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Humanities Major Keith Chew Earns Rapoport-King Scholarship

Tue, November 28, 2017
Humanities Major Keith Chew Earns Rapoport-King Scholarship
Keith Chew

Keith Chew doesn’t always win a scholarship for an outstanding thesis proposal, but when he does, he makes it count.

I say this because Keith might just be the most interesting man in the world.

A dedicated world traveler and citizen of Singapore, Keith has seen more places and experienced more amazing things in his first 24 years than most people do in their lifetimes. He is now on the fifth year of his pursuit of three majors that stem from his international background – Humanities, Government, and Chinese.

Keith’s childhood has not followed the usual trajectory of the typical American student. That is because for most of his life, he wasn’t one. Before coming to Austin, he split his upbringing between his home country of Singapore and his honorary American hometown of Dallas, Texas. Along the way, he gained opportunities and faced challenges beyond his years that make him one of the most impressive and unique students in the UT community.

His academic career has not been a straight line to success, however. Given his impressive record as a college student, his reason for moving to the US might be surprising.

“I moved to the US because I failed 9th grade in Singapore. In Singapore, students are doing calculus at that age… [and] at 15, you don’t really know what you’re doing,” Keith said. “I would skip school and malinger, I’d tell the teacher that I wasn’t feeling well and just go out… I didn’t put much emphasis on my education. Parent’s tell you that education is important, but it doesn’t really hit home.”

He spent his primary education years as a carefree and playful student – characteristics that don’t fit in well in Singapore’s cutthroat academic culture. So, at 15, he decided to change his environment and left his education in the hands of Dallas, Texas. This change was not easy, but it transformed Keith for the better and served as the foundation of Keith’s international perspective.

“When I came to the US, I was devoid of friends and family… basically everybody left, and I was here by myself,” he said. “Throughout all of high school I spent time away from my family and pretty much raised myself from 15 on.”

Keith had to adapt and mature to a challenge greater than most American high schoolers know, preparing him for the next major step in his life.

With an American high school diploma in hand, Keith did not immediately head off to a university. Rather, he shipped off across the world for basic training. As a citizen of Singapore, he is required to serve for at least two years in the Singaporean military.

After 6 months of navy training, Keith assumed three specific positions that carried incredible weight for a fresh high school graduate of just 19 years.

Keith sailed the seas working on surveillance, counter-terrorism, and watching for piracy and human trafficking on the front line. He also worked in management with high-ranking officers to allocate resources and draft budgets for military unit missions - all on a boat about 45 minutes from the country by helicopter.

“You know how you watch movies and everyone is in a dark room with four computer screens and a head set? That’s basically what my job was like.”

When I asked where he was posted, he couldn’t say. While the most confidential information that kids at this age carry usually regards crushes and gossip, Keith was entrusted with military secrets.

After spending four years in the States before moving back to the rigid Singaporean military, the mix of cultures caused some problems.

“When you come from a system such as in the US where something is done to you that you feel is unjustified, you feel a need to defend yourself,” he said. “It’s a different culture there… there it’s ‘suck it up, keep your head down, bide your time.’”

Still today, Keith is a reserve sailor who is liable for service if the Singaporean military deems it necessary.

While this period of his life may seem like a bump in the road of his academic career, the experience was crucial in influencing Keith’s academic interests and is a major reason for his choice of majors at UT. The dichotomy between American high school culture and Singaporean military culture sparked an interest for comparative politics, and he developed his interest in military intelligence through surveillance work.

Keith chose to focus on studying war security and intelligence after he served his time, following a very specialized field that seeks to discover how policies affect security and influence military decisions.

This interest also fuels Keith’s award-winning thesis proposal.

Keith has recently been awarded the Rapoport-King Scholarship as a result of his outstanding thesis proposal, which earns him a nice $3,000 to aid his research or other academic pursuits.

His thesis will focus on the political rhetoric between China and Taiwan over the issue of Taiwanese independence and Chinese liberation of the country. Essentially, he seeks to discover whether China and Taiwan report about the issue of independence in the same way.

“The idea for this whole project came out of my study abroad in Taiwan – I loved that experience. I was kind of prejudiced against Taiwan before going there. The mentality is that China is huge… and they claim Taiwan is theirs. But then you go there, and you realize that this is a democracy and their culture is very different than China,” he said. “Their history is vastly different… Taiwan was colonized by the Spanish, Dutch, Japanese, and now the Chinese, in some form. It was a shocker for me to realize how wrong I was. Without LAH resources to go abroad I probably wouldn’t have seen that.”

The thesis is no easy task. With five years of humanities and hundreds of essays under his belt, Keith expects his thesis to be 5-6 chapters at 15-20 pages each.

While some scholarship recipients choose to use the money to travel for research or conduct experiments, Keith is putting the money towards his future.

“I was going to have to take a loan to pay for grad school applications – they are 80-100 each. I was looking at 12-15 programs, so that is where the money is going. Fortunately, my project doesn’t require money or any work that has to do with people – I just run research from databases,” he said.

As a convenient extra incentive, Keith can also use the money to pay off his last semester at UT.

Keith credits Liberal Arts Honors for his academic success and the many opportunities the UT and Austin communities have afforded him.

“I fell in love with the United States. Like every immigrant does at 15 years old… This college environment is intriguing… it’s full of surprises… I find myself growing at every step,” he said. “There’s always someone here in LAH and Humanities to give you direction. The resources on this campus are immense, professors are super willing to talk to students. In high school everybody told me ‘Hey, don’t go to UT because you’ll just be a number in an ocean.’ It’s not true – students need to take the initiative to seek out their interests and resources, and if they don’t then they won’t get anything, but they are there in abundance.”

Keith found a home amongst the giant world of UT through LAH, and he doesn’t think he would could accomplish what he soon will without the community. He credits some of his earliest writing classes with giving him the skills that are now crucial in his career pursuits.

“LAH has presented students with the ability to think critically at an early stage and at a higher level than most students at LAH,” he said. “The 102H class is writing intensive… anyone can vocalize anything, but to have to put [an argument] on paper, explain your evidence and thought process step by step – that’s valuable experience. Without that I think I would have done pretty poorly in most of my writing classes and wouldn’t be able to write my thesis right now. The GRE has an analytical writing section, and I didn’t have to prep for that because LAH prepped me.”

He especially connected with the immersive environment of the freshman class, Reacting to the Past.

“I considered transferring from UT until I took that class… it helped me come out of my shell and exposed me to political theory,” he said. “Talking about the core issues of democracy, different forms, and why it is the way it is - You realize how much people skills are valuable.”

As a student who had already put real military strategy to use, he obviously excelled in the class.

“I was playing the China game and convinced the emperor to kill off all his own people singlehandedly (laughs). It reminds me of playing politics in the military.”

Alright, while he may not have used his skills for entirely benevolent reasons while a student in the class, he is now a valuable asset to the program working as a TA with Professor Elon Lang, with whom he shares a spot in the acknowledgements page for the textbook the class uses.

“I want to give students what I didn’t get when I was in the class,” he said.

Keith stresses that the benefits of LAH are not limited to the Austin campus. His experience studying abroad was also incredibly impactful and transformed Keith as both a student and a citizen of the world.

You can read about Keith’s travel experiences and his advice for others wanting to study abroad here.

This is not to say, of course, that Keith has not made quite an impact on campus as well. In the scarce free time that I’m sure he has had as a triple-majoring undergrad, Keith managed to assert himself into many impressive roles in campus organizations.

He rubbed shoulders with professionals from the FBI and CIA as a three-year employee in the Clements Center for National Security, an on-campus consulting agency that does real work for the federal and state government. He was even able to meet former Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper in this role, name-dropping him casually.

He put these same skills to play as a moderator for Model UN, and in the policy research institution Innovations for Peace and Development as a freshman.

For Liberal Arts Honors, he served as production editor for the student literature showcase Echo, and helped underclassman with humanities as a pod leader in Humanities Student Council.

Oh… he also studied at Harvard over the summer and worked for National Geographic as a photographer in Ecuador before the military.

When I asked how he was able to obtain such impressive positions as a young underclassman, Keith had some key advice.

“You just find these applications online… just fill them in.”

Next year, Keith is off to graduate school. His GRE score is impressive, no doubt, and he is in the arduous process of applying to top-20 programs. He believes his unique majors will craft an impressive narrative, and says his first choice is Duke, where he hopes to go on to study with one of the best professors specializing in Chinese and Taiwanese security.

Keith’s path in life has crossed through many continents and seen its fair share of smooth roads and jagged intersections, and we are grateful that it crossed through Austin to bring him to UT.

Wherever that path may take him next, we wish him the best of luck from Liberal Arts Honors.

Let me know when Dos Equis contacts you for an endorsement, Keith.


Profile written by Ryan Chandler, Journalism and LAH Government ‘21 

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