NUS Psychology recently set up a department-level student exchange program (SEP) with the Psychology department at Kansas University, and two of our majors (Ng Shi Qi & Tan Junxian) spent the Fall of 2014 there. They share their experiences here in pictures and words.
CLIMATE & WEATHER
The inevitable conversation topic
I touched down at the Kansas City International Airport, stepping off the plane to receive literally the warmest welcome of my life. It was August and I was experiencing the height of the summer heat. Kansas is landlocked, which means that weather conditions are more extreme, relative to states located near the coasts. The torrid heat took me a while to get used to, being unaccustomed to the lack of humidity in the air.
As the months past, summer transitioned to autumn (or fall as they call it here) amidst a rapidly falling temperature. The foliage around rejoices by bursting into a flurry of reds, oranges and yellows. I will always remember kicking up piles of leaves on the pavements (or sidewalks as they call it here) and falling in love with fall.
However, in close pursuit of fall was winter, characterized by harsh winds, the blistering chill and the occasional scattering of snow. The weather tends to get more erratic towards the end of the year, with temperatures ranging from 20°F to 50°F within a single day. It necessitated the checking of the weather forecast before getting dressed for the day. You do not want to be waiting at the non-sheltered bus stops for 20 minutes, feeling your bones freeze under too little clothing.
I was there for the fall semester of AY2013/14 from August to December, similar to that of NUS, although school starts a couple of weeks later. Spring semesters run from January to May. And to assuage any potential fears about natural disasters, KU is located at a region in Kansas characterized by uneven elevations relative to the rest of the States. This means that we hardly experience tornadoes of great magnitude. Yes, like the tornado that swept Dorothy’s house away.
KU AND ITS CLASSES
A taste of the American college system
The Office of Study Abroad (OSA) at the KU is excellent in their hospitality towards incoming exchange students. KU’s international program is one of the most established ones in the States despite the fact that I am one of the first students from NUS to be given the opportunity to participate in an exchange semester there. We arrived in KU two weeks prior to the start of the school term for the orientation program for international students. Together with over 100 students from all over the globe, I took part in a meticulously planned schedule of programs, effective in getting the last of the paperwork settled and easing me into the KU culture.
Since this is a department-level exchange program, I studied mainly Psychology classes during my time at KU. I took a Social Psychology class, conducted in a large lecture and tutorial format, similar to what we have in NUS. I also had the opportunity to attend more senior level classes which were significantly smaller in size and are conducted in 3-hour-long blocks, much like the honours modules offered in NUS.
My favourite class was Positive Psychology, with just 8 students in total, affording an intimate setting conducive for sharing and learning. The classes and assignments were structured in ways that emphasized the application of concepts taught in the classrooms to the students’ personal lives. My final project for the Positive Psychology class was to write a 10-page paper about my personality traits in relation to my life. At the end of the class, I have emerged with a solid understanding of the theories taught in the class and more substantial knowledge about myself.
In KU, the continuous assessment (CA) component is a major part of class assessments. Some common methods of CA are weekly quizzes, weekly reading responses and fortnightly essays, which can come up to about 60% of the grades. Most of the classes I took required the submission of research papers (a minimum of 5 pages). I had the whole semester to work on this, which contributed to the final grade component.
A piece of my heart was left in this town
The University of Kansas (KU) is located in Lawrence, Kansas. Lawrence is a college town, about an hour’s drive away from Kansas City (and also the airport). This means that majority of the town is populated by college students attending KU, who will leave the place during winter or summer breaks. I adore the quaint and unique character Lawrence possesses, a refreshing contrast to the Singapore city I had grown up in. I spent most of my time in the rolling hills of the KU, amidst school buildings of beautiful architecture.
Another of my favorite places to hang out was the downtown area, also known as “Mass Street”. The street is lined with hip and interesting shops running the gamut from cafes serving superb brunches to theatres showcasing old films and the beloved buffalo wings joints.
Getting around Lawrence was a hassle initially, as public transportation is limited, given that most people drive around the town. Bus shelters were also scarce, making it almost impossible to endure the long waiting times when the weather got cold. Getting to the airport in order to travel to other states required advanced planning and additional fees. I am grateful for the kindness of the people I’ve met in KU who owned automobiles of their own and were enthusiastic to show me around. And it wasn’t difficult to make friends either. Americans are known for their warmth and friendliness. A “Hello, how are you?” had felt odd during my first week in Kansas but as the culture shock rubbed off, I witnessed how easily friendships had been forged by that mere greeting, accompanied by an inviting smile on the faces.
Living on campus was also a great opportunity to meet local freshmen and international students. I stayed at McCollum Hall, which (unfortunately) will be demolished this year to make way for a newer building. Situated on Daisy Hill, within the KU campus together with several other residence halls, the campus shuttle service stopped right at the doorstep of the hall. This is extremely important during winter. Staying in a residential hall was an incredible experience. I had some of the best memories with my fellow residents there. After a long day at school, it was always such a joy to be able to hang out with my floor mates in the warm and spacious student lounges.
The campus accommodation came with meal plans which allowed access to the school’s dining hall, lovingly called “Mrs. E’s” by the students. I was certainly spoilt for choice with the plethora of food choices confronting me daily – onion rings, French fries, mac and cheese, pasta, pizza slices, steak, cakes and ice-cream etc. On special occasions like Thanksgiving and Halloween, traditional American holiday food was also served at the cafeteria.
Culture shock and more in Kansas
My journey to the University of Kansas (KU) started like many other Student Exchange Programme (SEP) journeys: I had heard about an exchange that was solely reserved for psychology students with an American college. American researchers and universities have always been at the forefront of psychological research; this was my chance to go abroad to learn from them and get a good sense of how psychology is taught and research is done overseas.
I checked KU out and it seemed like a really nice place! Beautiful scenery, fields of corn and sunflowers, nice cool weather. Plus, it was right in Kansas, in the center of the United States – I hoped that would make travelling to other states more convenient.
But of course, nothing is always as perfect as it seems. I still remember sitting in a car being driven from Kansas City to Lawrence, where the university town is located. It took over one and a half hours! The sunshine was piercingly hot – Kansas is a place where weather extremes are very common. Summer heats can go up as high as 36 degrees Celsius, and Fall/Winter temperatures can drop as low as -15 degrees. Another thing that took getting used to was the lack of public transport – and trust me, Kansas is so big that you need to drive close to one and a half hours to get to the nearest “international” shopping mall.
KU however had an awesome orientation programme. I met a whole bunch of really cool international friends! I made friends from Japan, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, the U.K., Venezuela, Peru and Argentina. I was also pleasantly surprised by the warmth and hospitality shown to me by the school administrators. Right from the start, my emails were promptly replied by Kate Gerken from the International Students Office. KU also had a programme where exchange students are paired up with a buddy – I was paired up with a Thai-American senior – needless to say, she brought me to try some really awesome Thai food around Lawrence!
I stayed in Naismith Hall during my exchange. At first, I was apprehensive about my new American roommate – how would he be like? Would we get along? To my pleasant surprise, I did get along very well with Jared, my roommate from Illinois. He’s from out of state, so he was as lost I was in the first few weeks of school. We became pretty good friends with each other throughout my stay in Kansas.
Classes in KU were a refreshing experience. American students are expected to be vocal in class, and anyone can stop the professor at any time to ask any question, even seemingly unrelated ones. I thought I was vocal back in classes in NUS, but American students were so much more willing to ask questions compared to me. I also felt a great sense of passion from my professors. My professors teaching cultural, clinical and positive psychology were very much at the forefront of their respective fields. As the semester over in the US takes around 15 weeks, we managed to cover many interesting topics and I felt that I was given the freedom to learn without an overt focus on exams and tests like in NUS. I also garnered important information about pursing a Masters or PhD in the United States from my professors. One class had at least four entire weeks dedicated to coaching students on how to apply for graduate school and writing an academic curriculum vitae.
During my free time, I also made use of the various resources that KU had to offer – for example, the awesome Art Museum and Natural History Museum on campus. I would make my way over there to relax in between classes when I had the time. The gym in KU is also very good. Close to two entire levels of floor space devoted to all the weights and machines you could dream of. If you a planning to use the gym often, I advise that you should stay in Naismith Hall, it is only a 5 minute walk away from the gym and swimming pool.
Overall, my experience at KU was a pleasant one. I had it hard at first, having to get used to the weather, the lack of public transport and entertainment possibilities, the food and the education system. But I survived and thrived! And I am very sure future NUS students who are planning to follow in my footsteps will be able to do so to.