LifeStory: My alternative to Singapore scholarships…

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A few days ago, the observant Mr. Takchek featured a recent Singapore newspaper article on how “Scholars cannot fail“. Granted, there’s always academic pressure to succeed when you’re on a scholarship, but just take a look at the price that the PSC scholar, Mr Chong, had to pay for his failure (everything + interest!). Poor Chong didn’t consider the risks involved before signing up for that particular scholarship.

What can we learn from this?
Takchek’s opinion was that this was another reason NOT to take up any of these ‘scholarships’, so I thought I’d share my life story on how I got this far in my academic life through alternative means. I really don’t talk enough about it on my blog, but anyone interested in U.S. education should really ask any of us overseas bloggers what we’ve learnt about the academic system here.

To set the record straight, I’m not mentally or financially gifted. Things in my life just happen to go my way for some reason (there’s a story behind my chinese name which might explains this phenomenon, but I’ll save that for another day). A common advice is for you to learn how to shop for scholarships… there are local ones and even overseas ones if you search hard enough. But I say to hell with that! My personal belief is that local (Singapore) scholarships tend to be overly competitive and unnecessarily popular, while overseas scholarships are mostly bond-free but hard to find one which we can qualify for. As a typical fellow who could only afford to study for his B.A. in Communication at the University at Buffalo, how did I make it all the way to working on my PhD?

My Four Ingredients
1. Working smart (not hard)
2. Knowing irrelevant people
3. Possessing diverse skillsets
4. Having some dumb luck

A lot of Singaporean students already have this and it’s something you can depend on for a safe and enjoyable alternative to painful scholarships. Mind you, we’re talking about alternative scholarships which pay enough for your college tuition and overseas living finances.

How I survived on so little…
Back in 2002, I was all set to go back to Singapore after finishing my B.A. in Communication. Late into my final semester, a fellow American classmate saw my web design skills and recommended me a Graduate Assistantship (G.A.) opening in the university. It just so happened that the Educational Technology Center (ETC) was in need of a replacement G.A. By some stroke of luck, the leaving G.A. was the housemate of my classmate, who naturally gives me a solid referral. Given that I was heavily involved in web publishing back in 1997, my interviewers were impressed with my management skills so they hired me based on my leadership and production experience.

What are graduate assistantships?
Graduate assistantships (G.A.) can only be earned when you are in graduate school, so make sure you can afford your B.A. first (or get a student assistantship which pays much less but helps). Likewise, there are also Teaching Assistantships and Research Assistantships which pay almost equally well, so you have a choice of interest. As a G.A., I get paid in two parts: A stipend which is around US$900 per month (less after tax), and tuition waiver (where I only pay comprehensive fees around $400). My apartment rent, car insurance, food and other overheads typically cost me about $700/month, so that leaves me an excess of around $200/mth. Pretty decent living! Lastly, there are no bonds to break, and my work contract renews every year. FYI: I’ve been working at ETC for three years already.

Singaporeans have it easier
I’ve seen a lot of Singaporeans are hired as graduate assistants (G.A.) or teaching assistants (T.A.) in American universities. I believe we have an edge because we tend to be older than our cohort, are decently hardworking and possess good communication skills. In addition, the fact that we Singaporean guys have to go through National Service pays off here, since it goes towards your leadership ability. So remember to put that on your resume!

Do approach your prospective university about the kind of graduate, teaching or research assistanceship opportunities they have. Let them know you’re interested and keep a relationship with the intended unit you wish to work for. Note that it doesn’t need to be limited to your department.

I’ve finished my Masters in Informatics and am now halfway through my PhD program. All this while, I rarely needed to ask my parents for another dime. I’m pretty happy where I am and I hope this has been useful to you. If you have better alternatives to what I suggested, do share!

UPDATE on 14th Dec 2005 Biao adds very detailed comments on how he went through college on a Citibank student loan, survived through two jobs as a student, and how he made it to a job in the Silicon Valley. He also talks about F1 visa job restrictions and opportunities as granted under CPT and OPT. A definite must read (in the comments below)!

29 thoughts on “LifeStory: My alternative to Singapore scholarships…

  1. For those peeps that are interested in heading for Japan, you could give a shot by applying for the “The Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET)” programme as an “Assistant Language Teacher (ALT)”. You get paid about 3.6million per year (In Japan Yen of course, I wished it was in dollars). It’s about 30K USD after the conversion. The requirement I think is a bachelor degree and a functional command of English and most importantly interest in the Japanese language and culture.

  2. neat post. i know many who think studying abroad is only for scholarship kids and that they won’t be good enough or won’t be able to afford it. perhaps they forget that they just need to try. and that they have to know that singaporeans have an advantage over here! for one, it’s neat being bilingual… ^_^

  3. takchek: As soon as I saw you post I had to write this, but I had so many other things queued up to blog about that I only could post this today. 🙂

    Sacrelicious: You should write a full post on your blog about the JET program. I heard a lot of expariates mentioning this.

    Entwistle + Tracy: Glad you guys like it. I was worried that I could be missing something, otherwise how come no one talks about it?

  4. Ooooh, now I know alternatives to the existing over-popular scholarships! I hope Sacrelicious does write about the JET program, Japan would be a place I’d love to go to as well.

  5. I graduated with a degree in computer science, got a pretty decent job in Silicon Valley, and have had no problems paying back my student loan from Citibank.

    I did try looking for a scholarship but those are hard to come by especially when you’re an undergrad. So I did the next best thing which is to pull down 2 jobs. It won’t pay your tuition but you also won’t need to ask for money from your parents for living expenses.

  6. Biao: I had one other friend who went through the same kind of risk and hard work as you did, and I must say, BRAVO to you. If anything, this means that you’re more ready to take on any challenge in life than any of us. Congrats on your job and email me so I can look you up when I need one!

  7. I have to sheepishly admit that I only took loans for a portion of my tuition – the rest were paid for by my parents. But I do send them money once regularly. So I guess you can think of that as a sort of loan repayment :

    My point is that it’s possible to do what I did for the entire cost of tuition. I know a few who’re doing that right now.

  8. One more point I’d like to add:

    As a student on an F1 visa you are quite limited on how you can work, but there are ways around that. You should be able to work on campus without too many restrictions, which is what I did. The only restriction I had was that I couldn’t work more than 19.5 hours a week, but that rule applied to all students.

    Another way to work is to apply for a CPT or OPT. CPT stands for Cirruculum Practical Training and it allows you to work in any company if the work is directly related to the coursework you need in order to graduate. The wording is pretty strict but school’s are usually willing to write a letter to support your application since they’d want you to benefit from the experience.

    OPT (Optional Practical Training) is similar except there’s no need for the work to be related to your coursework but you are only allowed to be on OPT for 1 year. Most international students I’ve met reserve this for the summer holidays or for after they graduate. This allows them to stick around for a year while they look for a permanent job. The problem with OPT is that it takes a hella long time to get approved – about 4 months – so it’s kinda hard to use for summer jobs unless you have an offer 4 months prior to your start or you’re confidant of securing a job. Also, once you apply you have to use up the time alloted to you or forfeit it. Though if you run out you can always apply for your Master’s 🙂

  9. Well done Biao, you’ve covered the CPT and OPT opportunities very well. I’ll update this post accordingly to reflect your points. 🙂

  10. For ALT position: Applications from 19 September to 23 December 2005, [Approximately 1 week left, but i think it is possible to send your application in time.]

    For the JET program, you got to contact the embassy or consulate of Japan in the country of your nationality. For Singapore peeps, please go to below website and read and download the application form and instructions.

    Direct link for SG peeps [Please read and understand fully the content and contact the embassy staff for correct and official Q & A if you are serious about it.]

    Link for other countries

    PS: I am just a poor barely surviving student, that happen to research a lot in the area of non de facto route. Try staying away from the Mainstream options that are “advertise” heavily by ****** (Need not emphasize who it is lah 😛 ) and you would be suprised. What is good for the country might not be necessary good for the common folks like you and me.

  11. I’m definitely keeping the option open to teach, but I would also love to work as a tech consultant taking risks and making big bucks. Gotta dream a little.

  12. Working in Japan through JET is a good opportunity to gain experince working overseas, but the salary ain’t that much considering the VERY high cost of living in Japan. An apple can cost you US$4.50, just to give you an idea.

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  14. Tym: Gssq asked the same question, which begs for an answer. In most cases, the average Singapore should be able to afford an undergrad program if he or she went to an affordable school (like me). Most State universities are great deals since they usually have decent “prestige” and are partly funded by the state (public school). UB’s particularly in that sweet spot of price vs. reputation, especially since we’re also a research-oriented university (which isn’t common nowadays). In a nutshell, interested parties will have to save for an undergrad education (and can be party funded by taking up on-campus jobs like Student Assistantship), while the rest of your academic life should be funded by the above-mentioned GAship, TAship or RAship. Hope that answers your question… there’s no free lunch, a deal like this sure beats getting bonded for years!

  15. Tym: You could also consider going to a community college for the 1st 2 years of your education, it’s cheaper (usually half the price or lower) than going straight into a 4-year university. After getting your associate degree, you can transfer into a regular 4-year university. I wasn’t aware of this option before coming to the US. In retrospect, going to a community college and doing well there provides 2 opportunities:

    1) A chance to familiarize yourself with the workings of the American system and society;
    2) If you do well, your chances of getting scholarships to pay for the last 2 years in a 4-year university increases too.

    Finally, another option would be to hold campus jobs. I took on a position as a resident advisor and another as a librarian. In all, they paid for my living expenses, room and board for 2 years, those savings came up to about USD 18,000. More importantly, those jobs equip you with important “life-skills” and you can always include those experiences in your resume. Finally, as much as the jobs were time consuming, I really enjoyed my position as a resident advisor and the library job was just comfy (basically, I just sat there). So don’t think you’lI have to “slog” like crazy if you hold 2 jobs during your undergraduate years, always find joy in whatever you pursue (I know it’s easier said than done, but try ok :)).

  16. Consider the Wesleyan Freeman Asian Scholarship – which covers a 4-year undergraduate course at Wesleyan University, a liberal Arts college. The scholarship is incredibly generous and bond-free, and Wesleyan is very intellectual and empowering. There are 2 scholarships given out each year. I believe Williams also has a similar scholarship. Students, alumni and professors of wesleyan include Kevin Costner’s daughter, George Soros’ son, Christopher Reeve’s father, etc. I had a choice between an army and government scholarships or this. I chose Wes and never regretted my decision.

  17. Mark: Thanks for the tip. There are plenty of International scholarships as you’ve listed, one of the beauties of a liberal democratic system.

  18. please, i’m a graduate of agricultural economics fromthe university of agriculture, abeokuta, Nigeria. i’ll like to know how i could fit into the JET programme in japan. can you sms me on +2348034442234 ?
    have a wonderful afternoon.

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