TO THE CLASSES OF 2019 AND 2020
by David Wilson (Class of 2001)

This letter was written by alumnus David Wilson (Class of 2001).

I have debated for a while whether or not to write this letter. I’m close to ancient—already in my mid-30s—and I have never met any of you. I haven’t even set foot in Singapore in a decade. And yet, I work with a lot of college students, and previously worked for a many years with high school students. These young men and women are uncertain right now, and anxious about what the future holds. Thus, I offer the following letter as a way of gathering some of the thoughts that have coalesced through conversations with many of my students and colleagues in these past weeks and months. These reflections are offered in a spirit of camaraderie, and out of gratitude for my own time at Singapore American School. If the letter helps, I’ll be thrilled. If it doesn’t, know that it’s only the opinion of one alumnus.

To the classes of 2019 and 2020:

I can imagine that things feel very difficult right now. This was not the end you wanted to your senior year of high school, nor the end you wanted to your first year of college. For the high school seniors, the pandemic situation has foreclosed upon many important opportunities to gather together and celebrate your formidable accomplishments. Your last interim semester, your last prom, your last day of class, even commencement, all have been swept away by lockdown measures and pandemic response. For the college freshmen, many of you will have been unceremoniously and hastily removed from the dormitories where you have likely forged many of the closest friendships of your lives. For both classes, the opportunity to enjoy those precious few days between the end of finals and the start of summer, and to soak in the accomplishment of completing high school, or finishing your first year of college, has been yanked away, along with your summer plans for work, study, research, or simply relaxation. In short, both of your classes have been denied the closure that is important at any major life transition, and even more so for third culture kids (TCKs) whose lives are characterized by constant mobility and change.

These are undeniable challenges, and it is right and understandable to feel a sense of loss at the graduations, goodbyes, and gongxis that will not come to pass as you had envisioned. But I’m also writing to remind you that the future is still bright and exciting, even if your exact path forward is less certain than it seemed just a few months ago. 

I say this as a member of the graduating class of 2001. For my graduating class, the first weeks of college occurred at the beginning of September 2001, in my case just days before the attacks on New York’s World Trade Center. Later, I graduated with my first graduate degree in 2009, at the peak of the Great Recession. And now, I am writing my doctoral dissertation at the University of Chicago surrounded by the social, economic, and personal chaos brought on by the world’s newest pandemic. Every single one of these events has been generation-defining. Every single one of these events has been scary, disorienting, and disheartening in its own, non-commensurable way. And every single one of these events has helped me to sharpen my priorities in life; to renew my commitments to my artistic development, my intellectual passions, my communities, and my professional goals; and to feel immeasurable gratitude for the ways in which my life as a TCK prepared me not only to deal with, but to thrive in the uncertainties of our modern world.

Almost every single one of you, at some point in your life, has been uprooted from home and taken far away from friends and family. This is part of what it means to be a TCK—you have grown up moving between cultures, neither completely of your home culture, nor of your host culture, but part of a distinct, third culture. This third culture comes from the fact that you have already tested yourselves in situations of great uncertainty, adapted in rapidly changing social circumstances, and learned to find the joy in unexpected connections and opportunities that emerge out of unfamiliar conditions. Even those who have been in Singapore since elementary school have grown up in a community characterized by its constant flux and ephemerality. For me personally, I have lived in five cities in the last decade alone, pursuing a combination of career and education. Each of these moves has held challenges—moving away from family, friends, colleagues, and familiar places I love—but each time I have also known that these are challenges I can live with. In other words, thanks to my background as a TCK, fear of a new place, fear of change, has never held me back from pursuing my goals, and this is a gift that should not be underestimated.

For those of you about to graduate, many of you were no doubt planning to repeat the feat of overcoming uncertainty by moving to distant locations, away from friends and family, to begin your post-secondary education, national service, or professional life. For those already in college, you may now be living with family who are no longer in Singapore, and thus find yourselves facing the same kinds of social uncertainty and isolation as when last you moved just a couple of semesters ago.

But here’s the important part. Although the disruption of your plans and hopes is undeniably difficult, the skills that you have already developed just by virtue of your life as a TCK are the same skills that will help you adapt to the new normal that will almost certainly emerge in the aftermath of this global health crisis. These are the skills that will allow you to approach uncertainty with confidence, knowing that you have the resilience, the self-understanding, the empathy, and the experience to carve out a place for yourself, no matter where you find yourself. As the world realigns itself in the wake of this first wave of COVID-19, remind yourselves that, although our current situation may be unique, your TCK background is also unique, and it has equipped you to succeed even in these unsettled times. You have been in unfamiliar situations in which you have felt vulnerable, isolated, scared, and powerless, and you have overcome these challenges and flourished.

I leave you with one final thought as you move on to your next step, whatever and wherever that might be. This pandemic has reminded us in stark terms of the importance of sociality, of personal relationships, and of communities. One of the challenges of growing up as a TCK is the uncertainty of belonging—to this day, I despise the question, “Where are you from?” As TCKs, we lose the sense of a community tied to a fixed to a geographic location. But we also gain a global network of care and support. Wherever you end up next, remember that you are a strand in the web of SAS alumni who care about and feel connected to our community, regardless of whether we have ever met one another. Certainly, take advantage of social media to stay connected with your friends. But also be sure to connect with your alumni association. Connect to the network of people who are scattered around the world who are part of your extended community. We are a resource, just as surely as any building, lab, scholarship, or travel opportunity you had while on campus at SAS. And exactly because we are scattered all over the world, chances are good that, wherever you end up next, you will never be far from a group of alumni. This year alone at the University of Chicago, I have taught two alumni of the other SAS I attended (Shanghai American School). We truly are everywhere! Look for your network—it will bring you many unexpected smiles and connections in the future.

Congratulations to all of you on succeeding even in the face of uniquely challenging and unsettling circumstances. Even though our community won’t be gathering in person to congratulate you on your accomplishments this year, know that we see them, and that we celebrate all of you as you end your current school year and move onto whatever is next. And wherever you go, go with the confidence, the courage, and the compassion of an Eagle.

Wishing you all health, wellness, and success on your journeys near and far.

About David Wilson (Class of 2001): 
David Wilson is a performer, researcher, and educator based in Chicago, Illinois. He has performed in recitals and operas throughout the US and Europe for organizations such as Washington DC’s Kennedy Center and the National Opera Association. He has served as voice instructor at Stanford University, New York University, and Scripps College (Claremont, CA), and has taught voice and German lyric diction in the German for Singers program at Middlebury Summer Language Schools. He has also served on the academic staff at Harvard University as a resident tutor in music. Wilson received his doctorate of Musical Arts in Vocal Arts from the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music, where he was named the outstanding graduate in Vocal Arts for 2016. He holds degrees from New England Conservatory (M.Mus), Middlebury College (M.A. German Literature), and the University of Michigan (B.Mus), and has pursued doctoral research in musicology at Stanford University. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate in ethnomusicology at the University of Chicago, where his research explores the ways which in state-sponsored music transformed global political discourses during the Cold War.

  • advice
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  • Class of 2001
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