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Lee Mun Yee’s passion for literature has led her to many places out of her comfort zone, but none more so than the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. As an English literature major at the National University of Singapore (NUS), Lee joined a growing joint degree program (JDP) between Carolina and NUS. Yee saw a way to broaden her studies in literature further than she could at just one school, and she found that her passion burned even brighter after spending time in Chapel Hill.

The JDP is a rare program in undergraduate higher education that Carolina and NUS, the top-ranked university in Asia, embarked upon together in 2007. The program requires students to spend at least two semesters at each institution, and upon graduation they receive a joint degree from both schools. Currently the program is offered for seven Carolina majors: global studies, history, political science, economics, English literature, geography, and biology.

Jing Liu, Asia programs director for the Study Abroad Office in the UNC College of Arts & Sciences, views the program as an opportunity for students to become more immersed in another culture than they would in a semester-long or summer study abroad program, as well as to explore an area of the world that is at a crossroads of a variety of cultures.

“Most students study abroad for shorter terms, but the JDP requires one year, so they get to really know the culture, and just how to navigate a global landscape,” Liu said. “Plus the experience is an attractive talking point on resumes and gains students further global recognition by attending a world class university in Asia.”

Yee found that she was able to combine two different approaches to looking at literature by joining the program. While at NUS, she took a deep dive into texts and read critical interpretations of literature. At Carolina, she explored interdisciplinary studies, combining her knowledge with other fields and expanding on her own literary ideas.

“I’ve seen the way my essays have changed. Before I came [to Carolina], I didn’t really feel like I had a personal voice,” Yee explained, “If you look at my essays in the past, there’s so many quotes from different critical authors, and now, there’s a good balance between my thinking and critical thinking from other works.”

International and Local Impacts

Bill Wang, an economics major and 2018 graduate of the program, saw an opportunity to challenge himself by leaving Chapel Hill, the place where he not only went to school but had also grown up.

“I love Carolina, it’s a great place, but I was kind of feeling not really challenged socially. Everything felt very familiar, and I wanted to take myself out of my comfort zone a bit. Here I’ve had professors that I’ve known since I was a kid. For me it’s a very easy, 15-minute bus ride home, and so I was like ‘This is a great school, I love my friends here, but I really want to go to a place where I’m going to be put outside of my comfort zone, and see what I’m capable of,’” Wang said of his reasons for choosing the program.

In addition to being challenged in a new environment, Wang found enriching opportunities at NUS, such as a volunteer position with migrant workers’ advocacy group Transient Workers Count Too. His work with this nonprofit led him to the topic of his honors’ thesis back at Carolina, on middlemen facilitated migration to Singapore from Bangladesh. He also interned with a development consulting firm that works closely with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, the regional intergovernmental organization that facilitates trade between 21-member economies around the world.

Wang says the program influenced his post-graduation plans, spending the summer in Indonesia on a Critical Language Scholarship offered through the U.S. Department of State. “This is something – the history of Indonesia and the culture – that I really first learned about while I was in Singapore, in a class I took there called ‘History of Muslims in Southeast Asia,’” Wang said, “And it really spurred my interest.”

In addition to discovering academic and career opportunities, students in the JDP experience significant personal growth during their time away from their home institution.

Swee Yik Goh ’18 is a history major originally from Singapore who had never been to the United States before coming to Carolina as part of the joint-degree program. “It was actually kind of rough for myself at first, because I didn’t really prepare for what I needed to do, and I’m also a bit of an introvert,” Goh remembered.

Being immersed right away in a different culture can be a challenge for many students, but it can also lead to personal growth and expand the ways they think about themselves and others along the way.

“I found the courage to reach out to people, to make new friends,” said Goh, “because back home your friends are all around you, so there isn’t really a need for you to go out there and meet new people. But here I have to reach out to people of a completely different culture. So I reached out to them, and after a few weeks, I had been able to make some new friends, and I felt a lot more at home at Carolina.”

Wang found that attending university in the diverse metropolis of Singapore gave him the ability to easily meet up with people who were not always associated with his home institution.

“For me, I really appreciated the opportunity to meet people outside of the normal university setting,” he said.

“I had trouble adjusting to the fact that I was from a bustling city, and now I’m here in such a suburban area,” Yee recalled, but added that there were aspects of Carolina that immediately appealed to her.

“What I really I love about my classmates and my friends is that they’re very open to discussing topics… and I’ve been learning more about the social justice scene. I’ve grown so much from that. It’s really lent me an empathy to people that are different from me.”

The program can be a leap of faith for some, but those who take it have the possibility of gaining opportunities and experiences they never imagined.

By Brent Van Vliet ’20

This story is featured in the 2019 edition of UNC Global’s Carolina Passport Magazine.

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