Location: Singapore — but a college for the world

When Austin Shiner goes to India to talk about Singapore’s first liberal arts college, he knows he’ll find a receptive audience almost every place he visits: Indians widely consider Singapore an obvious place to get a first-rate education.

But Shiner and his colleagues in the admissions office of Yale-NUS College are building a class of top students drawn from the multitude of nations, not only those nearby. So they’ve scoured the earth for ambitious young people, even in places where students and parents are less likely to consider undergraduate colleges overseas — Japan, Ethiopia, and Canada, to name only three.

“It will enhance the experience for everyone at Yale-NUS to have top students from every region in the world and many countries,” says Shiner, who comes from the northwest coast of the United States, some 3,000 miles from Yale College, where he was an undergraduate.

Everywhere they go, Yale-NUS admissions officers tell a story that they expect to resonate deeply among 21st-century high-schoolers and their families.

The story goes like this: Two of the world’s most renowned universities — Yale and the National University of Singapore — have joined forces to create, in Asia, an intimate school offering the best of elite higher education in the United States, but also something more. Asians can now experience the U.S. liberal arts tradition without leaving Asia; Americans can immerse themselves in Asia without sacrificing the liberal arts; and students from everywhere can participate in the birth of an ambitious new academic enterprise backed by heavyweight universities.

“Yale-NUS is the archetypal American liberal arts experience — but it's in Singapore,” says Shiner, who has been deeply involved in the school’s international recruitment efforts since graduating from Yale College in 2011. “We’re here to prove that liberal arts learning works just as well in Asia as it does in the U.S.”

Frequent fliers

Given Yale-NUS’ location and the Republic of Singapore’s investment in the school, a large cohort of students will come from the island city-state itself. But Yale-NUS is not intended to be a school for Singaporeans only.

Shiner and his fellow admissions officers, eight in all, have been canvassing the continents to talk directly with prospective students, sometimes alone, sometimes with peers from other schools. By mid-November, they’ll have met with students, college counselors, headmasters, parents, and principals in more than 35 countries.

Shiner alone has visited 119 schools in 24 cities and 10 countries — including Tokyo, Seoul, Vancouver, Calcutta, Boston, and Kota Kinabalu in Malaysian Borneo. On one trip, he took 16 flights in 17 days. His colleague Angela Seah has traveled through Australia, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, while others have toured Africa and Europe from Russia to the United Kingdom.

At the American International School in Dhaka, Bangladesh, more than 300 people showed up to hear one presentation. “If you’ve been considering an American-style liberal arts education with all the breadth and depth that define the experience for Americans,” Shiner told them, “now it’s here in Asia.”

Yale-NUS College has been conceived as a model for discourse-intensive liberal arts learning for a global student body at a time when the integration of economies, cultures, and societies is accelerating faster than ever, increasing the importance of mutual understanding among people from different backgrounds.

The pedagogy will follow the liberal arts model — emphasizing broad, interdisciplinary learning, small classes and faculty-led student discussion, all in a residential community. “We are certain that when you live on campus, you learn more, and you have more fun,” says Shiner, a leader in his residential college at Yale, Ezra Stiles. Courses will be conducted in English, which means students must already speak, read, and write the language skillfully.

Next summer the vision blooms fully: Yale-NUS College opens in mid-2013 with an initial cohort of 150 students, some of whom have been admitted already. The teaching faculty — led by professors recruited from Yale — is in place and preparing a unique interdisciplinary curriculum that blends the best of eastern and western intellectual traditions. A new campus is coming to life.

The final and all-important piece is selecting the students.

The first of three planned admissions deadlines was Nov. 1, and admitted students will be asked to commit by May 1. In between, there's time for final visits to places as far flung as Prague and Addis Ababa, need-blind application review, and the creation of a global student body ready for a rigorous intellectual adventure in Asia.

“We’re looking for smart young people from all quarters who are eager to challenge and nourish each other, and excited to establish the culture of a groundbreaking institution,” said Jeremiah Quinlan, Yale-NUS’ dean of admissions.

A big tent

Sometimes the Yale-NUS admissions officers go with counterparts from other schools, participating in what amounts to a traveling college fair. Sometimes they team only with Yale College admissions officers. Other times they’ll convene independent Yale-NUS information sessions at coffee shops in big cities — such as New York — attracting curious students who don’t attend schools the officers visited. Quinlan is now on a 10-day tour of schools in Eastern Europe.

He said the pairing of admissions officers from Yale-NUS and Yale College has also benefitted the founding school in New Haven: Yale College sent admissions representatives to Indonesia for the first time in 20 years, and for the first time in recent memory to New Zealand and the Philippines.

“We’re expanding Yale’s reach, too,” said Quinlan, who also is deputy dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale College.

In their travels, the admissions officers have found prospective students are curious about Yale-NUS for reasons that vary from region to region. Within Asia, many see it as a chance to experience liberal arts learning without moving all the way to the United States. Within the United States, note the admissions officers, interest has been especially strong among American students eager to learn mandarin Chinese, a principal language in Singapore, without giving up the benefits of a first-rate liberal arts education.

The admissions officers have also encountered a lot of what Shiner calls “globally oriented young people” eager for an intense, immersive experience outside their home countries, as well as Asian citizens studying in U.S. boarding schools.

Nearly everywhere, Shiner sees interest among “pioneering, trailblazing, entrepreneurial kids.”

That makes sense to Quinlan. “The students at Yale-NUS have this ground-breaking opportunity to create the culture of a college,” he says. “You come to Yale and you inherit 310 years of tradition, for better or worse. At Yale-NUS, students will assume leadership inside the classroom and out, making their own history from day one.”