Saying yes to research and experimentation

“Active learning is specifically learning which is more hands-on, you could say, and which involves more student participation. The student takes an active position in their own learning.”

In the summer of 2021, right before Hilary Ng Wunt Sang ’24 was about to start at Mount Holyoke, something unexpected happened: Lightning struck the dormitory where she was supposed to live.

The College then arranged a deal with nearby Hampshire College to house a group of international students. Ng Wunt Sang, who is originally from Mauritius, was among the students. What was originally a fluke ended up being a pivotal turning point for her as she settled into her college years.

“I think it was a really great introduction to the area because Mount Holyoke can be kind of a wormhole, and it’s very sheltered,” Ng Wunt Sang said. “Having to live outside of it, for the first semester, gave me a lot of experience with getting around the area and seeing Mount Holyoke as part of the bigger picture instead of just coming to Mount Holyoke.”

At the same time, it was the intimacy and safety of going to a gender-diverse institution that initially attracted Ng Wunt Sang to Mount Holyoke. Ng Wunt Sang had attended co-ed schools her entire life before Mount Holyoke. The College caught her eye because it had a reputation for offering good financial aid packages and scholarships, which Ng Wunt Sang, as a first-generation low-income college student, was deeply interested in. Additionally, Ng Wunt Sang was curious to explore aspects of herself without feeling the eyes of cis men around her.

She realized that saying yes to Mount Holyoke also meant saying yes to a different way of being during some of the most critical years of her life. “For example, I was able to experiment with style, and I dress the way that I want to exactly every single day,” Ng Wunt Sang said, reflecting on her time at Mount Holyoke. “And I think that whenever I enter other spaces with men, I dress differently because I’m conscious that there are men around and that I will be seen or observed more than I would be at Mount Holyoke.”

Since coming to the College, Ng Wunt Sang has also immersed herself in her studies and explored her interests. A self-professed fan of making spreadsheets, she had always wanted to be a psychiatrist but was also intrigued by coding and programming. Soon, Ng Wunt Sang found that neuroscience suited her more than psychology and that a double major in computer science could also satisfy her desire to learn and understand technical programming.

She is now scheduled to graduate in three years, thanks to the transfer of her international baccalaureate credits from high school, which she was able to add to her college course credits.

Alongside her schoolwork and holding down different part-time jobs, Ng Wunt Sang invested significant time at Mount Holyoke collaborating with Professor Becky Wai-Ling Packard in the psychology and education department. Together, they are researching how social identity affects classroom dynamics, especially in the context of active learning and STEM education.

The opportunity came to Ng Wunt Sang during her first year at the College. Like staying at Hampshire dormitory, it came out of the blue. Ng Wunt Sang had initially applied for a different research project, didn’t get it, and was later offered this research position instead. For Ng Wunt Sang, it worked out well, as researching active learning resonates with her on a personal level.

“Active learning is specifically learning which is more hands-on, you could say, and which involves more student participation. The student takes an active position in their own learning,” Ng Wunt Sang said. “The reason this is involved with social identity is because, say you’re the only person of color in your classroom, which has happened to me. If you’re learning chemistry with active learning, and you’re in a lab, and you’ve got to do experiments, there is a component of discomfort that comes from the added social engagement either with your peers or with the professor. Whereas in a lecture, for example, even if you’re the only person of color, if you never speak or if you never have to engage with anyone, then your social identity doesn’t matter as much.” She and Professor Packard are now co-authoring a paper on their research.

However, Ng Wunt Sang’s most vivid memories at Mount Holyoke extend beyond the classroom.

“Honestly it’s not my majors or my work,” she said. “It’s the friends I made and the things I experienced.”

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