May 27, 2012

The Singapore Five

A lovely parasol

Our school prides itself on its strong academics - I learned today that it’s regularly ranked among the top 10 high schools in Sichuan Province. And some of the best and brightest take part every year in something called The Singapore Project.

In the last five to ten years, Singapore has been making a huge push to beef up their science and engineering sectors. This involves sending their top students to the best schools abroad and recruiting top science students from all over Asia to come study in Singapore. At the beginning of this year (or possibly late last year), more than 100 students were invited to try for a brass ring in the form of a full-ride scholarship to one of two three top engineering schools in Singapore.

The kids — who are now in their second to last year of high school — faced a series of tests and interviews that whittled the group down to seven very talented students. They were all incredibly gifted in both the sciences and in English. Classes are taught in English at the universities — which is why Peter and I have been working with these kids since November.

The final interview was last weekend, and Peter and I spent many hours coaching the kids in the week prior. I have to say, every single one of these kids was the ideal college applicant. Beyond grades, each one was able to communicate a genuine love of learning, and they all had impressive extra-curriculars that you could tell were more than resume fodder. They are all dream students and all-around nice kids.

In the end, five students got in. (One of them, a member of the handicrafts club, made the parasol pictured above, which she gave to us as a thank-you present.) They’ll be heading to Singapore in July for some studies. Then, I think, they come back here to finish their final year of high school, and enroll the following year. CORRECTION: They ship out in July to do their last year of high school in Singapore with an intensive focus on English, and then apply to one of three engineering universities there.

It’s an amazing achievement, and I’m extremely proud that we were able to help them even a little bit.

It’s a bit of a bummer that two of the boys didn’t make it — their head teacher was really shocked that they didn’t get in (and kind of shocked about two of the boys that did). But they’re both so talented that they’ll have a bright future whatever happens. I’m sure that next year, when they start applying to domestic universities, they’ll get into the school of their choice, no fuss.

It was an interesting look at the college application process here in China. The criteria for acceptance seems to be similar to what American colleges look for: Good academics, with supporting activities that make you stand out as a positive community member. And we’ve all heard a lot about the competitiveness of academics in China - students studying their brains out, sometimes with the help of illegal stimulants, at education factories that are only interested in producing knowledge-bots - but we don’t see any of that here. These kids work hard, sure, but they all also seem happy and healthy, and have cultivated interests outside of school. (One of the boys said that his favorite thing to do outside of school is play Plants vs. Zombies, so there’s plenty of time for video gaming.) They’re well-rounded, intelligent human beings that will go far in whatever they choose to do in life.

Our last session with them was the Wednesday before their Sunday interviews, and at the end their teacher wrapped it up with a very American pep talk: “You are all well-prepared, and every one of you deserves this scholarship. Get plenty of rest between now and the interview, and make sure to relax.” Hardly whip-cracking at all. But it got the job done.