7 years back during NTU Open House, I spoke to a senior who shared with me his exchange experience at Georgia Institute of Technology (in short, GT). From his account, GT has always been a highly sought after exchange university by NTU Aerospace Engineering students due to the following reasons:
- It is the top 10 engineering and technology universities in the world (according to Times Higher Education website). NUS was placed 16th, while NTU was out of the top 50.
- It was the top 5 universities for Aerospace Engineering.
Hence, it was the exchange university that most Dean Listers from Aerospace Engineering applied to, to experience an alternate education system. From then on, I set my sight to get to GT for my spring exchange, overcoming financial and academic difficulties in the process. Looking back, I would say that I had a wonderful time at GT, albeit a more rigorous curriculum at that university.
Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport
GT is situated at Atlanta, the capital of the state of Georgia. You will arrive at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport when you arrived at Atlanta. The airport is also the major air traffic hub to major cities in the region (such as Florida), hence it is busy for most of the day. Hence, it is easy to fly to regional states if you’re staying at Atlanta, and you can get cheap flights from Delta or Southwest Airlines using websites such as Pricebreaker or Skyscanner. It is an ideal place if you’re planning to explore around USA over your short weekend.
There are no direct flight from Singapore to Atlanta, so most of us either transit in north Asian countries (such as Japan’s Narita Airport or Seoul’s Incheon Airport), or transit at major hub in USA (such as San Francisco, Los Angeles or New York). A group of us did our New York countdown at Manhattan Square before the start of the semester, while another group of us travel around Japan on the flight back to Singapore.
However, as per most flights to USA after 911 incident, every traveller is subjected to stringent checks by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). There would be some discomfort with regards to the long queue at the checkpoint, as well as fierce-looking immigration officers. Once past these checkpoints, you will find that most Americans are actually quite friendly.
Bank of America
Bank of America (BOA) is the de-facto bank in the campus as well as around Atlanta. For those who have USD-based Citibank account, you can also withdraw money from it within the campus, but it might be a bit inconvenient to find an ATM around the city. In addition, BOA offered a promotion to encourage her customers to save more. For example, if you bought a Krispy Kreme doughnut at $1.05, the bank will deduct $2 from your checking account (always a round-up), credit $0.95 into your savings account as well as top up the same amount ($0.95) for this promotion. This is quite an interesting promotion, as you rarely hear about Singapore banks giving you money, unless it is part of a credit card-based policy such as cashback. Of course, this can be subjected to abuse as well. My friend went to the petrol station and pump $1.01 worth of petrol each time, earning $0.99 from the bank in each transaction. All in all, he paid $0.40 for $20.20 worth of petrol.
Most of us in NTU are too busy with academics and CCAs to join the activities organized by the International Student Centre, hence we have few opportunities to mix with foreign students. But when you’re on exchange, you have more opportunities to interact with foreign students. Although Georgia is dominated by Black Americans, GT has a good proportion of students from different races (Whites, Blacks and Hispanics), as well as students from all over the world (predominantly Koreans, Chinese and Indians).
The International Relations office is also very active in organizing activities, to bring international exchange students together. These activities include get-together night, excursions (to Georgia Aquarium, Coca Cola Museum and NBA matches) and white water rafting. You can take these opportunities to meet up with exchange students from all over the globe.
In addition, you can choose to stay at the I-House (international house) as your on-campus accommodation, and stay together with international students in a small apartment building with common facilities. Establishing friendships with international students give you a source of local tour guides should you visit their country of residence one day. In addition, you can share your problems with other exchange students, who might be in the same predicament or dilemma as you.
GT was one of the three US-based universities under the Global Immersion Programme (GIP). There are typically a large group of students coming over for the Spring Semester, thanks to the agreement discussed between GT and NTU. Most of us would prefer to stay close to each other, not only for emotional support, but also that it would be more economical to pool resources together. Hence, some of us might even stay in the same apartment/building together. It will be easier to come together to cook meals together, discuss about the modules and related homework, as well as to plan for weekend getaway.
However, staying together will also take a lot of compromise and accommodation, as most of us have different cultures and traditions at home, and hence have different way of doing things. This is quite different from staying in school hostel (Hall life), as each of us have to take turns for household chores (which is often a source of argument even for married couples). It is thus important to be selfless and honest with your friends, and make an effort to maintain a cordial relationship.
I am very fortunate that there was no major argument occurring during our time there, and my exchange friends are among my close friends today. Even after graduation, we often meet up together for food or activities.
If you and your friends are sick of cooking your own meals, you can turn to a number of restaurants around the neighbourhood. Some notable restaurants include Wingnuts (for buffalo wings), Tin Drum Asia Café (for Thai food), Waffle House and Firehouse Sub (for their sandwiches which taste way better than Subway). You can also rent a car and venture out for more food choices, such as Tofu House (for authentic Korean food), Krispy Kreme and Baskin Robbins.
One thing that you should not miss out in USA is their cheap ice-cream and doughnuts. The doughnuts from Krispy Kreme and Dunkin Donuts usually cost less than US$1 if bought in a dozen. In addition, supermarkets such as Publix hold 1-for-1 deals, where you can buy certain items for the price of 1. Hence, you can get a pint of Ben & Jerry/Haagen-Dazs ice-cream for US$2 (S$2.60) each, while it is sold in Singapore for S$12 each.
Although the campus is huge, it is quite relaxing to walk from one building to another if you have some free time between lectures. You will be greeted by a number of squirrels along the way during spring. There are also a number of shuttle buses routing around the campus. I also saw the use of bus arrival system in GT before this was also implemented in Singapore and NTU, and this has helped me a lot in arriving for my lectures on time.
If you want more flexibility in your travel time, you can also buy a bicycle from Walmart and cycle around school. GT has dedicated bike lane on its public road (just like all around Atlanta), so it is quite safe to cycle on the road. However, bike thefts are quite prevalent around the campus, so it is advisable to have your bike engraved by the school police department, as well as to get a durable lock. I have my bike stolen less than a month from purchase, as I didn’t do the above two.
The academic curriculum emphasizes on putting continuous effort, hence equal mark weight age is placed both on the final examination as well as the weekly assignment. This is different from the education system in NTU, where most of us made the last burst of effort to score well for the final examination (which carries the highest weight). It can be quite draining at times to do well for every assignment, especially if you have a number of plans for that particular week. My advice is to put in your best effort for your assignment, but do not be overly insistent on getting a perfect score, especially since the grades obtained are not transferred to the NTU transcript.
The classroom in GT, like most in western universities, is much more lively and interactive. Students are eager to raise questions and clarify their doubts in classes, and you can learn much more from these students. Lecturers in GT placed a great emphasis on building the foundation right, especially so for engineering modules where we need these to learn more complex concepts. The passion exulted by the lecturers in their teaching can sometimes make you feel excited about what you’re going to learn. I must say I had a fruitful learning journey at GT.
If you’re into research, it will be good for you to take the opportunity to seek mentorship under some of these professors. I was lucky to have the chance to work on a thermo-mechanical project with Dr. Muhannad Bakir, a renowned researcher specializing in TSV (through-silicon vias). In addition, to clear my Year 2 laboratory assignment, my friends and I have a chance to be part of the GT team to participate in the AIAA Design-Build-Fly competition.
Going for exchange is a good time to test your independence, since any help from your family will be few thousand miles away. You have to learn how to manage your finances, when to do your chores, and how to handle emergencies. The environment at GT makes it less painful to do so, as most amenities are near campus. In addition, the campus police made frequent patrols to keep up the campus security. On top of that, the campus accommodation are well furnished for both kitchen and bedroom, which means you do not have to worry about buying and subsequent selling of some appliances.
Gateway to explore southern USA
GT is an ideal destination if you want to experience winter without its harshness, as well as spring for most of your exchange duration. In addition, Georgia is situated next to the state of Florida and Tennessee, which means that it is a gateway to Orlando for theme parks, Miami for the beaches, and Nashville for country music.
All in all…
USA, in particular Georgia Tech, is the destination to go for an exchange if you’re keen on a rigorous academic curriculum, and the interest to explore southern USA. It will not only be an eye-opening experience, but also a definitive moment in your life that shapes your independence and maturity.