SINGAPORE (THE NEW PAPER) - For Yuan Kelly, a beach is her classroom. And so is Bosnia. And Costa Rica. And Italy.
Unlike most students, Yuan did not just attend one campus. She attended 12 of them — across different countries.
As a graduating student from Think Global School (TGS), the 18-year-old had classes in exotic places around the globe.
During her first semester, she travelled to Ecuador to study on the Galapagos Islands.
She also bathed elephants in Thailand, tracked the Northern Lights in Sweden and practised archery in Bhutan — all in the name of getting a well-rounded education.
Yuan and her adoptive mother have been living in Singapore for five years. They moved here from China, where Yuan was born.
There were so many nights I woke up to her calling me, panicking about having no money. It used to happen quite a lot. — Yuan’s mum, Ms Kristy Kelly
The Canadian national tells The New Paper on Sunday: “(On the Galapagos), we had classes on the beach and wrote Chinese characters in the sand.
“There were sleeping sea lions right next to us, and some of them would waddle up and brush against us.
“I don’t really know anyone else who has been to the Galapagos.”
Students and teachers from TGS travel to three countries each year as part of the curriculum, partnering with local schools to conduct their lessons both in and out of the classroom.
Each year, the school takes in only 14 students, who are awarded the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma at the end of four years.
Besides the academic syllabus, they also learn about the country’s culture and experience what it has to offer.
“We study hard for IB, but we went beyond the classroom to learn about the cultural aspects of the country,” says Yuan.
Her favourite experience?
Yuan pauses before saying: “We’ve done so much, I think it is difficult to choose just one experience.”
The experiences are not cheap.
A year at TGS costs US$79,000 (S$107,000), more than double the cost of a business degree from the National University of Singapore.
Fortunately for Yuan, she secured a TGS scholarship that shaved off the bulk of her school fees. She paid only US$8,000 for the last two of her four years of studies.
Although her scholarship does not cover her airfare to the different countries, it pays for her accommodation.
Yuan is the only Singapore-based student to attend TGS.
Is hers the perfect school life?
It is not ideal, says Yuan, though her school offers an education like no other.
Being constantly on the move from country to country can be “stressful”.
She laments how living out of a suitcase meant that she had to learn how to be independent at a young age, like doing her own laundry and cooking her own food.
She says: “Yes, we do amazing things, but it is not all sunshine and rainbows; we don’t just visit places and eat different foods.
“It is difficult to adjust to something completely different. You have to worry about language, transport routes and where to get money from.”
Her mother, Ms Kristy Kelly, says she would sometimes receive calls in the middle of the night because her daughter’s bank cards would not work at the banks in certain countries.
“There were so many nights I woke up to her calling me, panicking about having no money. It used to happen quite a lot,” says the 52-year-old teacher at the Canadian International School (CIS) with a laugh.
In her third year, Yuan took a break from all the travelling and continued her high school education at CIS.
But after a few months, she was back on a plane with TGS.
“I did well in the school here, but everyone already had their own friends and it was a completely new environment for me, so I did not fit in.
“As intensive as it is, there is no other place that I have felt more at home than at TGS,” she says.
The students and staff are always together, so Yuan says they have all become a “family” — one that she will miss when she starts studying international development at McGill University in Canada in September.
“After TGS, it will be a bit weird to spend the next four years in one place,” says Yuan.
But, wistfully, she adds: “It will be a different change. I am excited for it to happen.”
Only 14 students accepted each year
At Think Global School (TGS), students and staff travel to three countries each year for lessons.
TGS, which is based in New York City, follows the American high school system. Students graduate after four years with an International Baccalaureate diploma.
Each year, only about 14 students are accepted into the school.
Mr Lee Carlton, IT analyst for TGS, tells The New Paper on Sunday: “The small student size is due to the logistics associated with travelling the world.”
Students and staff typically live close to one another, usually in dormitories or hostels. TGS partners with local schools to use their facilities to carry out academic lessons.
“But there are also classes that take students outside of the classroom. The school visits places of interest and organises cultural experiences for the students.
“TGS challenges its students to set aside preconceived notions about the places they visit, encouraging them to instead gain an appreciation and sense of empathy for the cultural differences between themselves and the locals.”
But travelling the world comes with a hefty price tag — a year at TGS will set you back US$79,000 (S$107,000).
But this has not stopped people from applying. According to Mr Carlton, the number of applicants has been rising, and about 1,000 applications were received last year from all over the world.
On its website, the school says its students should have a strong academic record, an adventurous spirit and a sense of independence in unfamiliar situations.
To remain inclusive to students from all walks of life, Mr Carlton says TGS has a “sliding-scale” tuition scheme, which takes each family’s financial situation into account.
The school then adjusts its fees according to what is “fair”.
“We really strive for diversity, so having a variety of students from different socioeconomic backgrounds is integral to our school’s mission,” says Mr Carlton.
The remainder of the amount is paid by a grant that the school receives from travel photographer Joann McPike, who founded the school.
TGS is selective in accepting students. Through an online application, applicants have to turn in essays and a media project, as well as submit recommendations from their previous schools.
The school also does Skype interviews with applicants and their parents.
On its website, TGS tells its potential students: “The intensive process is as much for you as it is for us.
“We want you to be fully informed and confident in your decision to leave family, friends and home behind for months at a time to pursue a life of authentic education and passionate place-based learning.”
Three questions for Yuan
After spending four years with the world as her classroom, Yuan considers herself a “global citizen”. But does global mean worldly-wise? We put her to the test with these questions:
What do you think are the benefits of globalisation?
I think because goods, money and people are crossing borders all the time, globalisation is inevitable.
This intersection across these borders is also the intersection of ideas.
The more you travel, the more empathy you will feel for people from different places. No longer are those from different places completely unrelatable. It could be someone you know, could even be a friend.
Like if something happens in Ecuador or Argentina, it would mean a lot to me, because I have been there and I have friends there.
You come from a middle-class background. What opportunities did travelling and TGS give you?
It broadened my horizons. I think there were lots of opportunities that TGS gave me, not only in the classroom but also outside of it.
Through the connections that (my classmates and I have) made, from people in local communities to really successful entrepreneurs, not only were we getting the education of someone from a higher socioeconomic class, we were also given the opportunity to speak to so many kinds of people and get involved in all sorts of projects.
What do you make of Brexit and its consequences?
I am very pro-Remain. I was shocked at the news, and I am really worried because they were essentially asking misinformed masses of people to decide on something that they do not understand.
There was a lot of misinformation, and we can compare what is happening in Brexit with what is happening in the US.
There is so much behind both, and it kind of legitimises anti-immigration ideas. All over the news, you can see that people are telling other people to go back to where they came from.
Brexit legitimises racist and intolerant ideals and, to me, that is dangerous.