In our third “Stories from Abroad” series, Benat Onatibia Camara shares his experience of doing an exchange program at GRIPS in Japan. Here’s what he has to say:
The experience at GRIPS has been great so far. The range of facilities that the school offers is quite amazing: from a nicely equipped gym to your own study desk and laptop computer. Furthermore, the school is located right in the heart of roppongi, home to many of the city’s best restaurants and bars.
Settling in wasn’t as easy as one would expect. The school currently lodges most of its students in 3 different residences. I was not eligible for the newest and most centric residences ( Nakano and Odaiba) and was offered a spot at Misato (in Saitama prefecture; 80 minutes commute to school). Since I didn’t want to live so far I had to find my own place, which comes at a high price in Tokyo. I currently share a flat with 4 people in Yoyogi Park which is quite close to the school. You either sacrifice location (commuting time and amenities in the area) or should be ready to pay money out of your pocket.
GRIPS has a clear economic policy focus and most of the modules on offer are from this discipline. So if you don’t intend to concentrate in economic policy it probably isn’t the best choice for you. In the current global economic environment, characterized by low interest rates and deleveraging banks /households, Japan’s contemporary economic history serves as a great antecedent. The school offers a number of monetary economics modules, taught by great faculty, that are highly relevant to Japan’s lost decade. If you are into this you will greatly enjoy your stay at GRIPS.
Most of the students at GRIPS are government officials mainly coming from Asian and African countries. The average age of the class is above 30, more similar to LKY’s MPA program. Since these groups live far from the city center, occasions of social gatherings are rather scarce. You need to be outgoing and try to meet people so that you can enjoy to the max.
The pros are pretty obvious. The food is absolutely amazing and not as expensive as one would think. There is a small shop in every corner serving the most amazing ramen or yakitori. Furthermore, the exchange takes place in autumn, probably one of the nicest periods to visit japan, where leave watching is a pseudo-religion. Since air asia inaugurated flights in Japan, I will try to discover the Northern island of Hokkaido. A place I always wanted to visit.
In our second series of “Stories from Abroad”, we have Jessica Fleskes who shares her stories of doing a double-degree at University of Geneve. Here’s what she has to say:
Hi LKY juniors!
If you want to work in an international organization (UN, WHO,IMF, etc) and/or end up establishing a professional career in Europe, I strongly recommend the International Organizations MBA at the University of Geneva. This dual degree option is definitely different than the others with LKY, as it’s a one year intensive MBA where you will be completing 24 modules and a 3 month internship within 12 months. As such, it’s intense! The workload is definitely heavier than at LKY but I think it’s more than worth it. It’s only October but we’ve already had professors from UNAIDS, the World Economic Forum, the ILO and universities around Europe. Since most of our professors are practitioners in their field, the schedule is always different and sometimes you’ll have class for 7 hours in one day. Our classes range in everything from Business Engagement in Society to Financial Accounting (it IS an MBA :/) to International Law, Micro-finance, and Business Economics.
In addition to fantastic lectures, we have meetings and professional talks with organizations from around Geneva (UNDP, UNHCR, McKinsey, Swiss mission to the UN, UNCTAD, WHO, etc.!). And my favorite of all: we have a career advisor for the 16 of us full-time students that is incredible. He helps us with our resumes, does mock interviews, sets us up with contacts and alumni and pretty much helps us in every way possible for our career. He’s very accessible and hands-on.
As far as the class make-up, this year it is small, as there are only 16 of us full-time (and about 15 part-time/certificate students). Just like LKY there are students from all over – China, Costa Rica, New Zealand, Australia, South Korea, the US, Lebanon, Greece, Zambia, etc. Last year they actually had around 25 full-time so I think it changes every year. While it took a while to get used to the small group, I do love the individual attention we get and the closeness we’ve already come to have (and there’s a lot less drama than what the LKY/CG bubble can breed!).
What else? Geneva is a wonderful and international city – 42% of inhabitants are non-Swiss. Whenever you go out you will meet people from all over and who have the most interesting jobs. In a given weekend I have gone to a Geneva v. Zurich hockey game, a CERN party and then a 6 hour hike in the mountains outside of Geneva. Though I will say that it is expensive (both the city and the program), it’s worth it. Lets also not forget that Switzerland is in the middle of Europe so there is ample opportunity for travel!
I hope this little spiel helped you all. If you have any more questions, feel free to email me. And please tell the seniors that I miss them (especially Sam:))!
PS you need to have taken the GRE or GMAT to come!
CHIONG HIEN, GRADUATE INSTITUTE, GENEVA
Yes, I am referring to none other than Switzerland, nested right in the heart of Europe and surrounded by the numerous mountain ranges from the Western Alps to the Central Eastern Alps and the Ortler Alps. We have always heard the saying “The World is your Oyster” and it was with this attitude that I decided to apply for exchange more than a year ago.
The Graduate Institute (IHEID) in Geneva was an obvious choice, given its superb geographical location. I could not believe it when I set foot in campus for registration on day one to find it located right outside the United Nations compound, while my equally superb residence (courtesy of the IHEID administration) was located 100 metres from Lake Geneva and next door to the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the World Meteorological Organization. No prizes then for guessing that the obvious perks for studying at the Graduate Institute includes easy access to numerous conferences organized by the various international organizations such as the 5th High-Level Symposium on Global Health Diplomacy which I attended, jointly organized by the World Health Organization (WHO), World Intellectual Property Office (WIPO), WTO and IHEID. Other equally interesting lectures outside the formal classroom include the Geneva Dialogues Series on Climate Change by Professor Robert N. Stavins from the John F. Kennedy School of Government, organised by the IHEID Centre for International Environmental Studies and United Nations Environment Programme. In fact my Professor who taught me Trade Policy is also concurrently working for the WTO. The diverse and cosmopolitan background of faculty and students at the Graduate Institute provided an excellent platform for an enriching, enlightening and stimulating learning experience, with many of the courses offered being broad-based and inter-disciplinary in nature.
Studies and lectures aside what I enjoyed most about Switzerland was its closeness to nature, the mountains and in particular the Swiss Alps. My first nature excursion saw me joining my fellow students from the IHEID hiking club to the St Cergue Cow Festival, as we joined in the celebrations where hundreds of cows are greeted with a parade and a fete every year, as they come down from their Alpine fields to their winter homes. It was a wonderful opportunity to experience the traditional Swiss cultures, with alphorns and folk music, along with the annual parade of numerous herds of cows, with many adorned in flowers.
Our fortnightly hikes also brought us to numerous breath-taking sights on and around the Swiss Alps, such as the 100-meter splendid Dar waterfall, as well as numerous lakes amidst the alpine trees, vast forests in vivid green pasture colors, and an uncountable number of snowcapped mountain tops. Indeed, I was extremely grateful to be given the opportunity to undertake a semester of exchange with the Graduate Institute, as I bring home with me many fond memories of stepping on cow dung, hearing the familiar sounds of cow bells and the wonderful sights of bleating sheep accompanying us on our hikes and of course the satisfaction of savoring a big steaming pot of cheese fondue together with my new found hiking friends.
MAY LEONG, CIDE, MEXICO
In Octavio Paz’ seminal work, ‘The Labyrinth of Solitude’, Paz discusses the modern men’s quest for identity, and how the Mexican’s search leads to powerlessness, a reflection of a convoluted history of being both being conquered and as conquerer. Paz alludes to solitude originating from a psychological complex of defeat, and remains in limbo somewhere between heaven and earth.
Although Mexico doesn’t immediately lend itself as an ideal destination for an exchange semester within the public policy discipline (given that what frequently comes to mind when one mentions Mexico is salsa, sand, tacos and tequilas) I was determined to make sense of Paz’ notion of limbo between ‘heaven and earth’ and to navigate the labyrinth and complexity that is Mexico. What I was to discover was that the popular stereotype that many people hold of Mexico barely touched the surface of an extraordinary country, people and culture.
The initial idea of spending an entire exchange semester taking classes in Spanish at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE), dubbed as one of the leading research and teaching institutes in Mexico and Latin America, was an extremely daunting one. However, I embraced the opportunity as one that would provide me with unparalleled insight into the social make-up and psychology of a society, which is significantly distinct from Singapore. I took the opportunity to undertake classes on Mexican politics, institutions, and policies, where I inadvertently was able to draw comparisons between the historical origins and contemporary issues which continue to plague countries across Latin America and Southeast Asia. I found both my professors and classmates to be extremely passionate and determined to make a change within their respective arenas and capacities. Most importantly, I enjoyed sharing an ‘Asian’ perspective in the classroom, and it struck me how despite sometimes having socio-cultural differences, we all share common aspirations and a universal sense of humanity.
Beyond the classroom, El Gran Tenochtitlan, Mexico City or Distrito Federal (D.F.), provided endless inspiration as a living laboratory. A heaving metropolis with frustrating inequalities but where kindness is readily bestowed, defies logic or explanation. My only previous visual encounter with the city had been through the Mexican cult movie Amores Perros, where the city had been largely portrayed as an asphalt jungle, so I was surprised and slightly overwhelmed to find the architectural cacophony (European, pre-hispanic colonial and skyscrapers), bustling street life and markets, Latin music from every corner, the aroma of freshly made tacos, traffic jams and the multitudes on the metro (approximately 6 million users per day and counting). It is impossible to fully capture the magnitude of my experience in words, but the impression of the labyrinth is one that continues to remind me of what ‘being alive’ means.
JAN DE GRAF, TSINGHUA UNIVERSITY, CHINA
Shamefully I have to admit that I had never heard of Tsinghua University before I came to Singapore. I only became aware of its allure once I was exploring the campus myself last semester. The Tsinghua campus is one of the biggest and perhaps most beautiful in China – it is so huge that it has its own satellites and nuclear reactor. Still, despite its size there were no vacant rooms on campus when I arrived in Beijing and thus I had to find a place off-campus. With close to zero Chinese langauge skills that proved to be a challenge, as even the most basics necessities were not easy for me to obtain. I was thus happy when I found a room near the campus just before classes started.
The Public Policy school at Tsinghua University has a two-year program in International Development that is very similar to our MPP-program. The student body is at least as diverse as ours – my classmates came from all over the world. Africa and Latin-America were especially well represented. The School also hosts a one-year mid-career program for professionals from Africa. Since I came in the first semester of the new academic year it was very easy to integrate and catch up with the new batch. My best friends were from Brazil, Angola, China and Canada. I also joined a Chinese soccer team and I signed up as a volunteer to teach basketball to migrant children in a nearby village.
According to some of the seniors in the School I was lucky with my courses. Some of them sounded disillusioned after a year of core-modules in a School that is younger than ours. Three out of the four classes that I took were very good, though. One module was taught by World Bank employees, where we had a different speaker every week. Often they had just met with Chinese government officials. I also took a module that was taught at SIPA, Columbia University, but students from 14 universities around the world were able to follow and join the live discussion online. Another course I took, taught by an American professor, was so inspiring that I started to consider doing a PhD.
Apart from the air pollution I got used to almost all the novelties within a few weeks. Traffic was scary from time to time and as a vegetarian in China I did struggle a bit in the beginning. The times I had (accidently) eaten meat in my life, before I came to China, can be counted on one hand. In Beijing I gave up the practice and I ate everything that came on my plate – often not knowing what I was eating. Overall, I felt very fortunate to be able to explore a new culture and my time in China was for that reason a perfect supplement to my experience in Singapore. Since the classes were also inspiring I am very grateful that I was given the opportunity to go on exchange.
NURINA MERDIKAWATI, ST GALLEN, SWITZERLAND
Four-month exchange programme in St. Gallen is wonderful “break” from my monotonous life in Singapore. I had never been in Switzerland, so every day was always full of surprises. There were good and bad occurrences, with the former hugely dominating the latter. St. Gallen is a city one-hour away from Zurich, perfectly offers both urban and rural atmosphere. Hiking ups and downs the hills was one of my favorite activities, besides wandering around Old Town and UNESCO World Heritage’s Convent of St. Gall. Living in a small city has its own attractiveness- lower living cost (as compared to Zurich and Geneva), less crowded and nicer people. Nevertheless, there were times when it became a little bit dull. The feeling of boredom had always been a clear sign that I had to start traveling, seeing other magnificent Swiss sceneries or exploiting currency arbitrage at the borders.
In terms of academic life, University of St. Gallen (also called HSG) has wide array of Master programmes. However, it does not have one dedicated programme to public policy. I was a floating student between International Affairs and Governance programme and Banking and Finance. It gave me more flexibility to pick electives that suited my interests. My learning curve on financial regulation issues had been markedly steep as they were intensely discussed in the lecture. The practicality, mixture of assignments and lecture style vary depending on the courses. There are several rigorous courses taught by practitioners which generally demand more active class participation. Others can be a typical one-way lecture with 100% weight for final exam. Examples given are usually withdrawn from European experiences which add novelty to my Asian perspectives. Most classes effectively last for 1.5 hour to less than 3 hours with generous 15 minutes break. With more free time, I could have more school-life balance; enrolled in a sport training (fully funded by school), joined a conference and regularly attended social gathering. The school has two-week break in which it offers numerous condensed electives. Some students prefer taking these crash-courses to lighten their burden at the end of semester. I rather used the chance to explore Europe (culturally and socially), travel-hopping from one city to the others for 19 days. Consequently, my final week was busy with exams as there was no reading week and all four exams were scheduled on the same week.
St. Gallen is a German-speaking part of Switzerland but people, overall, speak good English. It somehow demotivated me from seriously learning German. The Swiss and other full-time students are friendly, but undeniably, exchange students were my core network of friends. There are hundreds of exchange students in HSG and with “Buddy System” organizing whole range of activities catered for us, it was relatively easy to instantly make friends and this sped up the adjustment process. Hanging out in St. Gallen (or in any part of Switzerland) can be very costly as there is not much discounts or privileged for students. The wary about exorbitant price was ephemeral. After a while, I got used to that and learned the tricks to avoid unnecessary spending. The whole experiences are awesome and I’m grateful that LKYSPP gave me the opportunity to indulge myself in one of the most memorable journeys in my life. J