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Making sense of society

MR MA Xiangyu was pursuing his undergraduate studies at Pomona College, a liberal arts college in Claremont, California, in 2013, unsure about what he wanted to do. Then, he walked into an Introduction to Sociology course in the second semester of his freshman year, and fell in love. He enthuses: “I leafed through the course syllabus and thought, this is what I want to do with my life. Sociology, to me, is all about putting our everyday struggles in the larger context of society. “It shows how we are constrained by the larger workings of society, yet can live wonderfully varied and meaningful lives by working with or struggling against these constraints.” To the 25-year-old, this “structure-agency problem” as described in sociological jargon is the heart of sociology — and also what he finds most intellectually compelling about the field. He learnt about the Ministry of Education-Autonomous University (MOE-AU) Scholarship after a friend told him about it. Confident that pursuing a PhD programme in sociology and entering academia was what he wanted, Mr Ma applied for the scholarship as a mid-term candidate. He was awarded the scholarship in 2015. The MOE-AU scholarship for full-term candidates covers all tuition and compulsory fees, a monthly stipend, a one-off pre-studies allowance, return economy airfare for scholars studying overseas; sponsorship for one overseas exchange programme for scholars studying locally, as well as other developmental opportunities. “It was an unbelievable deal — not only would my education be completely funded, but I would be assured of a great job at a top research university in Singapore,” he says.

Inspired by his mentors

The scholar obtained his Bachelor of Arts in Sociology, Magna cum Laude, from Pomona College last year, and is currently working on his PhD in sociology at the University of Chicago. “I’m especially interested in how people’s ideas of right and wrong motivate or affect their behaviour, as well as how these ideas come about. “I want to know how people’s social networks and social behaviour affect their beliefs and actions,” he says. After he completes his studies, Mr Ma hopes to become a good teacher to the next generation of students. “I’ve been lucky enough to have had great mentors at Pomona College. They believed in my potential, invested time and energy on me, and more than once picked my spirits up,” he says. “I want to pay it forward, and be as great a mentor to others as they have been for me when I join National Technological University in five years’ time.” He also aspires to be an excellent sociologist — “someone who writes with grace and clarity, works with sophisticated computational methods, and furthers the understanding of culture and morality”.

Dig deep

To those preparing for their scholarship interview, Mr Ma’s advice is to study the academic subject they are interested in at an advanced level, including the latest findings in journal articles, and find out about the current big questions and debates in the field. Reading up on ongoing research projects on websites and publications of relevant departments in universities will also help applicants choose their university and provide ideas for research specialisations. He says: “Think seriously about what you want to dedicate your life to. What sort of work truly makes you happy? “The scholarship isn’t a means to an end — it is an end. Once you know what you want — at least in the short- to mid-term — you would better appreciate what a scholarship has to offer. Then the “bond” becomes a blessing. “I want to be a professor, and the scholarship gives me the opportunity to do exactly that.”