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A Response to 'a First Class Degree From Oxbridge - So What?'

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Scouring through Facebook a few days ago to get my truckload of updates about the lives of my friends living and studying in different places across the world, what caught my eye online was that many of my friends - mostly college students studying in different places such as the United States, United Kingdom, and Singapore - were furiously sharing this article on HuffPost written by Julian Tan, who recently graduated from Oxford. His article can be found here.

Prompted by curiosity and with the article's striking title discrediting his own excellent academic performance shown from getting a First Class Degree, I figured I had to give it a read. The article had a strong, meaningful message: that learning is definitely not confined to the classroom; that learning takes all shapes and forms; that an overemphasis on academic performance is myopic, self-limiting, and doesn't do much to prepare you for real life. The article questioned the purpose of obtaining a First Class Degree, at the expense of spending quality time by meeting people from various backgrounds, traveling to broaden one's horizons, and having more fun. I could see why it sent such a strong message to a lot of students currently pursuing their studies, to the point that it was worth giving it a Share on Facebook.

I initially felt pretty strongly for the article's message, because I strongly agreed that learning in the classroom is only one of the many avenues of learning, and that in order to get the most out of one's university experience, one should approach it in its entirety and to allow oneself to develop on all fronts. That was the initial reason why I chose to study in the United States in the first place (see relevant post here). However, as I progressed through the HuffPost article I felt that something was missing, and that something was not quite right. I finished the article and sat down to consolidate my thoughts, and I arrived at a couple of answers.

While I approve of the general message the article is trying to put forth, it is very easy for a student who has accomplished a high level of academic proficiency - in this case, an Oxford First Class Degree - to advocate de-emphasising academic work and enjoying the 'true university experience'. Having reached and achieved a socially-valued indicator of success, it gives one the appropriate credibility to say that studies aren't everything, and that one who spends the whole of his or her college life studying away will graduate in regret from the wasted opportunities. Obtaining a First Class Degree gives a student the reassurance and peace of mind that is, at times, necessary to realize that limiting yourself to the taught curriculum is narrow and doesn't allow you to grow maximally.

Call this our overly practical, harsh-reality-conforming, Asian selves. Having grown up in Singapore, I am inevitably a product of its meritocratic system. I don't deny that this is a part of me, and that this is self-limiting. As I grew up I was socialized to be academically proficient - not because being intellectual and being smart was desirable in itself, but because it would give me a 'good future' - in the form of a good career, high pay, good place in society, etc. This was the message that was stuffed down my throat by my society, and my environment.

To all ambitious students socialised in such an environment, of course we know that studies aren't everything. Of course we know that confining ourselves to senseless struggling for a 4.0 GPA, a Summa cum Laude, a First Class is being short-sighted and being blinded to what truly matters in life. But I'm going to be honest here, herein lies my own personal hypocrisy: At the end of the day, I would be devastated if I spent meaningful time outside of class learning in all other fields but ended up with a substandard level of academic performance. I would have absolutely no credibility in endorsing non-academic learning because I didn't achieve the prerequisite socially-valued benchmark of success before moving on to 'what truly matters'. No one would bother to read my hypothetical HuffPost article titled "A Second Upper Degree from Oxbridge - Proud of It!"

I'm not advocating that we retreat to our library basements to bury deep into our books because we should submit to our myopic world-views. Very simply, we have to realise that the article carries massive weight because the author has achieved a societal benchmark of success that gives him the capacity to discredit our overemphasis on work within the classroom.

If anything, we need to rise above our preoccupation with struggling between studies and our non-academic activities. The distinction between work and play is mostly arbitrary, and constrains us to thinking that we need to always maintain a constant balance between the two. University life isn't just about balancing lifestyles. Going to college gave me the luxury of a couple of years of untouched time to find out what my place is in this world, to find out more about myself, and to find out more about the huge world out there beyond the comfortable confines of my home country which is only as big as Brooklyn, New York.

Through these years, I have met people with ideals entirely different from mine - and I have learnt immensely from their perspectives. I have made friends with a true-blue American residing in the Virginian countryside who wears his pastel bow ties, salmon shorts, his football tailgates, and is proud of his Southern heritage.

I have heard the controversial yet exhilarating life story of a Belizean man living in homicide-ridden Belize City when I traveled there on a summer study-abroad program. I am living in the Russian House of my university where I partake in Russian culture on a frequent basis and pursue a daily study of the Russian language, because it was a culture initially foreign to me.

I have deep and heated conversations with fellow Singaporean students about the future of our nation and come up with ideas and initiatives to try to make life better back at home. At the same time, I gain formative enlightenment from the political ideas that I learn from my texts in my politics and philosophy courses. I do well in my courses because I believe in their value, not primarily because I want to get hired. There is immense value I gain from all aspects of my college experience - academics included.

The good grades we students get, is a byproduct of our wholesome approach to learning. We get good grades as a side-effect of openly embracing this phase of our life. Well yes, the First Class Degree is a mere number on a fancy and expensive sheet of paper, but it signals that we have attained accomplishment in one aspect of college life. There's nothing wrong with that. Whether you past your realistic career-oriented goals to embrace a deeper meaning behind your years on campus is a question only you can personally and individually answer yourself. Demarcating studies and social life into arbitrary silos and seeing them as mutually exclusive doesn't do much to help you achieve greater meaning in your education.

To say that we should 'work less and play more' in the context of having earned a First Class is a feeling conditioned by hindsight. It is oversimplifying how we should approach college. The true indicator of college years well spent is how much we have grown personally.

How have you changed? How have you grown since you enrolled?