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How my exploration of identity revealed a calling

How does an IB education prepare students for their future studies and careers? Diploma Programme (DP) graduate Billy Chen tells us how exploring his identity led him to the study of architecture at the University of Cambridge.

by Billy Chen

Throughout my childhood, my least favourite question just happened to be the one that was forever prevailing in social encounters; the dreaded: “So where are you from?” One from which countless streams of responses can diverge from: Chinese, Norwegian, Chinese-Norwegian—and don`t forget that splash of Anglo-American influences thanks to years of Hollywood exposure. Eventually I stopped. Having reached the conclusion that, I could never be fully Norwegian, yet have also strayed too far from my Chinese roots to consider myself that.

This is why I chose to pursue the IB Diploma Programme (DP) because I saw that in a progressively globalized world I could be both, or neither—and a system that aims to cultivate holistic, globally-minded students could provide me the platform I needed to carry on my international journey. And the course that benefited my journey the most was Visual Arts, which gave me the freedom to explore precisely my questions about identity.

The Norwegian part of my identity has however, had a great influence on my decision to study architecture and led me to the University of Cambridge. And it did not arrive as a moment of ‘Eureka’, but rather an accumulation. As a Chinese kid, I was no stranger to construction grounds and edifices rising seemingly extemporaneously from the earth, burying bygone ages beneath. But I don’t remember ever wanting to become an architect as a child. Scientist, astronaut, and billionaire were among the list, but never an architect—at least not until over a decade later.

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Billy Chen is a graduate of the Diploma Programme at the International School of Stavanger.

My move to Norway challenged that conformity. I was introduced to a world where modernity not only existed alongside heritage, but had to fight for its place. A world where the monotonic timber cottages were deemed worthy of attention. Hence, I decided to study architecture, so that I may someday create buildings that heed the unglamorous structure of my homeland, rather than consigning them to oblivion.

“I chose to study architecture because I saw an array of social and cultural issues in the built environments I grew up in, and little effort being put forward to solve them.”

My advice to current students would be to find your calling. Something you are willing to vehemently pursue and which you believe you can bring about some form of positive change. You often hear people say that you should do what you love, but I think you should look beyond love. I chose to study architecture because I saw an array of social and cultural issues in the built environments I grew up in, and little effort being put forward to solve them, so I set out to solve them on my own. Hence for me, my IB diploma provided a gateway to the path of solving my challenges.

As an IB student, you will hopefully have gained an awareness of some of the plethora of challenges in the world today. If you can find one that you can strive to solve, you will give your studies a purpose beyond that of just a numerical achievement.

Billy Chen is a graduate of the International School of Stavanger and is currently studying architecture at the University of Cambridge.  He was a finalist in the Young Norwegian Researchers Competition for his exploration of the concept of tradition in contemporary architecture in the city of Stavanger, Norway.

To learn about the IB alumni network, visit and read about our 50th anniversary featured graduates to see where other students have taken their studies and careers.

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