Take time to explore your passionOverseas-education | Crystal Wu 7 Apr 2021
For harvard master's student Jessica So, the decision to study abroad for her higher education stemmed from an exchange program in her secondary school at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts.
"That was really my first experience of being in a liberal arts school and small-group environment, and that was very different from the type of teaching environment that I was used to in my local school," she said.
"The depth of analyses in a small classroom discussion, and the degree of gray areas that you could actually get into in a discussion, instead of having more black and white answers, really intrigued me and made me start thinking about actually being in this type of environment in higher education."
This was why after her Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination, she switched to doing the International Baccalaureate at the Li Po Chun United World College before enrolling in an industrial labor relations degree at Cornell University. But the change took a little time to get used to.
"The biggest challenge then was getting used to the IB system itself after being in the traditional local system for my entire life," she said.
"I was asked to write a report after an experiment in a chemistry class. I was quite surprised because I thought isn't chemistry black and white? Like you know exactly the formulas and you know what to say about it.
"But then I had to start writing about reasons why I think a certain experiment didn't work. That angle took me some time to get used to."
Another challenge was to adapt to a new school while preparing her university applications for the US, which included taking the SATs and writing her college essay.
"I think relative to the UK application, it takes more time because you would definitely need to prep quite a bit for the SAT exams and then do a lot more."
Although So's two elder sisters took their higher education in Britain, she chose to go to the States. "I was looking for more of a liberal arts education. There wasn't something very specific that I wanted to specialize in - I was interested in a bit of economics, history, sociology, and I found just the right mix of this luckily in Cornell's industrial and labor relations program."
So believes that for students who are not too sure in what to specialize in, an American liberal arts education gives students more time to explore their interests before declaring a major in the third or fourth year.
"Whereas in the UK, from what I understand, you would need to choose a degree right when you apply, which I think is relatively harder for certain high school students when you're not sure what exactly you want to specialize in. Sometimes it takes time to explore."
So, who has worked abroad in Tanzania for several years after her first degree and has recently started the second term of her masters at Harvard, believes that the local traditional education system and upbringing left traces that can still be felt today.
"Until I'm 100 percent sure about my answer, I don't want to speak or raise my hand or say something. Whereas I think here it's much more encouraging where if you have an idea, it's okay to be wrong, just voice it out and there could actually be like a very fruitful discussion among students."
But she also believes that being conscious about this and deliberately working on the issue will ultimately flip this disadvantage into an advantage for local students.
Another piece of advice she has is for students to work a few years before taking on further studies in graduate school as she believes that a few years of working experience will give a better understanding of the direction they want to pursue in the future.
"I think graduate school is a great time for one to explore the different areas and different topics that you previously haven't had a chance to, but at the same time, it's also helpful to know what exactly are the things you want to get out of graduate school."