Why should we go abroad?: On connecting the dots of our lives

There were a few great lines about “finding yourself”, to use the cliche, in a Wall Street Journal article the other day. The article, titled “The College of Chinese Wisdom”, was wide-ranging and disparate, and I felt that the interpretations of Chinese philosophy for an American newspaper left something to be desired. But nevertheless an anecdote unrelated to Chinese philosophy in the middle of the piece left me thinking, and is worth quoting in full:

“Imagine a student who has decided he wants to become a diplomat. He’s always been great at mediating conflicts among his peers. He was involved in Model U.N. in high school, the international section is his favorite part of the newspaper, and he’s become pretty fluent in Spanish. He knows that majoring in international relations and taking his junior year abroad in Spain will give him the experiences that will propel him toward that career in diplomacy.

So he goes off to Spain, but after a month falls ill with a severe respiratory virus that lands him in the hospital. It is his first experience of hospitalization, and it plants a seed: He becomes curious about how and why doctors and hospitals do what they do.

Things can now go one of two ways. He can remain wedded to his long-term plan and let that interest in health care die out. The hospital experience will make for a few good stories for his friends, but it won’t interfere with his plan to take the diplomatic world by storm. Or he can keep diving into his new obsession, reading everything he can, maybe making friends with some of the young residents on his medical team, and eventually return to the U.S. and devote himself to a health-care field instead.

None of this has anything to do with the fact that he was in Spain; it’s just that one series of experiences led to another and opened up things to him that weren’t part of the plan. There’s nothing wrong with spending a year in Madrid or majoring in international relations. But there is something wrong with going abroad as part of a plan that fits in with a vision of who you already are and where you’re going.

Concrete, defined plans for life are abstract because they are made for a self who is abstract: a future self that you imagine based on a snapshot of yourself now. You are confined to what is in the best interests of the person you happen to be right now—not of the person you will become.” [Emphasis mine]

The difficulty comes in how the structures of our decisions are imposed on us from above. In his application to study abroad in Spain, the student will have had to outline how the experience will fit with his pre-defined goals. For instance, in my application to study abroad (I’m currently spending a semester abroad at Yale in the U.S.), I had to answer the following:

“Please explain why you are interested in studying abroad at this institution. Include in your answer a tentative list of courses that you would be interested in applying, and how might these courses help you achieve your academic and/or professional goals?” [Dodgy grammar was theirs, not mine]. 

We may well want study abroad to be a transformative experience, exposing us to new interests and ways we could live our lives, but taking this approach will make being accepted to the program far less likely. Institutions demand that we have our dots connected, so to speak—that where we are going aligns very neatly with where we have been and what we are doing at present.

A resume, for instance, which I was required to attach to my study abroad application, needs to show why the application makes sense for you. The truth could have been that I chose my study abroad precisely to do something entirely different, and yet my resume would then have had no narrative, and my responses to interview questions would have lacked the force of someone who had all their dots connected.

So I entirely agree that there is something wrong with going abroad as part of a plan that fits in with a vision of who you already are and where you’re going. And yet for students to take this advice to heart, to go abroad—or choose jobs—with ideas about what they could become and where they might go will require acceptance of this approach by overarching institutions. It is not students’ mindsets that are the problem, but rather the structures of decision making and narrative building that are imposed on students by long-standing institutions. The structure of a resume dictates the possibilities that are open to us.

Perhaps the risk should simply be taken, the questions answered honestly: I want to go abroad to do something I have never done before, something that might not make sense for my academic and professional goals but which I think I should try nonetheless. It’s prisoner’s dilemma, of course. The students who take the chance risk losing out over the students who answered the questions by connecting the dots of their lives. But ultimately losing out in an application that aligns your life along one straight path might be precisely the opportunity you needed to do something transformative that you had no seemingly good reason to do.


Thanks to Maria for sending me the link to the WSJ article.

Reflection on a Grain of Sand

This was originally a reflection I wrote for a class called “The Search for a Habitable Planet” with Professor Bryan Penprase at Yale-NUS College.

From ages three until six I lived in Rarotonga, the largest island of a disparate group in the middle of the Pacific that make up the Cook Islands. This meant that I grew up during those three formative years with the night sky more clear and visible than I’ve ever seen since. Asking questions about space, and the earth’s place in it, probably came naturally with all those stars and satellites spread above me every single night.

Around age 4 my parents bought me a videotape of Sam Neill’s TV program Space. In my favourite episode Sam Neill stands on a beach and picks up a hand-full of sand. Letting the grains run slowly through his fingertips, he explains the vastness of space by saying that for every grain of sand on every beach in the world there are more than a billion stars, each with their own planets and moons. And so on that small Pacific island surrounded by one endless beach I let the grains of fine white sand run through my own fingertips and thought about the enormity of space. Though it may sound strange or ridiculous, I could comprehend it: that grain-of-sand analogy was the perfect way for my young and malleable brain to understand that this tiny island I lived on, surrounded by vast ocean, was itself the same as the tiny world we live on surrounded by vast space. And with that understanding came the sense that there was no doubt that there were other habitable planets out there: with so much sand on earth pure chance means we will eventually discover another planet like ours (said my young brain).

Space was my childhood fascination, and from ages five until ten I was determined that I would be an astronomer. But somewhere along the way I simply stopped thinking about space and the earth. Perhaps it was when I moved to Manila, a light-filled metropolis, and for a year didn’t see the night sky. Space practically exited my mind, and what filled it was concerns with how islands and continents within this earth can best organise themselves. Global affairs became my fascination: empires and wars, ideologies and negotiations. International Relations takes as its premise that the earth and the resources on it are finite, and therefore conflict is to a degree inevitable. Statesmen concern themselves with working within the confines of this earth to secure the interests of a subset of its people. Planets for me during this decade were the different continents that different ideologies occupied.

And now, reflecting on earth and space in the first year of my third decade on earth, I have a sense of incredulity: did man really go to the moon? Is a man-made object truly in interstellar space and still transmitting to earth? Everything that I have consumed my mind with for a decade has been confined to continents and islands and managing the conflicts that flare up in the world. How could humans have possibly exited this atmosphere and looked at the whole of earth at once? With so much still to do and organise on this earth, how is it possible that humans have left its atmosphere to search for other worlds? In this decade, planets seem almost to be fiction.

But when I think back to those grains of sand on all the beaches on earth I’m left with a sense of ridiculousness. How can people consume themselves with something so small? “Every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant”; “every ‘supreme leader’, every saint and sinner in the history of our species”… has been absorbed in one infinitesimally small grain of sand no different to all the trillions of others. Even the Voyager 2 image of our “pale blue dot” privileges our position in the universe, because we can make it out amidst the darkness. I prefer to conceptualise Earth as a planet as just one of those grands of sand on one of the beaches on earth, indistinguishable from the rest.

The great irony is that humans only started leaving Earth’s atmosphere during a period of intense human competition and rivalry: it was preoccupation with portions of this Earth that led humans closer to discovering other worlds. Are other planets therefore only discoverable and reachable through human rivalry? In these moments of reflection, Earth becomes a symbol of the confines and preoccupations of the human mind.