Go with a smile!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Two college admission periods

There’s this essay making the rounds. It’s interesting for me to be reading this when I’m probably going to be graduating from an institution of higher learning for most probably the last time.

More than 15 years ago, after I finished JC, I applied to 6 schools. Three were regarded as “safety schools” although in hindsight they were pretty competitive. Maybe I would have been happy to get into them today. One was NUS, and the other two were good engineering schools from the Midwest. I had many things going for me at that time: I scored straight As in the “A”s. (Like I said before, I’m not a A student. I am an B student with an extra gear in the gearbox. I was involved in different ECAs – artistic ECAs, uniformed group ECAs and nerdy academic ECAs. There were glaring omissions. First, I did not take a lot of leadership roles. In fact, the only real leadership role I took, I would have to say I failed badly.

That left three schools that I really wanted to get into. One was Palm Tree, a second was Bottom of the Hill, and the third was Snowy Hill. All of them were big big places, with may reputable departments, where I felt would suit a restless and wandering mind like me. They weren’t small liberal arts colleges, although sometimes I wonder how those colleges would have served me. Problem is, small liberal arts colleges are not well known in Singapore. You couldn’t brandish an Amherst, or a Swarthmore or a maybe an Oberlin and expect people to care. But it might have been even better for me.

In the US, there are maybe 5 really big names and I didn’t apply to any of those 5. But anything else was fair game for me. In hindsight, it did boil down to what I wrote in the essay. I remember procrastinating on it for weeks, even months. I never had to write an application essay before, and it made me very nervous. A teenager had to explain to you what was the meaning of life. That essay determined whether you got into a great school or not.

The first two essays that I wrote were not great. I don’t know if I kept those essays, I’d have liked to see what I wrote back then. I think one of them (Palm Tree) asked me to talk about a conversation I had that was meaningful to me. I couldn’t answer that well. Another one just asked for an essay. I didn’t think that what I wrote was any good.

I had just finished JC. Those were two rough years. I hadn’t adjusted well to social life in JC, I thought that those people there were shallow and materialistic. (They were, but I also had a lot to learn from them.) I thought that life was more rotten than it really was. It wasn’t as great as secondary school, but everything is a downer if you want to compare it to the two most fun years of your life. It was becoming apparent that I didn’t have great life skills (in some respects). I tried out quite a few things and they didn’t seem to work. It was the eve of me joining the army and going into what my parents promised me would be the two most hellish years of my life. Things were pretty confusing at that point in time. And you are asking me what the meaning of life is?

Of the three essays, the one that was actually any good was the one I sent to Snowy Hill. I heard from a friend that they liked boy’s scouts, so I played up my experience in the boy’s scouts. But one of the main points of that essay was my father’s story. I didn’t have a Horatio Alger story. But my father was a self made man. So, unusually, I put in 1 or 2 paragraphs that he grew up in a slum and I’m – and you can see that I was vague about this – a continuation of that story. So I don’t know if I gamed the process, but yes, I presented my best side to the admissions committee. And in a way, since everybody presents their best side to the admissions committee, it’s pretty fair.

After that, long story short, I was out of Palm Tree, I was out of Bottom of the Hill. (Yeh, I know Crazy Frog studied at those two places). But I got into Snowy Hill. It was a bit iffy, but I suppose you only really needed to get into one good school. You go there.

Something else happened after that. I couldn’t go to Snowy Hill immediately, because I had to go into the army. In the meantime, it was my sister’s turn to apply to university. And at that time, she was the golden girl. She applied to a few universities that I didn’t dare apply to, and she got into every one of them. I remember being a little irritated when she was asking me, damn, which one should I get into. Bitch, I didn’t get into a single one of these shining places.

But something interesting came up. She told me, I’m going to study at Prestigious University. You could apply to Prestigious University, and you could tell them that your sister is studying in Prestigious University. I decided against it for various reasons. First, I wouldn’t have gotten in on my own. Second, I didn’t want to be riding on my sister’s coattails. Third, it wasn’t a university that I would have chosen on my own accord. There were a few things that Snowy Hill were pretty good at that my sister’s more famous university didn’t have. For example, a good engineering school. And last and most important reason – I had accepted a place in Snowy Hill and told them that I would start school there in 2 years. I was also told that universities routinely exchange data with each other. If I had been caught applying to another university, I might have lost my place in Snowy Hill. That would have been a complete disaster for me. Although I could have also applied to other places as a cover.

What would it have been like if I had studied at Prestigious University? Life would most definitely have been more hectic. Unlike Snowy Hill, which was in a rural area, Prestigious University was in a city and life would have been different. I would have expected my sis to take care of me for a while. But knowing what I now know, I would also have done my fair share of taking care of my sister. So in a way my sister asking me to apply to Prestigious University was opening up to the possibility of me taking care of her. My cousin was a postdoc there for a year. I would have met more people that I knew from JC. As it is, there were only one or two people in Snowy Hill that I knew from my pre- snowy Hill life. It was almost as though going to Snowy Hill sliced my life neatly into two halves that were (and still are) relatively independent of each other.

Still, it wasn’t as drastic a break as my sister who – since she left for the US more than 15 years ago, she’s never been in Singapore for more than 6 months at one stretch. And knowing what I know now, yes, if I had gone to Prestigious University, she would have taken care of me in many ways, but I would also have taken care of her in other ways that I could not have expected. Just like right now that I’m back in the States.

What was it like in Snowy Hill? Did I deserve to be there? On balance I would have to say yes, although it’s not an obvious yes. At that time that I wrote my essays, I didn’t really understand the meaning of life. Then I went into army. And I learnt for the first time about life outside my bubble. And I still didn’t really understand the meaning of life. It was only during that fabled second year of college that things generally clicked.

Around the time that I went in there, I was still fairly immature. Not as immature as I would have been if I went there before army, thank god. So army wasn’t a waste of time. It prepared me to make use of this great educational opportunity, although in many ways it didn’t prepare me enough. And during my first few years, I was thinking, well I’m not at Prestigious University. The lower division courses were so easy. Well after that I took the higher division courses and in a very short span of time I no longer complained that the coursework was too easy. Problem solved.

When I went in there, I had a certain few objectives in mind.

1. I will learn about mathematics and science and a few things about engineering and IT
2. I will learn about the arts. I will also learn the meaning of life.
3. I will learn about America
4. I will get a girlfriend and understand what it’s like.
5. I will get into graduate school.

To varying degrees, I accomplished these goals. But there were a lot of other goals that I did not accomplish, and I didn’t set them as goals.

1. Make a lot of connections with people. At least become a member of the cosmopolitan elite.
2. Learn how to drink and take drugs.
3. Learn how to climb the corporate ladder.
4. Know what you really want to do with your life.
5. Form a rock and roll band that would change the world.

And when I did learn about these objectives, it was perhaps a little too late to go about them. You can only accomplish what you set out to do. Or maybe you accomplish something that leads to something unexpected. But if you didn’t set out to do a certain something, it’s unlikely you’d get very far with it.

There is one interesting thing about Snowy Hill that I didn’t really talk about much. I didn’t graduate from Snowy Hill with fantastic results. Like I said, I’m not an A student. I’m a B student with an extra gear. I probably would not have done well in Labyrinth university. In Singapore universities, there is more rote learning involved. I would have had people hammer me academically. I would not have scored top results. I would not have had the freedom to take courses all over the place as though I were in a liberal arts school. What US universities valued more was creativity and problem solving. And they rewarded you for that. They gave you the toughest problems that tested your creativity to the max, and if you got through that, they would be relatively generous with your grades. The truth was that I was afraid of going to Labyrinth university because I knew that they would have chewed me up and spat me out. I wanted to go to university in America because it was a place that suited me better. That was also one big factor behind me – 15 years later, when considering grad school – to give up my place in Labyrinth University and head for Mexico.

That tells you something about people from US universities. They aren't really as rigorously trained in a narrow field of knowledge as people in Singaporean unis. The exams can be a little more lax. But they aim for a deeper understanding of the subject and also a more creative problem solving mindset than in Singaporean unis. Subsequently, the strengths of the graduates from these places are different. The Singapore graduates will more detail oriented. They will be more perfect in a narrow sense. They will be more hardworking and usually they will give you more throughput. They are more dependable and able to grind things out. But when you want something more special, something sparky and creative, a seemingly simple solution to a deep problem, look for the American university graduate.

Unlike a lot of people who found themselves in Snowy Hill, I hadn’t made it the center of my life. It was something that a lot of Americans aspired to. I’ll tell you a dirty secret – 6 months before I had applied to Snowy Hill, I hadn’t heard of Snowy Hill. Similarly, when I was applying to grad school, I hadn’t seriously considered Mexico until I had compiled my list of universities I wanted to apply to. But no matter, I am glad that I studied in Snowy Hill and Mexico. They were the types of schools I wanted to attend, and I don’t have much regrets about them. Although right now I’m wondering what I’d have been like if I had studied in a liberal arts college, or if I had gone to Prestigious University.

Maybe I almost accidently stumbled upon going to Snowy Hill, I didn’t value it as much as I should have. I would have been a better person for it. I did the right things – I was adventurous in my choice of ECAs. I learnt a lot of things, even though there were people who were smarter, sharper and more curious than I was. I did well for my exams – at least the one which really mattered.

But when you go to a top class university like Snowy Hill, it usually means that you’re there to build connections. Or at least know the right professors who will give you that last push to get to certain places in life. I didn’t concentrate too much on that angle, even as I was aware of it. I had been living in a bubble for most of my life up till then. Maybe in some ways I’m still living in a bubble. It was an elitist bubble, although paradoxically it does make the world look more egalitarian than it really is – you see all the people around you, and they seem to be in the same social class as you, and you don’t realize until you step out of that bubble that people outside that bubble look at you as though you’re something special.

The only souvenir that I bought from Snowy Hill was a sweater with “Snowy Hill” on it. As you know, we don’t wear sweaters in Singapore. So I only really started wearing that sweater often when I came here to Mexico. I was commenting that I had two sweaters – one with “Snowy Hill” on it, and the other had “Facebook” on it. And both of them provoke commentary, because they suggest that you attended Snowy Hill (true) or worked with Facebook (false), and therefore you are a member of a special club. Well that’s the funny thing. In my first year in Snowy Hill, I was wondering what it would have been to attend Prestigious University. After that, I got used to the amount of work that they were accustomed to throwing down on the students there, so you never thought that you were in a second rate place. And after I left Snowy Hill – you see, for various reasons, even though it shaped me in so many ways, and even though that’s where I had my first girlfriend and my first wank, where I learnt to be an adult and cook for myself, and pay my own rents, and maintain my own eBay store, I never truly felt at home there. And it was very weird that people would just stick that label on me for both good reasons and bad. (I’m looking at you, Sniper!) The funny thing is that now that I’m out of Snowy Hill, people will do a double take and blink hard at you when you tell them that you attended Snowy Hill. It is not a name as big as Prestigious University, but it is something. People treat you more like an American when you’re wearing that sweater, rather than wondering if you’re some fresh off the boat Chinaman.

College does not really concern me anymore. If things go well (and there’s a good chance that they won’t, but that’s another blog entry!) then I will graduate, and I will live in the real world again, and this will be a very different real world, so there’s a fair amount of apprehension involved. I will no longer be taking exams or taking courses for credit. I will very likely continue to do research, write papers, attend online lectures, maybe teach. Most definitely learn. Formal education has ended, but informal education continues.

I had spent 2 years trying to get into grad school. Not 100% sustained effort, but it did take something out of me, because I was working at the same time. The story this time is not that interesting. I already knew how to write essays. Since I had to switch disciplines, I had to take a standardized test in order to convince people that I knew something about computer science. Most of that effort was about studying for that standardized test. The other more substantial part of that effort was finding my three letters. In school, it was easy. I had plenty of teachers who were all willing to testify on my behalf, and, most likely, bend the truth a little in order to give me that push to get in.

What was really difficult was finding those three letters. The first two were easy. One was from a colleague with whom I had worked on a big IT project, and who could truthfully testify about my abilities as an IT engineer. Let’s call him Mr Engineer. Mr Engineer had left my company 2 years earlier than I did. At that time, I requested for him to keep it a secret from my soon-to-be former colleagues. Although one of my bosses was also a holder of a masters in computer science. I sometimes discussed computer science with him, but I didn’t let out that I was actually going to do that degree until later.

A second one was – when I was in Snowy Hill, I worked as a tutor for freshmen who needed help for Physics. And he mentioned a few times before that if we did a good job, he would be somebody that you could turn to for letters. So I was fortunate that I already had two letters ready.

The third letter would prove to be one of the toughest. When people look at my Snowy Hill transcript, they would see a lot of classes from a lot of departments. But most of the classes could be justified on grounds of “it satisfies certain requirements towards certain qualifications that I’m trying to earn.” However, in my last semester, I took three courses which had nothing to do with that. Two of these courses (neural networks and computer architecture) I took because I had already decided what I was going to do for a master’s degree, and those two courses would form the bridge to a path that I would take nine years later. In fact, in a very nice symmetry, during my first academic term in Mexico, I took three courses that were more advanced versions of courses that I took as an undergraduate - neural networks, computer architecture and algorithms. The latter two were compulsory and I would much rather not take them again, but they ended up being useful in their own way.

I did well for the neural networks course, even though I skipped a lot of the lectures. I visited the professor in his office, and it was a horrendous place: it looked like a dungeon, there were papers everywhere, and it was – bar none, one of the messiest offices I had ever seen. We talked for a while, and I asked him about his stuff. He gave some answers that were pretty incomprehensible – well I’m just an undergrad getting into his work, and he doesn’t have anything meaningful to say unless it’s too cheem for me to understand, so you get the picture. Eventually I asked him whether or not he could write me a letter for grad school applications. He said yes, certainly.

It was this professor that I asked letters from. And it was pretty tenuous: it was based on a course I took from him, I did little extra work with him, I only had one meaningful conversation with him. In fact, he was teaching neural networks, and I kinda turned my nose up at neural networks in those days. Turns out I was wrong. Turns out that almost everything I learnt in machine learning is somehow obliquely related to neural networks. I was not a believer in neural networks and I would soon be proven wrong in a big way.

He wrote me a letter that was good enough to get into a grad school. In fact, that was difficult. I emailed him in August and asked for a letter. He said yes. By November the letter hadn’t come yet. I started getting frantic. I called him long distance once or twice. I never got to speak to him, but I left a message at the receptionist’s. And finally, he wrote that letter, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I had even asked one or two others to write me a letter, but I got no responses from either of them. That’s the thing – it was a large stroke of luck that I had somebody who could vouch for me after not being in contact with them for nine years.

It didn’t get me into Palm Tree or Bottom of the Hill. But I knew that those places were untouchable, and getting in would be like winning the lottery. I applied to those places, still, because you really have to buy a lottery ticket. It got me into Mexico. Mexico is not even as well known as Snowy Hill. But to enter that particular department in Mexico, it was more selective than me trying to enter Snowy Hill. There were plenty of people all over the world trying to attend Mexico. I would be competing with all the Chinese and Indians and Americans. In fact I tried to get into Labyrinth university – I thought my chances were 50-50, but I still got in. Then after that I figured that I probably would have gotten into Labyrinth anyway. That was easy. Getting in Mexico was the one that was 50-50, and I got in. Palm Tree and Bottom of the Hill were the long shots and I didn’t get those.

Around the time that I got accepted for Labyrinth – that was the end of the year. It was the only university which accepted students to start school in the middle of the academic year. Around that time, there were two people who could work on this super-large project that I had worked on with Mr Engineer. I had managed to successfully push it to the other guy, but he suddenly left the company. I had made him promise to tell me earlier than the bosses. He kept his promise, but he told me 2 hours before he threw letter. Of course I couldn’t blame him for that.

And so the last six months of my working with the company were in some kind of a frenzy. My workload was jacked up because of the other guy who left. I suddenly had three things on my plate: part time studies with Labyrinth university, taking over stuff from that other guy, and handing stuff over to new colleagues who were going to take my stuff over. Over and on top of my personal responsibilities. It goes without saying that time mostly flew in a blur. And after that the offer from Mexico came in, together with Palm Tree and Bottom of the Hill rejecting me for the second time, more than 15 years after the first. Then suddenly I had to really make a decision that was until then – hypothetical. Would I say goodbye to Singapore for the second time? It was surprisingly difficult to make. It could have gone either way. Going to Mexico was extremely expensive. Tuition was higher, and most importantly I would give up my job. But working and studying at the same time would have been pretty insane for me. Eventually, I opted for the Mexico adventure. As an aside, I'm reading that "Big Decision Time" entry that I had posted earlier. It's kinda funny but I actually had to think for a while who persons A-I were!

The first few years of my work life with the company weren’t easy. But eventually I settled down. It was pretty OK. It was like secondary school – the first half of secondary school was pretty traumatic, and the second half was pretty wonderful.

And then I spent around 2 years trying to get this masters and change the course of my life. And if I succeed – in spite of what some people have heard, I’ve not succeeded yet. Where I am right now, I’m 10km away from the end of a marathon, and for those people who have run marathons before, you know that this is where things really get difficult. Anybody knows – because these 10 km are run after your legs have given way, they can feel longer than the first 32 km. And since I’ve actually done that before, anything can happen. It was noontime in Singapore. I was dangerously low on fluids. My legs were cramped up. The milestones seemed so far from each other. I told myself, that everything depended on my success. If I succeeded, I would have a finisher’s medal, I would have that t-shirt, and I could get on with life without any regrets. If I failed, I would have to come back and run another marathon in 6 months or 1 year. I was walking – limping, actually. I didn’t have to run. But I could not afford to stop or sit down. I couldn’t even afford to think about finishing the marathon. I only allowed myself that after I passed 40. And only at that home stretch, having passed 42 and having less than 200 m to go to the entrance of City Hall, did it hit me that I was at the end.

For some reason I suddenly thought about shingot and his attempt to leave the company we worked for. Funny thing is, I, for some reason, see myself working there again, at least for a short period of time. I would have unfinished business there. I thought about peoples’ departure from that company. Some people started work in some incredible multinational corporation and liked it there so much. Other people worked in less well known places but still it had better working conditions than the company we left. Some left for academia and are working towards PhDs. I salute those hardworking people. Crazy Frog, who started a PhD 1 (or was it 2?) year before I left. He paid me a visit 6 months ago, because he also knew another guy from the same department as me. Mr Nice Guy, we were wondering why on earth he was doing a strange PhD. I haven’t caught up with him lately. And there was Nat, who was on one of the craziest adventures that you can think of, and coming to the end of it. I’m sorry, I haven’t had the time to read his regular updates.

But I would have to say that I’m also on a pretty crazy adventure. Most people who quit the company do so in the knowledge that they have another job to go to. I didn’t. Crazy Frog didn’t – and he has mouths to feed! Nat – good luck hunting for another job. I would need to cross three big obstacles to get to the other side. First one, as you can see, was getting into a master’s degree program. I did that. Second one was finding a job. I also did that. The third one is completing the master's program. The third one sounds the easiest, but it's actually one of the hardest. So many people complete this program that you don't really think about it, but actually it's the part that takes the most out of you.

Yes, yes I know, I should probably be working on graduating, but I just had to burn off the urge to write one more blog entry. So there.


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