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  • Elaina Feng

Studying at NUS — Expectations v.s Reality

Updated: Dec 8, 2023

Dec. 7, 2023

By: Elaina Feng

Hi there! I’m Elaina, a junior currently studying at the National University of Singapore (NUS) as a part of the Stern IBEX program. As my stay in Singapore comes to an end, I’ve taken the time to reflect on my experiences here and what I’ve discovered throughout the semester. Hopefully the lessons I learned can be of use to anyone who chooses to study abroad, especially in Singapore!

Here is a list of my top five expectations for my semester abroad versus the reality.

Expectation #1: It’s going to be hard for me to find friends.

Reality: As someone on the more introverted side, I was worried about making friends at a new school, especially abroad. The idea of meeting new people seemed so daunting at first, and I was worried that there wouldn’t be any opportunities for me to make friends, much less find people to travel with!

Fortunately, the NUS Business School provided lots of opportunities for exchange students to mingle and meet each other. For example, there was the NUS Biz Exchange Welcome Day where exchange students were split into different Harry Potter groups to compete in the “Triwizard Tournament.” This event was designed to forge friendly bonds between exchangers through grueling (but fun!) mental and physical battles.

Additionally, I was very lucky to get on-campus housing at NUS (I stayed at the Prince George’s Park Residences) where I became the best of friends with my neighbor, who in turn introduced me to her friends. As a result, I’ve made friends from all over the world! From Australians to Canadians, I’ve made and traveled with friends from all walks of life. I’m extremely proud of myself for embracing opportunities outside my comfort zone, because it has led me to unexpected friendships and unforgettable adventures that have been an integral part of my study abroad experience.

The lesson here is to involve yourself in everything the host school has to offer, but also to look around you; your best friend abroad could be right next door.

Photo from the Business Exchangers Welcome Day (you can probably guess which one I am), taken by the NUS Bizad club

Expectation #2: I’m going to travel ALL the time!

Reality: I was super excited to receive the chance to study in Singapore, a country I’ve never been to and one that is surrounded by other countries I’ve never been to as well. Singapore is truly the perfect location for traveling…but reality hit, and I quickly realized that while Singapore is a travel hub, I wouldn’t be spending every weekend in a different country. Sure, flights to other Asian countries are a steal, and the semester is pass/fail, making it extremely tempting to make academics the least of my priorities.

However, traveling is more than just hopping on a plane; there's so much more to consider—accommodations, food, souvenirs, transportation, etc. all add up faster than you'd think. I really needed to learn how to balance studying and exploring new places or I wouldn’t pass my classes at all. Budgeting also became crucial for me because traveling wasn’t as cheap as I imagined; there were so many potential trips, like one to Korea, that I had to scrap because I didn’t have the money or time.

But there is a knack to timing travels right to make the most of it without sacrificing academics: work out your deadlines schedule for all assignments, group projects, and exams, know when the breaks are during the school semester, and plan your travels accordingly. As an example, my friends and I booked a four-day trip to Thailand for a four-day weekend that was right after I finished two exams.

So, while Singapore is a fantastic springboard for adventures, it is absolutely crucial to find the right balance between academics and travel to make the most out of this unique opportunity, regardless of where you study.

Photo of a beautiful day at Sentosa Beach, taken by me

Expectation #3: My credit card and Apple Pay are all I need to buy anything.

Reality: This is a lesson to anyone studying abroad: always do your research into the accepted payment methods at any country you stay at. I thought I did all of the necessary research when I got a credit card that didn’t charge foreign transaction fees, but I was wrong! While no foreign transaction fees is definitely a must when abroad, I didn’t realize that Singaporean stores and restaurants don’t always accept credit cards.

Two of the biggest forms of payment in Singapore are PayNow and PayLah, both of which are similar to Venmo. However, in order to use these services, you need a Singaporean bank account. Therefore, my choices were: 1) open up a Singaporean bank account, or 2) use cash. Since I was only staying for one semester, I didn’t think opening up a local bank account was worth the hassle, so I chose to rely on cash whenever I couldn’t use my credit card. Even though I don’t regret my decision, I have come very close to running out of cash.

All in all, it’s important to know how you’ll be expected to pay whenever you enter a new country. This can be applied to not just payment methods, but also in doing your research into the foreign country’s public transportation, laws and regulations (can you believe that you’re not allowed to eat or drink on Singaporean public transport?), cultural customs, etc. to make sure you don’t make a fool of yourself like I did when I realized I couldn’t pay the bill at a Jolibees.

Photo of the famous Singapore Merlion statue, taken by me

Expectation #4: I’ll get used to the hot Singaporean weather.

Reality: Spoiler alert! I did not. In the wise words of one of my local Singaporean friends: “You never get used to the heat. You just accept that you’ll always be sticky.” While the perpetual summer definitely made it easy for me to pack for a semester in Singapore (just bring shorts and t-shirts), I am definitely missing the existence of actual seasons. It may be winter in NYC right now, but it’s still 90℉ here in Singapore!

But there is a lesson to be shared here, and it’s not to always stay where the A.C. is (though it is definitely the only reason I’ve stayed sane this semester), but that adapting to a different climate is more about embracing the unique experiences it offers rather than trying to escape its quirks.

Despite the fact that I may never fully get used to sweating the minute I’m out of my dorm room, I've learned to appreciate the vibrant energy of Singapore, where every day feels like a never-ending summer vacation. As I suffer the sweltering temperatures, I find happiness in the brief bursts of rain, the Sentosa beaches I can visit whenever I want, and the nightly bicycle rides through the Gardens by the Bay.

So while I may not have "gotten used to" the heat, I've certainly learned to coexist with it and to find the silver lining, and I encourage you to do so as well whenever you encounter unfamiliar situations during your time abroad.

Photo of my friends and I biking around Marina Bay Sands, taken by Helena Ji

And my last expectation and reality: I will make (and have made) some of the best memories of my life during my semester abroad, and I will miss it dearly when it’s all over.

Photo of my friends and I at the Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights, taken by a random stranger


Elaina Feng is an NYU Stern junior concentrating in Marketing and Data Science. Her interests include: anime, reading, dancing, and scrolling through TikTok horizontally in bed.

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