THE WISDOM OF ALONE TOGETHER: On the Fear of Being "Alone" Abroad and the Perks of Residential College Life

We hear horror stories of students going off to college and just losing themselves; stories of students who regret not going to a college where most their friends would be; stories of students who consider college abroad a chore, not an opportunity.  We hear horror stories of how difficult it is to be alone in a different country miles away from home.

The truth is, we never will be. 

When I left Hong Kong, I compared it to a horrible break-up. I had fallen in love with the city, the culture, the people. I was finally feeling like I was beginning to belong when I was offered a scholarship, and my parents and I decided it was best if I moved to Yale-NUS College. I left, still in love with the fast-paced lifestyle, the clacking heels of women walking through the MTR stations, the gorgeous waters that surrounded the university I was in.

It didn’t help that before I moved to Singapore, people would look at me with pity and tell me about how small a place this country is. I began to worry. Would Singapore be the best place for me? Or would I be a fish out of the water, in a strange place with seemingly nothing ever to do? This is why last Sunday, when I landed in the Changi International Airport, I was ready to expect little. I was ready to just make the most out of what I had, figure out how the MRT and other similar systems work, focus on getting the best out of college. I was ready to face Singapore alone.

Until I discovered I didn’t have to.

I didn’t even have to ask. I had newly-found Singaporean friends who willingly brought me around. I had friends who offered to go out of their way and help me settle down. I had a friend who even took me restaurant hopping, driving me around the city, welcoming me to Singapore with a fun night-out.Here I was a foreigner, and I already felt like Singapore could be home. This realization has inspired the foci of this post: the fear of being “alone” and the perks of living in a residential college. We hear horror stories of students going off to college and just losing themselves; stories of students who regret not going to a college where most their friends would be; stories of students who consider college abroad a chore, not an opportunity. We hear horror stories of how difficult it is to be alone in a different country miles away from home.

The truth is, we never will be. I have tried studying briefly in New Haven and Boston, a few months in Hong Kong, and am about to take on Singapore. In all these countries, I found someone to bring me around and introduce me to everything local. The memories I remember the most? Dinner trips with my local roommate. Fireworks with my closest international friends. Nights out, coffee breaks, movie nights with anyone who’s left in the dorm. I’ve only been a few days in Singapore, and I have been sleeping in the early hours of the morning. The simple hanging out in common lounge with friends from all over the world whom I would never have met is enough to let me know I’ll be okay. Dinners with professors make learning seem like a fun meal time conversation. (What I love about Yale-NUS in particular is that the professors are trying to find their way around Singapore too!) Living with deans and rectors has also left us with little kids running all around the place, embracing the students into this extended family. When your stomach hurts and tears start to fall from the laughter; when you’re up late watching your fellow students sing their hearts out in an open mic; when you’re walking under the rain, crossing the road with zooming cars, enjoying every bit of the strange land you’re in; when you’re enjoying a good lunch meal with professors and friends; when you’re arm in arm with people who are as alone, but who make it all feel just right—you realize going abroad to study is not as lonely a task after all.

Because you find you’re all alone together and it is the experience of such that you’ll actually remember most in the end. In the process, you discover more of who you are, free from the shackling definitions of who you should be provided by those who have known you for the past eighteen to twenty years. In the process, you discover more of who you are, together with a bunch of others who are trying to find their way as well. This is what it means to be alone together, to lose yourself and find yourself again, and to be in the company of strangers and still feel like you belong.

Joan Danielle Ongchoco graduated from Immaculate Conception Academy in 2012. She now attends Yale-National University of Singapore (Yale-NUS) as a member of the class of 2017.