The process of writing up a resume seems to be about the same around the world. You
fill up a piece of paper with your information, listing your most impressive achievements
and experiences that show cases your talents, skills and whatnot, all in an effort to get the
job you want. Where do you acquire these achievements and experiences? Why, in
university, of course, where you can try a hundred and one things, and be as active and
engaged in campus life and activities as possible. Right?
Well, that’s what I envisioned and experienced in my own country, Singapore. In a
country where the education system is rigorous to say the least, and where “people are
our only resource” (as said by many government ministers over the years), the desire to
excel and do as much as you can has resulted in a busy university and campus life for the
average Singaporean university student (and here I say average because not everyone is
enthusiastic about taking up so many activities).
Norway, or at least life at the University of Oslo, in comparison doesn’t seem to be all
that busy. In my interactions with the students here, several commented that it was
perfectly understandable that most undergraduates would prefer not to join many
activities or clubs that require commitment. It wasn’t that understandable to me. Sure, as
an undergraduate myself, I would want to be able to have free time to keep up with my
studies, TV shows and friends. However, where I come from, commitment and
participation in as many committees, clubs or sports is such an important aspect of
undergraduate life that I couldn’t understand the lack of it here. Even if you weren’t the
type of person who gets all excited over school activities, the importance of filling up
your resume with extra-curricular activities (ECAs)* would be enough motivation to take
up a sport or two to prove your “well-roundedness” and “ability to multi-task and manage
Since the beginning of primary school (at 7 years old), the participation in at least one
ECA (or CCA, as the Ministry of Education likes to call it – co-curricular activities) is
mandatory for every student. From a young age, we are taught that excelling in other
areas besides your studies will give you a competitive edge over your peers. Being good
in a particular CCA or having several can help you get into a better secondary school.
This logic and knowledge is then carried forward into our teenage years where “points”
are given out according to our commitment and excellence in our particular CCA.
Leadership is also greatly recognized, to the point where the government gives monetarywards for students that have showed leadership and/or represented their schools in their respective CCAs. In addition to these CCAs, we are also expected to carry out around 100 hours of the Community Involvement Programme (CIP), where we volunteer with local charities, or do some sort of work to give back to the community. The logic behind this, the Ministry of Education explains, is to encourage a “holistic” education for Singaporean students. More practically speaking, it fills up our resumes and gives us experiences beyond just our studies. Mind you, these requirements are just the bare minimum and many Singaporeans also take up music lessons, sports or some sort of dance lessons outside of these activities. We also have extra tuition after school to keep up with our studies, and some even try for special programmes for the academically gifted. Every bit helps in filling up our resumes.
I do want to acknowledge that it is unfair to say that every student in Singapore takes
part in so many activities for the sole purpose of adding it to their resume. University is a
time where you get to try new things and many people do participate to such a large
extent because they are following their passions. That being said, these activities are
carried out with a certain understanding that, while you are in university to get your
degree and get the best education and experience possible, having only a degree, and
nothing else, will not put you above the rest in getting your desired job. Getting good
grades will obviously improve your chances at securing a job with a good salary, but in
this day and age where degree and double degree holders are fairly common, activities
that showcase other qualities besides your academic abilities are required. With an
education system so focused on keeping you as busy as possible, it is no surprise that
even without the mandatory hours, the idea that we need to have more than our degree is
deeply etched into our consciousness. No one graduates with just his or her degree. It’s
almost unheard of, unless you happen to have the greatest connections or come from a
very rich family, and even then, you probably would have done a few internships by the
time you graduated.
I was surprised, to say the least, when I heard that it is difficult to get a job in Norway
with just a bachelor’s degree. Apparently, a Masters is the minimum level expected. At
first, I thought it was ridiculous, because doing ones Masters anywhere should be
expensive. The usual route for Singaporeans is to get a job after graduating, and then, if
you wish to further your education, make your employer fund your Masters as an
investment on their end. Applying for a job with a Masters in Singapore would actually
lower your chances of getting a job as you would be over qualified, thus requiring a
higher pay, but not have enough experience.
However, education in Norway is free, a Singaporean friend was quick to point out. You
could do your Ph.D. and not go broke. I also quickly realized that a majority of theorwegians were probably applying for jobs with just their bachelors to recommend
them, and nothing else. The combination of these two factors did make sense of the lack
of employment of bachelor degree holders. Yet, I couldn’t help but wonder, why hasn’t
any one passed on or acquired this knowledge of ECAs that Singapore has so rigorously
and relentlessly ingrained into our lives?
Given that I’ve only been in Norway for slightly over a month, I might be judging the
system here too quickly. For all I know, the employers here are more demanding than in
Singapore. However, whilst walking through the activities fair at the beginning of the
semester, I couldn’t help realize how few activities and clubs the school offered. The
school has its fair share of clubs and sports, but nowhere near the extent that Singaporean
universities offer. Coming from a country where ECAs are given as much importance as
one’s academic life, to the extent that the government calls ECAs CCAs to place them
within the curriculum, the lack of engagement and activity was confusing. Perhaps, I
thought, it’s just Singapore that’s crazy and caught up with the urge to do as many things
as possible. From my experience, the Norwegian way of life is more laid back than what
I’m used to, and that’s probably reflected in their school life as well, I reasoned.
I wasn’t wrong, but when I heard a Norwegian masters student comment on how she
“wished someone told [her] that you had to do more than just get a degree to get a job”, I
had to wonder why there was this gap in knowledge about the extracurriculars. Surely
these students haven’t been living under a rock. Why hasn’t anyone said anything?! (I
was a bit frustrated and very confused at this point, I mean, it’s practically common
knowledge. Even the American television shows mention doing more).
At the end of the day, it probably comes down to the cultural differences between the
two countries. Norway’s abundance of natural resources does give Norwegians somewhat
of a safety net, giving them less pressure to do more, and more time to take things slow.
The strong emphasis on having a work-like balance also allows them to take more time to
stop and smell the roses. Granted, we can’t grow roses in Singapore due to the climate,
but the pace of life is fast, and you have to keep up. You work hard and you play hard,
and sometimes you just don’t get to take a rest.
In my freshman year alone, I joined two events planning and leadership committees, took
up two sports, and even went on a trip to India to do some charity work in the summer. In
my second year, I did cut down that number by half, but took up an internship. Of course,
that’s just my own experience, and I know many friends that did not take part in any
school related activities. However, each student seems to be busy with their own thing,
starting their own projects or mastering their sport of choice. However, in Norway, in
terms of organized events and groups that require at least a semester’s worth of
commitment, the lack of participation seems apparent, surprising and quite illogical.
But that’s just my point of view. Having experienced a bit of the Norwegian way of life
so far, the two cultures seem completely at opposite ends. Coming from a country where
teachers, parents and even the government point out the importance of a “holistic
education”, it’s hard not to feel the need to always do more, and take part in ECAs. They
urge us to start while young, making it a compulsory thing to have an ECA, and by the
time we reach university, the love and momentum of that activity continues to spur us to
keep on pursuing our interests. Yet, at the same time, I can appreciate the way
Norwegians seem to take things slow with more room to breathe. I am a Singaporean girl
at heart, so I must confess that I am still not used to the slow pace, and am still having
trouble understanding how Oslo works. As my professors at UiO have constantly pointed
out, Norway is unique in many aspects, and I look forward to discovering just how
different it can be.
* When I say ECAs, I do refer to anything sort of activity outside of studying, be it the
several clubs, sports or committees in that are organized by the school or students.
By Charis Chong