By: Lee Chin Wee (14A01B), Isaac Leong (15A13A)
Additional reporting by: Abdul Lateef (4C), Jasdeep Singh (4A) and Sarthak Panwar (4C), Nguyen Hoang Nhan (14S03K)

‘Next up, we have some exchange students from South Korea.’ Edward Kim (14A01C), President of the 33rd Students’ Council, grins as the contingent from the Korean Minjok Leadership Academy is ushered up onto the elevated podium.

They line up neatly in front of all of us, shuffling awkwardly to accommodate the entire group. Two thousand pairs of eyes peer back at them inquisitively. One member of the group breaks rank from his peers, and Edward hands him a microphone. A smattering of polite applause. ‘We’ve been in Singapore for the past few days, and it has been a great experience. Thank you so much for your kind hospitality and we hope to make many new friends over the next two weeks.’ He delivers the simple speech in a surprisingly cosmopolitan accent, one that would not be out of place on the streets of London or New York. Another round of appreciative applause rings out.

Rinse, repeat, recycle. The very next day, a smaller group of French exchange students will occupy the exact same spot that the South Korean students have just vacated. We will hear the same message, delivered in a lilting French accent this time around. Applause. The conveyor belt of international students moves along.

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RI’s push toward greater internationalisation can be attributed to our desire to become a world leader in pre-university education. We are a member of the G20 schools, a group that brings together schools that wish to ‘look beyond the parochial concerns of their own schools and national associations, and to talk through some key issues facing education and the world.’ Many foreign exchange students who come to RI come from one of these schools, ranging from Eton College in the UK to Brookhouse School, Kenya. On paper, we have an impressive inflow of exchange students, contributing to a vibrant and diverse school environment that can only benefit Rafflesians.

We can no longer afford to exist within an insular, closeted community where Singapore is our only reality and where achieving top grades are our only goals. We do live in a world where geographical boundaries and cultural differences have ceased to be barriers to business. Being world-savvy is no longer merely a bonus when companies scout for new talent; it has now become a prerequisite for anyone wishing to succeed in this dynamic and changing reality. To adapt to this new normal, RI has thus actively sought alliances with foreign schools in order to offer Rafflesians a greater diversity of experiences.

While our school’s push towards greater internationalisation is laudable, one invariably wonders if this is simply a case of style over substance. Look no further than the numerous international summits and competitions that RI hosts every year—how many of such events can the average Rafflesian claim to have attended over the course of his or her school life? Perhaps one, if you happen to be passionate about sports science and get a chance to present at the Youth Sports Science Research Symposium hosted by the E W Barker Institute of Sports. Maybe two, if you also happen to be talented enough to represent the school’s debating team on the international stage at the biennial Prometheus Cup.

It is hard to ignore the fact that these events are inherently self-selecting, causing them to be largely insulated from the wider school community. Since the school can ill-afford to roster an entire batch of 600 students for an international conference due to financial and logistical constraints, chances to take part in such summits are naturally few and far between. As a result, selection processes for international events are highly rigorous and restrictive—for instance, did you even know about the existence of the Prometheus Cup before reading this article? Increasing the exclusivity of already niche events only leads to them appealing to an even smaller fraction of the student population, leading to a general apathy regarding ongoing international summits and competitions. For many of us, the word ‘Tiltshift’ may sooner bring to mind the eponymous photography technique rather than the biennial international leadership summit which our school originated.

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As much as it may be convenient to deem internationalisation efforts a failure at first glance, the quantity of international summits or conferences attended is often secondary to the quality of interaction between like-minded individuals during the event itself. The existing gamut of international competitions, conferences and summits hosted within RI is has been structured to appeal to a diverse range of interests—you aren’t expected to sign up for five or six events a year! Rather, these symposiums and summits exist because there will be other students who will jump at the chance to participate even if you may not have given it much consideration.

Other than hosting large-scale student conferences and international competitions, RI also builds strong alliances with foreign schools to facilitate student exchange programmes. In the same way that we send our Year 4 students around the globe during their Gap Semester in order to broaden their intellectual horizons, top educational institutions in other countries are eager to send their own students over to One Raffles Institution Lane. It is not uncommon to walk by the Year 5–6 canteen and see a few Australian students with blonde, wind-swept hair queuing up in front of Haw’s Kitchen, or a group of Taiwanese students chatting animatedly in perfect Mandarin as their Rafflesian friends struggle to keep up. While the school environment certainly appears more cosmopolitan, how much do the students actually gain from these student exchanges?

Superficially, at least, cultural exchange is one goal of the exchange programme that has been met. There is something about visiting a foreign land and trying to adjust to a whole new school environment that triggers our innate human curiosity—we always want to find out more about the places we visit, the food we eat, and the lives which our temporary classmates lead. As Joshua Tee (15A01D) and Yong Zhen Zhou (15S07D) shared, their overseas exchange at Karl Popper School, Vienna ‘exposed (them) to a range of new educational and cultural perspectives’, with ‘most of the learning happening outside of the classroom, as we went on numerous tours and cultural experiences’. For many of our overseas friends, simply sampling the staggering variety of foods available here (a group from South Africa wanted to have different types of noodles for every day they were here), or observing the unique intersection of multiple ethnicities and cultures that define our country, was an invaluable experience in and of itself. Visiting another country and spending time interacting with new-found friends allows one to appreciating the cultural differences of others in a uniquely intimate way.

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But international exchanges surely must be more than just visiting kitschy tourist traps and sightseeing. One could very easily have gained the same cultural perspectives by going on a vacation, or by being well-read. Student exchanges are supposedly different because they are an opportunity for students to immerse themselves in the educational environment of a foreign school. You get to understand how lessons are conducted in another country, and compare the differences and similarities in curriculum content. You get to experience being tutored by teachers who have little to no experience with the Singaporean education model. You get to challenge your own parochial beliefs by engaging in discussion with peers from halfway around the globe on topics like politics or sport. In theory, you could do all these things. In practice, however, is a proper exchange of intellectual ideas truly occurring, or are student exchanges just an illusion that we create for ourselves as justification for going off to a foreign country on holiday with our best friends?

To some of the more skeptical students, the experience wasn’t very educational. ‘They didn’t learn much when they came here, and just wasted time in class. Some even used their handphones during classes,’ said a Year 3 student who asked to remain anonymous when asked about some students who came here from Cheng Yuan Gao Zhong in Taiwan. These were students who probably paid thousands of dollars in order to travel 2,000 miles to Singapore so that they could play ‘Angry Birds’ in an air-conditioned classroom.

A significant language barrier could be the main reason why exchange students find it difficult to glean anything useful from lessons. According to the Year 3 student, ‘The students who came here weren’t able to converse fluently in English’. Since most lessons are conducted in English, exchange students would of course struggle to participate in lessons they barely understand. Based on their experiences in Vienna, Joshua and Zhen Zhou echoed this sentiment, saying that their lessons were ‘not very beneficial’ because they were taught in German and that the curriculum was ‘very different from the one in Singapore, so some subjects were much harder while others were too simple’.

Another possible reason could very well be a mismatch of academic interests. A student from Year 6 shared, ‘A French student was originally attached to my Humanities class, but he was transferred away after two days because he was a Science student who was bored to death by half our lessons.’ While this incident could plausibly be attributed to a logistical error, both stories collectively highlight the importance of customising the student exchange experience to fit individual students—we cannot expect students from Taiwan to gain much from our lessons if they have shaky English competency, or for a student passionate about the sciences to pay rapt attention during Literature. These problems are compounded by the fact that such international exchanges often end in a matter of days, leaving students with timetables crammed full of activities and tours which pass by in a frenzied blur, and little time to settle into their new surroundings. Little wonder, then, that some students perceive exchange programmes to be glorified four-day holidays.

On the other hand, other students were more optimistic about the effectiveness of student exchange programmes. We had the chance to catch up with Jakub Moravec, an exchange student from Johannes Keppler Grammar School in the Czech Republic, to get his views on such exchanges. Unlike other foreign students on extremely short-term exchange programmes which last no more than a week, Jakub and his schoolmates were given the opportunity to study in RI for two months, affording them the time to acclimatise to a new school environment and forge genuine relationships with Rafflesians. Jakub felt that the student exchange experience was something he would ‘definitely recommend to (his) friends’, and that it was interesting to ‘experience a different educational system and new cultures in Singapore’. He pointed out that the concept of co-curricular activities (CCAs) was entirely foreign in the Czech Republic, and greatly enjoyed the ‘diverse range of activities’ on offer in RI—from participating in the choir to going canoeing! When asked to sum up his time in Singapore, Jakub wistfully said, ‘In hindsight, it is something that we will always treasure. It was a really unique experience that I think no other student our age can get.’

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Samuel Loh (4A) noted that ‘as with all programmes, student exchanges are what you choose to make of them. Some students on exchange may want to know more about a nation’s culture, some students may be more interested in the curriculum and teaching style.’ As his class was attached to students from Montgomery Bell Academy, he compared the ‘linear style of teaching in RI’ to the lessons that the exchange students were used to back home, where the lessons are ‘very modular in nature’. He also explained that lessons there are a lot more ‘holistic’, which was a key learning point for many of his classmates, since daily sports involvement was a compulsory part of their curriculum.

Indeed, students should not be absolved of all personal responsibility to make the student exchange experience meaningful. Be it going overseas as an exchange student, or receiving students on exchange from foreign schools, we are forced to overcome our aversion to communicating with strangers. The initial social awkwardness between exchange students and local students could mar the entire exchange experience if allowed to persist—all the vaunted benefits of exchanging intellectual ideas and classroom participation can’t be achieved if you can hardly speak to your classmates! Many students who we talked to claimed that they did not know what to do when the foreign students were in their class.

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Admittedly, it is a tall order to expect an exchange student to make friends with everyone in the short span of a few days. After the polite introductions have been issued and some idle small talk made to establish common interests, it is understandably difficult to carry on a conversation with people you hardly know. However, it is these oft-overlooked trivialities of conversation that lay the groundwork for a meaningful student exchange experience—jokes shared over lunch, discussions about school life in a foreign country, friendly banter during a football game.

What’s clear is that internationalisation is not a precise science. No immutable physical law exists to govern cross-cultural exchange, nor set chemical equation to guarantee a successful student exchange experience. It is instead more akin to an imperfect experiment, where outcomes differ from individual to individual. We send students overseas in the hope that they will return with knowledge, rather than mass-produced trinkets, as souvenirs. We host international symposiums in the hope that participants will speak with, rather than talk past, one another. We should embrace internationalisation not because we are certain it will work, but rather because we are certain insularity will fail.

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