A unique learning sojourn

City explorer: Kah Yee posing in front of the Transamerica Pyramid, the tallest building in San Francisco. Visiting its many sights has made her have a deeper appreciation of the city.
City explorer: Kah Yee posing in front of the Transamerica Pyramid, the tallest building in San Francisco. Visiting its many sights has made her have a deeper appreciation of the city.

A student talks about her first year at an innovative university programme in San Francisco.

MY traditional kiasu Chinese parents have tirelessly stressed the value of an overseas education.

They would always tell me, “The best gift we can give you is a good education.”

They would think twice before buying a new car, but never hesitate when it came to my education. I knew pursuing a university education in the United States would be a stretch financially, but I was not ready to give up on that dream. I spent countless nights on Google trying to figure out what I would do after secondary school. Having narrowed down my choices between the International Baccalaureate (IB) and the American Degree Transfer Programme, I thought those were my only options.

During my two-month long internship stint at The Star in various departments, I was reading an online article when I stumbled on a university experience that seemed too good to be true.

The Minerva Schools at KGI! Minerva Schools at KGI, an innovative accredited global university programme designed by industry leaders to prepare students to solve complex global problems. The school provides students with a uniquely global, rigorous, and accessible education.

Students will spend their freshman year in San Francisco with subsequent semesters in global hubs like Berlin, Buenos Aires, Bangalore, Seoul, London, and Istanbul. (KGI stands for Keck Graduate Institute. Minerva Project and KGI partnered up and founded the Minerva Schools at KGI.)

It sounds amazing but there’s no way I could get in, I thought. But then I did. At that point, I had already accepted a scholarship for the IB programme at a local international school.

I went online to gather all the information I could find about this new, innovative school. I weighed my options and finally decided I could not give up this opportunity. Minerva sounded even better than what I thought I had been looking for!

I was looking to join a university programme that would give me an edge in the local job market, and this promised to equip me with the skills that would propel me to success. Minerva aims to provide its students with a vigorous and effective learning experience based on the research of world-renowned neuroscientist, Dr Stephen Kosslyn, who is the founding dean.

At Minerva, I would receive an accredited degree from the KGI, part of the renowned Claremont Consortium in California, the United States. Most importantly, as a member of its inaugural class, I would help build this student-centred institution.

A few weeks later, I met the founder of Minerva himself, Ben Nelson. Ben shared how his vision of the perfect university for the 21st century started from when he was getting his Ivy League education. He wanted an education that explicitly taught students how to think critically, think creatively, interact efficiently, and communicate efficiently, instead of letting students pick up these skills accidentally through traditional lecture-based classes.

The cherry on top was the fact that Minerva cost a fraction of traditional American universities (US$10,000 (RM40,500)) a year and provided 100% needs-based financial aid for all students. Ben told me that his goal with financial aid was to guarantee that every student who met their selective criteria would be able to afford to attend through scholarships, grants and internships.

When I arrived in San Francisco, I was overwhelmed by the diversity and passion of the student body that I was part of. Some of my classmates hailed from countries such as Macedonia, Rwanda, Trinidad and Tobago, and Kosovo, just to name a few. I found that the biggest contributor to Minerva’s success was and would continue to be the enthusiasm of every person who is devoted to building the world’s leading global university.

The Minerva community soon became my second family, as well as a constant challenge for intellectual and personal growth. Their experiences prior to Minerva varied so much because everyone came from different walks of life.

Academically, this has been the toughest quest for knowledge in my life because I was conditioned to expect knowledge to be spoon-fed. Minerva runs on a flipped classroom model so I was assumed to learn the class materials before class, which took some getting used to.

For example, I had to use programming to solve and simulate statistical problems and then explain the generalisability of the conclusion I drew from my results. Then I had to question whether this computer programme would be applicable in the real world by considering various logistical challenges.

I was genuinely interested in most of the things we were learning because they weren’t about rote memorisation but application. How might we use the concepts we’ve learned in class and apply them to the real world? Within the first few months, I already felt a shift in my thinking and analytical skills.

I found myself debating with my fellow classmates about every part of Minerva. We constantly scrutinise every aspect – from the academics to the student services – and ask ourselves if it aligns with our overarching values. We take the problem-solving skills we learn in our critical thinking units and apply them to perfecting the rough edges.

Besides that, I spent a lot of time learning about San Francisco because I am expected to treat the city as my campus. Minerva organised many city explorations and experiential learning activities that helped me engage better with the local culture and people.

After spending a year living abroad, I’m adjusting to life back in Malaysia for the summer and looking forward to sharing this opportunity with like-minded people. I’m working on preparing myself for my upcoming semester in Berlin by taking introductory college-level courses so I will be able to handle the advanced sophomore year courses.

Previously, I never knew what I wanted out of my university experience. I thought I had very limited options because all the universities I was exploring were essentially the same, just with different names and locations.

I wanted to be part of an organisation with values I share. The solution isn’t to reject higher education as a whole but to rethink it from scratch.

The writer is an undergraduate at Minerva Schools at KGI and a former participant of The Star’s Starstruck! Young Writers Programme.

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