If you think Singapore is going to be run only by those who come from elite schools and underwent the Gifted Education Programme, talk to Terry Ching. The former SP alumnus and current second-year engineering student at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) says he was from the bottom rung of class when he was in upper secondary. But what’s more important is what he is now, and how he has become a better person with the unique learning experience in SUTD.
The unsaid but practised word in the life of an undergraduate at SUTD is “Occupy”. Yes, as in occupying a part of the school and calling it your place! Think Occupy Admiralty in Hong Kong recently but minus the politics, pepper spray and democratic slogans. You see, life in the fairly new university, set up in collaboration with the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Zhejiang University, is spent holed up in one classroom. And don’t think of it as a bad thing – the students love it.
“It has become our second home. We learn there, we eat there, and we even sleep there,” says Terry who is pursuing his honours degree in Engineering Product Development – one of the four pillars in SUTD. He hopes that when he moves to the spanking new campus in Changi (near Singapore Expo), this learning space concept will be kept.
Not someone who clearly wanted to be an engineer back in his Ngee Ann Secondary days, Terry only knew he had no qualms with doing engineering at SP, his first choice. He took the Diploma in Aeronautical Engineering (DARE) and did very well with a final GPA of 3.94 to qualify for engineering degree programmes in NTU, NUS and SUTD.
“I wasn’t that into aeroplanes at all when I started on the DARE course. I just thought that it was a good course since the cut-off point was quite low. The lecturers played a big part in developing our interest for engineering, and not just the aeronautical aspect. Also, I interned at Pratt & Whitney in Beijing and the experience gave me an in-depth understanding of engineering on the ground,” says Terry.
The clincher to join SUTD was a tea session that all students offered admission were invited to at the Mandarin Hotel. He recalls: “It was attended by several big shots, both from the university and the industry. There were CEOs and scientists, and they took turns to talk about what the industry needs and what the new university will offer. I was totally convinced by their approach.”
Prior to the tea session, all applicants had to attend an admission interview. Terry did all he could to muster his engineering knowledge but ended up saying little about that. “It was more of a chat session. Even the Provost was there! They asked me about army life and my passion for engineering. They were quite interested in my final-year project at SP, which was something like a Batmobile that can transform a land vehicle to an aerial one,” says Terry, who recalls vividly the 15-minute session.
Now into his second-year, Terry’s favourite place is the classroom which is open 24/7. “We have 45 to 50 people in a classroom which we ‘own’ for a year. Everyone in the class is close to each other, including the professors. We have our lessons there, do our projects there and have our fun moments like watching YouTube videos on our laptops that we project on the big screen. We even have a message group that we use to update each other on where to get free food (leftovers from SUTD events),” reveals Terry with laughter.
He lets on more on the SUTD culture: “The professors want us to call them by their first name and not Prof So-and-so. They are all very approachable and are even in our Whatsapp group chat too. We have had profs who stayed up with us till 11pm when we were working on projects!”
Earlier this year, Terry went on a three-month fully-paid immersion programme in Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, a leading university known for its innovation and entrepreneurship, under the Asian Leadership Programme. He spent a month attending classes on industrial design, and another two on an internship with an external company. In between lessons and presentations that were conducted in Mandarin, he had to complete design drawing assignments.
To him, the best part of the trip was learning more of Chinese culture, travelling around the Zhejiang Province (which includes cities like Shanghai, Suzhou and Hangzhou) and mingling with the Chinese there. A group of them even made the trip to Huangshan in Anhui Province, known for its picturesque peak.
“I came back with a different perspective of China. The university invited very good speakers to give lectures. I
was impressed by this 70-year-old man who is said to be the founder of industrial design in China. They shared with us their views on technology and engineering. There were also lectures on tea culture, gardens and landscape,” says Terry who is also a recipient of the Asian Leadership Programme Scholarship
It was during the attachment to the company while in China that he discovered a new passion for health care engineering. The company manufactures surgical tools and he worked on re-designing some of the tools.
“It opened my eyes to a new area of healthcare engineering design that could save lives,” says Terry. “The grander vision is to contribute to the developing countries. I’ve been to Thailand and Vietnam and saw the need in this area. Hopefully, if I go into this field, I could pay it forward in third world countries which are in need of advanced medical tools.”
Next year, Terry will embark on another trip – this time to MIT in Boston, United States to take on some classes under the Independent Activity Period – a time set aside every January dedicated to students’ own endeavours and interests. He could also choose to go for another internship, local or overseas.
“I’m grateful to SP for giving me the very strong foundation in engineering which I could apply in my studies in SUTD,” says Terry, who is all ready to promote the institutions when called upon.
Yes Terry, we certainly will.