that gave students an opportunity to give back to society in different ways. Beyond that, they’ve also mentored secondary and junior college students in creative writing, shared their musical talents with patients in a Singapore hospital, helped raise money for flood victims in Kerala, and found solutions for impoverished families in Mexico.

In September, we had the first Yale-NUS service day. Some 40 staff and faculty members volunteered at a soup kitchen that cooks and distributes daily meals to the island’s underprivileged and marginalised.

I’m proud to be part of a community that is not just focused on self, but rather how we relate to one another. A community that makes a conscious effort to look beyond degrees and diplomas. A community rooted in an ethos of service and one that emphasises humility and mutual respect. That’s how we become truly integrated and international in the best sense of the word.

In closing, I’d like to leave you with three takeaways:

The first: Internationalisation is a state of mind; not just programming. We nurture it consistently across the students’ stay in the College. By building a diverse community, by emphasising cross-cultural, experiential learning, and by cultivating inclusivity and empathy.

Secondly, international programmes should be purposeful. They shouldn’t be just sending students abroad or generating opportunities for travel. They need to be relevant to curriculum and tied to learning outcomes.

And finally, remember to leverage location and contexts. For Yale-NUS, “In Asia, for the world” means making connections that link the College to wider contexts – within Singapore, a global city; within the region and its rich diversity of cultures; and lastly the world, with all its complexities.

Thank you.

(Watch Professor Tan Tai Yong’s speech from 3:08 to 25:33)