On 17 Nov 2016, a group of 20 BSP students and 3 teachers left Singapore for a 16-day learning journey to the East Coast of the United States of America: Boston, New York, Lancaster and Washington, D.C. The main objective of the trip was to enhance our students’ understanding of the US, in the areas of its culture, history, economy and its political system.
The first city we went to was Boston, where several historically significant events such as the Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution began. Here, apart from learning about the history of America through a walking trail, students had the opportunity to visit two renowned universities, the Massachusetts Institute and Technology (MIT) as well as Harvard University. At MIT, students were led on a guided tour by an MIT student, and they quickly learnt that far from being stereotypical ‘nerds’, MIT students work hard and play hard, sometimes applying their scientific knowledge to executing elaborate pranks around the campus. Additionally, our students had the chance to meet up with three ex-Dunmanians who are currently studying in Harvard over dinner. These ex-students shared their experiences and thoughts on studying in the United States, and also provided valuable insight as to how Dunmanians could make the most of their Senior High years to inch them closer to their university goals, whether in the United States or elsewhere.
Next, we excitedly made our way to New York. The itinerary for this leg of the tour was packed with activities for students to soak in the culture and history of the United States. Of course, catching a musical on Broadway was a must—students were treated to a musical adaptation of the beloved Roald Dahl novel, Matilda, and they marvelled at the talent of the young actors. New York is also the home to the United Nations Headquarters, which students had the privilege of touring as well. It was certainly an eye-opening experience to be able to see the UN General Assembly, Security Council and other chambers in real life. Part of the UN experience included a dialogue with a representative from the UN. In our case, it was Mr Donald Lee, the President of International Committee for October 17 (UN Day for the Eradication of Poverty), who gave an insightful presentation on the importance of developing in a sustainable manner, and urged our students to be agents of change back home. We also visited the Singapore Permanent Mission to the United Nations and the United Nations Headquarters. Here, we learnt that Singapore served on the Security Council as a non-permanent member from 2010 to 2012. The UN upholds “one country one vote”, which ensures that even small countries in Singapore can be represented and have their interests protected in the UN. For small country like Singapore, being ignored in world affairs is a real possibility. Singapore tries to ensure this does not happen by staying not just relevant, but ahead of the curve, and also being part of informal groupings such as the Forum of Small States, which allows discuss and foster common positions on issues of mutual concern, thereby giving them a bigger voice in the UN.
A trip to New York would not have been complete without a visit to the site of the most famous terror attack in recent history: the September 11 attacks. Students visited the 9/11 Memorial, located at the very site of the attack: Ground Zero. The museum contained a multitude of artefacts, first hand testimonies, and even voice recordings of those who were affected by the September 11 attacks. While students undoubtedly already had heard of the attacks prior to the visit, it was clear that being in the very space, and confronted with the artefacts and stories, provided a strong emotional connection to the event for them, resulting in a deeper appreciation of the gravity of the attacks and why counter-terrorism efforts are so crucial.
After New York, we went on to a more laid back part of America: the Lancaster countryside. As urban dwellers in a notoriously fast-paced country, the change of pace was new to many of us, but it was an experience many enjoyed. Lancaster is also home to a large Amish and Mennonite community. Students visited an Amish visitor centre where they were able to see what life for a typical Amish person would be like, from their farming activities, to their clothes, schools and homes. One principle the Amish community abides by is to stay clear of vanity and ostentatiousness, which certainly provided us with food for thought as we reflected on the image-obsessed world we live in. At the end of it, students came away with admiration for the immense discipline the Amish people must have in order to be able to retain their traditional and simple way of life as the rest of the world changes and modernizes.
Our last stop on the tour was the political centre of the United States: the capitol, Washington, D.C. We toured iconic landmarks such as the White House, Capitol, Pentagon and the Library of Congress, as well as famous memorials at the National Mall. We learned more about the history of the United States from our guide, Daniel. Previously having to work in the White House during the Kennedy administration, Daniel shared that his favourite memorial is the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial as he was privileged to have worked with the charismatic civil rights activist. We were moved by the stories our guide shared, and were very much inspired by the carving of King’s quote on the stone walls of the memorial- “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope emerges”.
To better understand the importance of bilateral ties between Singapore and the US, we visited the Singapore Embassy where we were hosted by our friendly MFA Officer Mr Timothy Seow, First Secretary (Political). He shared on how Singapore is a close, strategic partner of the US across a range of political, economic, security and development initiatives. He also shared on the work of the Singapore of the Embassy to maintain strong relations with the US, and to continue build on and explore new areas of mutually beneficial cooperation.
One highlight of our stay in Washington, D.C. was the trip to the Holocaust Memorial Museum. Much like the visit to the 9/11 Memorial Museum, the trip to the Holocaust Memorial museum provided immense insight into a historical event that, despite its unparalleled horrific nature, may be distant to students in terms of emotional resonance. The Holocaust museum provided students with a sensory experience: each picked up an identification card of someone that fell victim to the holocaust and assumed his/her identity; they were packed into a lift, modelled after an actual gas chamber that ruthlessly robbed the lives of millions during the holocaust. They witnessed events of the holocaust unfolding — from the Nazi’s rise to power to the numerous atrocities committed before finally seeking closure. The visit allowed students to appreciate more deeply the importance of human rights, dignity and peace movements in making sure that such events never happen again. Yet, it was also a sombre reminder that in spite of the lessons learnt from the Holocaust, the world today also seems increasingly divided—this makes the commitment to peace and upholding the rights and dignity even more crucial.
For all of us, this 16-day journey was not only exciting but enriching. The places we went to, the people we met, the experiences we encountered – these will definitely serve as fond memories.