When Singapore Institute of Management (SIM) Global Education student Vallie Ang first arrived in Singapore, she quickly realised how different it was from her hometown in Kedah. Skyscrapers, instead of paddy fields, dot the landscape, and the pace of life is much quicker than the Northern Malaysian state she calls home.
It took a while for the 21-year-old Diploma in Management Studies student to settle in, but Vallie was not alone in facing these challenges.
New international students, some arriving in Singapore for their first time, need to quickly adapt to the multicultural, fast-paced city life here. Everyday activities, such as ordering food at coffee shops, buying groceries and navigating Singapore’s mass rapid transit (MRT) can seem daunting, and have to be figured out while fitting into a new school system.
Learning about Singapore
A student-led organisation of peer mentors was determined to make the transition easier for international students by helping them acclimatise through an initiative called Breaking Boundaries.
The one-day programme conveys practical information about Singapore in a hands-on, experiential manner, such as through an Amazing Race held within the SIM campus.
Participating in such a race, Vallie found the station which introduced Singapore’s MRT system most useful. Using a large MRT system map for reference, she learnt to search for directions and identify MRT stations closest to cultural landmarks such as Chinese Garden together with her teammates.
“Before I came here, I was not familiar with the MRT, so this gave me an idea of how to take the train in Singapore,” said Vallie.
Vallie also learned about the various ways traditional coffee could be ordered, deciphering names such as kopi-c or kopi gah dai. At a station called Kopitiam, she studied a pictorial display of 12 different types of local coffee, answered questions about them, and even sampled some Singaporean kopi.
Besides practical information, international students gain an understanding of Singapore’s culture such as food, music and festivals. Working in teams of 10-15, they research an aspect of culture before presenting their newfound knowledge to their peers, usually in the form of a skit.
Ms Rosalind Lim, a Senior Student Care Manager at SIM Global Education, said, “Our purpose is to welcome the new international students and facilitate their transition to life in Singapore.”
Ms Lim, who has overseen the Breaking Boundaries programme since its inception in 2012, noted that the programme was constantly evolving based on feedback from students. For instance, Amazing Race stations used to be more focused on cultural knowledge, but now the race stations provide practical settling-in information, after past batches of international students fedback that such information was most useful for them.
“Breaking Boundaries@SIM aims to help the new international students not just to be tolerant towards cultural and social differences, but also embrace them, stemming from an increased awareness and understanding of uniquely Singaporean ways. This, we hope, will ultimately facilitate better communication across cultures,” said Ms Lim.
Sustaining peer support
Breaking Boundaries does not stop with the one-day programme. During the international students’ first couple of months in SIM, peer mentors keep in touch with them, offering a listening ear or friendly advice as they find their footing.
It helps that peer mentors are a mix of local and international students, allowing them to offer advice and assistance in many different ways. For instance, international peer mentors are familiar with concerns such as student pass applications and rental options, having gone through similar situations themselves. On the other hand, local mentors know the secrets to the good (and affordable) eating spots around the SIM campus, and can introduce local favourites such as bak chor mee and char kway teow.
“Having both local and international peer mentors on the team ensures that the needs of new international students are met,” said Goh Wan Xuan, who headed Breaking Boundaries for the first time in June 2016. The Psychology undergraduate signed up as a peer mentor because she liked the idea of fellow students in the SIM community supporting each other.
In social settings like these, it is easy for friendships to form.
“I like meeting people outside my course and making friends with them,” said Vallie. Buoyed by her experience, she later joined SIM iCare, an interest club that does community work such as volunteering at soup kitchens and with the elderly.
For Wan Xuan, organising and running Breaking Boundaries made her more sensitive to the cultural differences in other countries. “For example, when we have mentees from India, we may not realise that their culture is different from Indian culture in Singapore,” she said.
Even though cultures may differ between countries, some aspects of student life are universal, like how to do well in studies and how to handle stress - questions Vallie posed to her peer mentors.
Her seniors’ advice? Be consistent with your work, check in with your lecturers regularly to make sure your assignments are on the right track, and ask questions to clarify the things you are not sure of.
Sounds like good advice, no matter where in the world students come from.