A common question that students in the University Scholars Programme (USP) get is “Oh, you’re a scholar? How much money do you receive from the scholarship?” Thankfully, the answer of “none at all” hasn’t dissuaded the best and brightest students from applying for enrolment in USP each year. But if USP doesn’t offer monetary grants to its students, what do we mean by using the term ‘Scholar’ in the name USP?
Perhaps to understand why ‘Scholar’ is used in the name ‘University Scholars Programme’, it is apposite to briefly re-visit the history of USP’s establishment. USP was born out of an amalgamation of two separate undergraduate academic programmes in the National University of Singapore (NUS), the Talent Development Programme (TDP) and the Core Curriculum Programme (CCP). The TDP sought to give students the opportunity to pursue enhanced or specialised courses through independent study and/or research, while the CCP aimed to broaden undergraduates' knowledge, skills and habits of thought beyond their academic specialisation. In September 2000, NUS combined the two programmes to establish the University Scholars Programme.
Given this history, one possible definition derives from the thought that just as USP combined the respective objectives of TDP and CCP, so too was the term ‘Scholar’ intended to represent the amalgamation of their respective objectives. Accordingly, a scholar is one who not only pursues specialisation in his or her chosen academic field through independent study and/or research, but also retains a broad engagement in fields of knowledge beyond this specialisation.
If so, the dictionary definition of ‘scholar’ is sorely lacking in this case. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a ‘scholar’ as merely “one who studies in the ‘schools’ at a university; a member of a university”. But such a definition covers all students in NUS, and the question still remains: What distinguishes a USP student?
In an interview for this article, Associate Professor Low Boon Chuan, the Deputy Director (Academic Matters) in USP, ventures that being a student alone does not make one a scholar. According to A/P Low, a scholar doesn’t merely learn what is out there, but also seeks to be part of the epistemological process: “One aspect of being a ‘scholar’ is about finding new knowledge. One can do this in many ways: by creating, asking, defining, or even challenge existing knowledge.”
Speaking in the same interview, Associate Professor Kang Hway Chuan, the Director of USP, is keen to stress that this search for new knowledge is not just about doing well in classes: “One thing we stress in the introductory lecture on Day 1 for new students is that being in USP is not just about the academic curriculum. It’s much broader than that.” A/P Low agrees: “A scholar in USP must care about the world beyond himself or herself.”
Indeed, USP students are strongly encouraged to engage in inter-disciplinary exchanges of ideas outside their faculties and majors, and even outside their community. To this end, USP provides numerous opportunities every year for both local and overseas community service learning, as well as international programmes. USP students are encouraged to take their academic ideas and concepts out into the real world and test them, and learn from the process of doing so. As A/P Kang puts it, “Scholars must be interested in bringing their thoughts to bear on the world – to create an impact.”
The USP curriculum is hence structured to develop these qualities. A/P Low explains “In the Foundational Tier, the University Scholars Seminar seeks to expose students to epistemology, and open up their minds to understand how knowledge came about.” The Writing and Critical Thinking, and Quantitative Reasoning modules seek to impart the necessary general skills in thinking, writing, and arguing. Following that, the Inquiry Tier is intended to allow students to explore other disciplines and fields of knowledge, and to build upon the skills gleaned from the Foundational Tier. Subsequently, the Reflection Tier acts as a checkpoint for students to examine and reflect on their ideas and actions. “But it’s not a ‘final end’,” A/P Low says, “in fact, it’s just the beginning of the rest of your journey.”
Throughout this academic journey, co-curricular opportunities outside the classroom offer platforms for students to use their skills and knowledge to interact with the world. “Scholars cannot just engage in hypothetical classroom exercises,” A/P Kang notes, “There’s no point in just having the theoretical techniques and knowledge. What value do you bring to the world? Scholars must operate in the real world, engage with the real problems out there, and make things happen.”
It is apparent then, that the four elements in the USP tagline “Curious. Critical. Courageous. Engaged” fairly represent the core values of what it means to be a scholar in USP: A scholar is interested in a broad range of domains and other academic disciplines, possesses the intellectual rigour in thought, unafraid to face challenges and criticism, and willing to put thought into action and shape the world.
“Being a scholar is not easy,” A/P Kang notes as we wrap up the interview, “The concept itself is difficult to pinpoint, since the meaning of ‘scholar’ changes with time. Years from now a new concept may emerge as to what a ‘scholar’ is.”
“Who knows, maybe even one of our students will be the one who comes up with it.”