GEM Trailblazer Summer in Singapore’s NTU: Part 1. Preparation, Flight, Orientation and City Tour

Months ago I received an email by my university with an unexpected opportunity: applying to participate in a summer school in South East Asia and receiving a full scholarship to cover all the costs (tuition, accommodation, living expenses, flights…). Obviously, I couldn’t refuse the offer: it wouldn’t cost me a penny/much money, I would experience living abroad and I would get additional academic qualifications.

After choosing a university and a course, I applied to be nominated by my university. Days later, I received the confirmation that my application had been successful, but I had to choose another university and course because the one I applied for wasn’t running anymore. That’s when I was directed to the GEM Trailblazer Summer Program by Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, applying in the end to their ‘Cultural Intelligence: How to be an Explorer of the World’ course. Weeks later, my admission into the program was confirmed, and it started to sink in I was going to South East Asia for a month to study!

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Acceptance letter.

Before going abroad, I had to attend various group meetings to learn more about Singapore and to be aware of health and safety issues. During those meetings, I met other students who were travelling to the same university and for the same/similar period. This was incredible useful since I realised I would not be totally alone and I knew the names/faces of some people with whom I could be. Other preparation for the trip included getting vaccinations, renewing my passport and booking flights. Although at times it was stressful, I was ready and set to fly on the 29th of June with no major worries or concerns.

The day of my departure I woke up early on the morning and took various trains to Gatwick airport. During the journey, I felt calm and motivated, my only regret was packing too much stuff in my suitcases (they were very heavy!). Since this was not the first time I travelled alone, I had no problem reaching the airport, checking in, going through security and getting to my gate on time. The only new thing about this journey was that instead of flying 1-2 hours to a country in the same continent, I would travel 15-17 hours to reach Asia, leaving Europe for the first time in my 20 years of life! I was very excited about this, yet I was a bit concerned about how comfortable the plane would be and about how the connection stop in Dubai would work.

Fortunately, my concerns never materialised: Emirates was a lovely company to flight with and the connection stop in Dubai was hassle-free. The only issue that arose was my phone dying at some point and I couldn’t find my charger, so I couldn’t use it at all (I thought I had left it at home, but later I found it in my checked in luggage!). Nevertheless, the planes had Wi-Fi, and my laptop entertained me.

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Lunch on the first plane.
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Snack on the first plane.
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Dinner on the second plane.
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Breakfast on the second plane.

My arrival to Changi Airport in Singapore was accompanied by a mixture of emotions: uncertainty, fear, excitement and relief. Uncertainty because I didn’t know what to expect of Singaporean culture. Fear because I was scared I would have problems to get a tourist pass. Excitement because a new chapter in my life was about to open. And relief because nothing happened during my flights to get there. However, uncertainty ended up paving the way for a desire to explore the unknown, rather than feel nervous about it. And I had no problems to get a tourist pass, probably because I have a Spanish passport.

Changi Airport was an easy place to move around. After buying a mobile SIM and cash card for transport, I left the airport and took the train (known as MRT in Singapore) to reach Boon Lay station, where I then took a bus to get to my assigned hall in NTU. The journey took nearly 2 hours. I must admit I struggled with my luggage, yet the worst part came when I got off the bus near my hall in NTU and I couldn’t find the office to check in. The hot and humid weather made me sweat a lot: at some point I even felt like if I couldn’t breathe properly, as if there weren’t oxygen in the air. This was my first shock in Singapore: I wasn’t ready for the climate. I was lucky to be caught struggling by one of the workers in the complex. She directed me to the hall office to check in and then helped me to get to my room.

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Changi Airport, Singapore.
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Changi Airport, Singapore.

After settling in my chamber, I had a much needed shower and then I went out to top-up the card to use the air conditioner (the heat inside my room was unbearable and I didn’t realise till later that I could use the fan without the air conditioner, I’m a dummy!). While walking, I explored the area surrounding my hall. My first thought about NTU was how green the campus is, full of tropical flora. I was also captivated by some of the buildings I saw, in particular the School of Arts, Design and Media, which is just besides my hall. It is modern and covered by nature. I really like it. My second impression of NTU was how cheap and nice lunch is in its canteens. I paid $2.5 (less than £1.50) for a full plate of chicken fried rice, which was delicious.

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School of Art, Design and Media, NTU.
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School of Art, Design and Media, NTU.
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NTU Campus.
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One of the halls in NTU.

Once I topped up my air conditioner card, I went directly to my room and slept. Although it was just 5pm local time when I went to bed, I felt extremely tired, almost certainly because of jetlag and the time difference between Singapore and UK (Singapore is 7 hours ahead). I ended up waking up in the middle of the night hungry and with headache: my body thought I had a nap and I never have naps because I always feel very ill afterwards. After taking some medication and eating some leftovers I had in my bag, I managed to sleep again for a few hours.

The next day I woke up around 12pm. It was Friday the 1st, I had to register for my course and attend a campus tour. After getting dressed, I walked down to Student Services Centre, where the registration took place and I received my welcome pack: a t-shirt, a backpack, a water bottle and an NTU information pack. Then, I went to find somewhere to eat before joining the last group campus tour of the day at 5pm. While we didn’t walk around the whole campus, since it is too big, we visited some of the key spaces where we would study, meet for cultural activities/organised days out and attend the Welcome Party on Monday. Whilst on the tour, I spoke with other summer school students for the first time since I had arrived. This is an aspect of my trip which I was a bit worried about: I’m not great at socialising, I have always struggled to make friends, particularly since I moved to England in 2012. However, the conversation went quite well, we talked about where we came from (they were Korean) and I even exchanged my Facebook details with one of them.

Following the end the campus tour, I went to the canteen in my hall to have dinner alone and was unexpectedly joined by a girl who decided to sit down with me. As the students I met earlier, she was from Korea as well. We had a nice chat while we ate together and we ended up adding each other on Facebook before leaving for our respective rooms. I was quite surprised by how another person decided to approach me out of the blue and talk with me. That rarely happens in my life, I’m not an approachable person at all, I look very serious all the time and my reflective face is perceived as angry often.

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Small scale model of the NTU campus.

Nevertheless, the feeling of surprise developed into joy, which increased minutes later when I went to my chamber and met my roommate for the whole summer program. She greeted me enthusiastically and introduced herself as Jessica from Hong Kong. We were both born in the same year and we are doing the same course here. After a few minutes of talking with her, I knew we would get along very well and I felt extremely pleased about sharing the room during the whole month, something I was wary about because I’m a person who likes intimacy (though I’m used to sharing room and sleeping spaces with others).

The following day the first activity prepared by NTU for summer school students took place: tour around Singapore. I was very excited about this, I couldn’t wait to meet new people and learn about this country. Fortunately, both hopes materialised. I didn’t spend any minute of the tour alone. I was always chatting and laughing with someone, from the people I met the day before to new people I met during tour. I had a great time, it felt so good! I hadn’t had so much fun in ages and I felt like I used to feel in Spain back in 2011 when I hanged out with my friends: confident, careless and happy. For a few hours, my old-self surged from the shadows of my asocial behaviour, talking and socialising without worrying excessively about being embarrassing or judged. I must admit that I was also asocial and reserved in Spain, I’m an introverted person. But it worsened a lot after moving to England: the levels of isolation I reached there were unbearable.

When comes to learning, I got a basic level of knowledge of the country from the tour. Singapore is an island city-state close to Malaysia and Indonesia, with a rich and interesting history which I had never been very aware of. Our tour guide took us to some of the key places in the small country and shared with us history and cultural details, but we didn’t have time to explore any place in depth and I missed some of his explanations. In the following weeks, I will try to visit as many historical and cultural places as possible to learn better, and I will share what I learn here.

From the tour that NTU organised, I learnt that Singapore is a country of migrants, mainly from Chinese, Indian and Malaysian background. Various languages are spoken, and various cultures and religions coexist with each other, such as Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianism. Apart from cultural and ethnic diversity, Singapore also has a mixture of landscapes and architecture styles: here, modernity meets nature and traditionalism in a beautiful way. There are lots of green spaces everywhere, while the heart of the city is full of skyscrapers and modern buildings, and neighbouring areas contain many heritage sites with old-fashioned structures.

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Marina Bay, Singapore.
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Little India, Singapore.
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Flower Dome, Singapore.
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Sultan Mosque, Singapore.

The day afterwards I was invited to go out for lunch by one of the summer students I met during the tour: her name is Natasha and she is from Australia. I joined her, another summer student and one of her friends from her university in Australia that lives in Singapore. We went to the Raffles Quay area and ate in a food court. In Singapore, food courts are places in which you can buy cheap meals and drinks from a group of small stands, which serve food from a variety of places, such as China, Japan, Malaysia and India, as well as the signature dishes of the country (which I haven’t tried yet!). I ate Costa Rican, food and I enjoyed it. Food in Singapore is delicious, diverse and cheap, my favourite combination!

On the evening of the same day, I joined other summer students to go to the Night Safari. It was a relaxing and pleasurable outing, yet my feet were hurting a lot from walking so much in the last few days and I couldn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted to.

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Night Safari, Singapore.
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Night Safari, Singapore.

Hope you enjoyed my first post for the blog series “GEM Trailblazer Summer in Singapore’s NTU”. It will have 4-5 parts, since the summer program here lasts 4 weeks and I might want to add reflections on the end. I’m sorry if this post was boring and too introductory: I have been very busy and I was running out of time to write it. The next ones will be more interesting and detailed. I promise!

P.S: You can find more pictures of my time in Singapore in my Flickr account => https://flic.kr/s/aHskDGR9BV

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