Interview with Aaron Kurzak - Yale-NUS College Economics Student

Education is one of the most important factors that influence a person's resources and experiences, and we want to share experiences of the up-and-coming generation professionals in Singapore. In this regard, our team at ValueChampion has been preparing a series of Q&A interviews featuring top students at different universities in Singapore.

This interview is with Aaron Kurzak, a Philosophy, Politics and Economics student seeking his bachelor's degree at Yale-NUS, expecting to graduate in May 2017.  We recently spoke with him and asked him about his experience within his program and what he's planning to do with his professional future.

What influenced you to pursue a degree in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics?

I believe breadth trumps depth at this stage of my life. More so than most other undergraduate degrees, PPE is less about accumulating knowledge, and more about developing analytical skills and rigorous interdisciplinary thinking. It forces students to think independently early on, and explores non-obvious connections between three fields whose intersection lies at the heart of any larger problem humans will face in the next decades. 

What has your experience in the program been like at Yale-NUS College?

I’ve loved the freedom I’ve enjoyed in navigating my path through Yale-NUS. I started on a natural science track, spent most of the past two years studying political philosophy, and am now writing my final year thesis on Chinese bilateral currency swaps and how they can be used as a political tool. In 2015, I cofounded the Yale-NUS Consulting Group, through which we offer real, pro-bono consulting services to businesses in Singapore. Again, the freedom and support we’re getting from our administration, and the opportunities for such ventures in this country are amazing. Naturally, as part of the inaugural class of the college, there were some difficulties along the way, both academically and administratively. Going through college without drawing on the experience of upperclassmen, for example, was challenging–but at the same time, this absence of role models has groomed us into a very entrepreneurial and independent class.

Were there other schools you were considering, and if so, why did you choose this one?

I considered several established universities in the United States and China, but chose Yale-NUS because of the unique opportunity to build an institution from the ground-up. I also felt that globally, the balance was tipping away from the West and towards the East. Singapore offered a perfect springboard into Asia.

What is your favourite class so far, and why?

Urbanisation in China with Professor Nick Smith. We were able to learn so much about political structures, markets, and culture in China through the lens of urban studies. From the onset, the entire course was structured as an argument, with its conclusion only revealed at the end, which made for a very cohesive learning experience.

Based on the general education classes you take (and what you hear from your peers in other majors), what is unique about the nature of your major’s classes?

It’s the initiative and independence the major demands from students. There’s few seminars that integrate philosophy, politics, and economics deliberately. Instead, students are forced to make those connections mostly by themselves by selecting a set of courses that fit together well, and allow you to explore these intersections outside of the classroom. You learn a lot by yourself.

What has been the most challenging aspect of this area of study, and was this something you had originally anticipated?

Even less so than I expected, this major didn't prepare me for any specific profession after my graduation. My education was truly an end in itself, not a means to some next stage in my life. And even though I face a lot of uncertainty because of that right now as I’m looking for this next stage, I couldn’t have hoped for a better intellectual undergrad experience.

What are the best ways to network with your peers within your major?

Our PPE community is so small that networking usually happens at the dining table.

Have you participated in any internships? How many, how were they, and did you find the school’s resources to be helpful in helping you find this opportunity?

I started working part-time in freshman year as a researcher in a solar energy business. After that, I worked in several disciplines–academic research, policy analysis, venture capital, and most recently, consulting. The more dynamic the working environment, the more I enjoyed the internship. I knew quite well which steps I wanted like to take next; I secured only one of the internships through Yale-NUS. In general, however, I think our administration might even be too helpful, too determined to push us towards certain “career” opportunities.

What are your future career plans and aspirations?

I want to take part in the creation of something–a product, an organisation, an idea–that will live on beyond myself, and sustain itself through others.

What is the best piece of advice related to your field of study that you have received?

One of my best friends at Yale-NUS, Zach, told me during our first semester: “Don’t sweat the small things”. Perhaps because of its simplicity, this sentence has accompanied me on all of my pursuits ever since, and has spared me many troubles.

What advice would you give someone else trying to break into this field?

Radically insist on yourself. And, think strategically about the big decisions you make. View them in light of a larger thirty-year plan; in the next five years, it doesn’t matter what you achieve, but how you improve.

How are you financing your education, and what are your most helpful online resources or tools?

Most of my education is generously funded by Yale-NUS. I do not use any online resources or tools.

What resources or information would you like to help you think about your career that you’re not currently getting?

Upperclassmen would be extremely useful–this is a unique feature of Yale-NUS’ inaugural class. It makes me excited to return to the college in a few years to provide the insights we missed.

Do you have favourite books that have informed your outlook as an aspiring professional or leader? If so, please name them and describe why there are important to you…

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt” by Edmund Morris and “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” as told to Alex Haley. These two men lived without fear.

Duckju Kang

Duckju (DJ) is the founder and CEO of ValueChampion. He covers the financial services industry, consumer finance products, budgeting and investing. He previously worked at hedge funds such as Tiger Asia and Cadian Capital. He graduated from Yale University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics with honors, Magna Cum Laude. His work has been featured on major international media such as CNBC, Bloomberg, CNN, the Straits Times, Today and more.