Shafiqah Song Xiuhua, or just Nadiah, as she doesn’t mind being called, rushes over to shake my hand in the Yusof Ishak House canteen. It’s clear that she’s one busy woman, having rushed over from an MOE attachment and having to rush off once again soon after, giving us only about half-an-hour to chat. She greets me with a wide smile, apologises for being late, and we immediately begin our interview.
Shafiqah, an English Literature Major in FASS, was only in her first year of NUS when she decided to apply for the UNC-NUS Joint Degree Programme, a prestigious partnership between the National University of Singapore and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Come July 2010, she will be part of the pioneering batch of students graduating from both universities, after completing a four-year course both locally and overseas, a feat she only imagined as challenging the first time she heard about it.
“Maybe I was young back then, and thought I would just try for it. I remember they called us all down for a briefing on the programme requirements—there were over a hundred students in the room, all interested in signing up! The tension only increased when one of the professors announced that only about 10 students will be eventually accepted,” Shafiqah exclaimed.
When asked why she signed up for the programme, Shafiqah merely smiled and answered, “I’ve always just wanted to visit the United States and see how life would be like.”
And visit the United States she did—Shafiqah was eventually accepted into the programme and departed for Chapel Hill in 2007, deciding to stay for a total of four semesters on the UNC campus, returning in May 2009.
“It was intimidating at first, definitely, adjusting to the life there. But after the first year, you get used to it, and you just want to make the most of the entire experience.”
She goes on to describe two of her most memorable experiences in UNC: from witnessing the university winning the 2009 National Basketball Championships and thereafter watching the students take to the streets to celebrate—by drinking booze and climbing up lamp-posts; to more personal moments like driving out to a beach with a close-friend she made whilst overseas.
Her most frustrating experience? Having to spend Hari Raya away from her family, she exclaims, and missing her family’s home-cooked food. She remembers breaking fast one day at a friend’s house—having her friend’s Egyptian food for dinner was the closest alternative to her home-cooked food in a long while, and it almost brought her to tears remembering her family.
Nevertheless, she describes the students of Chapel Hill as incredibly friendly and open, the campus-culture as both liberal and conservative at the same time, and Chapel Hill County as a lovely place to visit. But of course, her life overseas was also a combination of work and play, and Shafiqah admits that she had to work extremely hard to maintain her grades over there.
“Your grades matter. That’s what they told us from the beginning,” Shafiqah said, when I compared the joint-degree programme to other overseas student exchange programmes in NUS, like the Student Exchange Program (SEP), which in most cases only continued for two semesters at a time.
She recalls times where being overseas did not feel like being on holiday at all. For example, there were nights where she considered just taking time off to unwind and have fun in town, and there were certainly opportunities for her to do so—but in the end her studies always came first. At UNC, Shafiqah took many interesting modules in English Literature, such as Asian-American studies.
“At UNC, I guess you feel the pressure to perform.”
It seems that the pressure eventually paid off. As a result of her hard work, Shafiqah graduates this year a proud owner of two undergraduate degrees from both universities, with overall first-class honours. I ask her if it was all worth it in the end?
She laughs and answers, “Yes, it was. It was competitive and quite scary at times, intimidating even. But overall, it was an exciting four years. I would recommend other students to sign up for the program in the future.”
Shafiqah is looking forward to enrolling in the National Institute of Education (NIE) this September. She hopes to become a teacher in English Literature in the future.