story | Evan Asava-Aree
Five years ago, in March 2013, I was accepted into Yale-NUS College. Back then, it was a college that didn’t have a campus or students and everything was sold on a promise. It was a promise to build a institution that prided itself on learning, innovation, and change.
In seven weeks, I will graduate from Yale-NUS and head out into the workforce. What a surreal experience.
I woke up on the day of my capstone submission and I cried for a good 10 minutes. I was intensely sad to know that I was leaving a community that I so dearly love and had a hand in building. My time at Yale-NUS has been a special one, marked by many magical moments.
It started with my first ever class at Yale-NUS. It was a seminar during the Experience Yale-NUS Weekend (EYW) by the late Professor Barney Bate, who welcomed us prospective students into a class on Tamil poetry and politics. I don’t remember anything about the class itself, but I do remember that it made me go, “wow. What a professor. This is a professor with whom I want to take a class with.”
You could tell from his eyes that he was incredibly knowledgeable, energetic, lively, passionate, and inclusive of students who were shyer. The class was amazing as well, with other students being participative, not afraid to say what was on their mind, not afraid to engage. “This is a college I want to go to,” I thought.
The next, was a five hour conversation I had with Ling Xi Min ’17, a student who had then already accepted the offer to go to Yale-NUS. Again, I don’t remember what we talked about, but I remember, “wow, this is the kind of person I want to be friends with in Yale-NUS.” He was thoughtful and a good listener, but also an immensely nuanced thinker, and a strong idealist with good doses of realism. He did not take away any of the concerns I had about Yale-NUS then, but instead balanced them with reason, hope, and optimism. Our conversation ended at 5 am, but I felt alive and ever so committed to joining the community.
There was also the talk about the Common Curriculum, also during EYW, by former Yale-NUS President Pericles Lewis and former Dean of Faculty Charles Bailyn. Until this day, there are two things I learned in this talk that still stick strongly with me:
- “What are the things one needs to learn to be a responsible citizen in the 21st century?”
- “If you don’t love something, you probably don’t know enough about it.”
Yes. This was why I wanted to come to this school. I wanted to learn what it means to be a responsible citizen, how to exercise that responsibility as a citizen of Yale-NUS, and commit to learning. Also, the fact that I needed to embark on a commitment to learning in order to develop that love for it, resonated strongly within me.
College classes started and I had my first Comparative Social Inquiry class with Professor Michael Maniates. He was bright, cheerful, animated, and brimming with energy. From the David Foster Wallace article about a fish not knowing that it is swimming in water, to the Steven Pinker reading about debunking East versus West myths, to learning about the Stanford prison experiment, I engaged deeply with the ways institutions exert power over us.
In Scientific Inquiry, we were exposed to the frustrations that scientists face on a daily basis, and thought about how scientists make inquiries into the unknown. How do they build upon existing assumptions and forms of knowledge to make hypotheses and test them rigorously? We looked at phenomena of the periodic table, the history of the model of the atom, redshift, emergent properties of the brain, learned how to dissect scientific journals, and communicate scientific results.
Looking back, I realize that my first year was a lot about learning from others. For one, there were too few students for too many things we wanted to accomplish. I remember that in my very first semester of college, I painted with the Visual Arts Society, wrote poetry with the Literary Collective, and learned how to debate with the Debate Society. I learned how to listen actively with P.S. We Care, and set up the volleyball club which only had 4 people then. I also learned about environmental studies education from doing research with Professor Maniates. I remember that starting things was hard. I had to figure out how to maintain attendance for student organisations, persuade people that what I was doing was worthwhile to them, and to consistently think of things to do over the whole year.
I also remember my first year as a time of fervent exploration and imagination. I was constantly thinking of things to do, and aspired to engage my interest in Japanese culture more deeply. I thought of applying for a travel fellowship and do the ohenro (お遍路) and walk the route that linked 88 temples in Shikoku to do an anthropological study on communities that supported pilgrims. By interviewing people in order to listen to stories about their interactions with the pilgrims, I was curious to understand what the culture was like and how people organized their lives around the pilgrims. Till this day, this remains an item on my bucket list.
Instead, I went to Nanzan University on a Summer Language Scholarship, and it was a magical time where I immersed myself in Japanese life. I remember my first botched self-introduction where I introduced myself as Evan-san, and being barely able to speak. I carried around my notebook and furiously took down every single word or phrase I didn’t know, and pushed myself to speak in Japanese and to listen all the time.
The next magical moment came when I came back to Yale-NUS. I took an Introduction to Computer Science course with Professor Aquinas Hobor, who until this day remains the sole reason why I am an Mathematical, Computational and Statistical Sciences (MCS) Major. In that course Mr. Hobor taught me how to think computationally, and to look at a problem to try and solve it step by step. I didn’t do well in that course, because it was so hard to think in a way I had never done before, but I grew so much from the experience I decided to take more computer science courses. The sumo-bot competition at the end was certainly an amazing experience I would not swap anything else for.
I also did an electronics class with Professor Jan Gruber, whom I really respect for his pedagogy. Before teaching us the concepts behind them, he got us to explore certain experimental setups, and to come up with our own equations to draw relationships between the experiments and theory. It was also an intensely practical course, where we built many things, including a WiFi hacking device, and an FM radio.
There was Modern Social Thought too, and until this day I am so grateful for the way it has transformed my ideas about democracy, capitalism and the multitude of ways power seeps into discourse, medicalisation and other realms of life. I am intensely thankful to Professor Christina Tarnopolsky and Professor Barney Bate for their gentle guidance through this amazing time.
I think I’ve said enough about classes, but many thanks to Professors Marty Weissman, Dave Smith, Simon Perrault, Michael Gastner, Robby Tan, Nozomi Naoi, Yaffa Truelove, Maurice Cheung and Michiel van Breugel for close mentorship, wonderful guidance and enlightening me on so many things I previously didn’t know about. I could write on and on about the amazing classes they ran, but I shall devote a little time to the magic of small community building here at Yale-NUS.
Small communities are what made my everyday life uplifting and rewarding. Every meal at the dining hall is a comforting experience and being able to talk to people I care about really makes my day. I am able to feel a steady connection with the people who have chosen to partake in lovely conversations every Monday through the Japanese language table that I’ve been running for about a year now. Talking about aspirations, realisms and dreams over playing pool at the Saga buttery, talking with people about dealing with everyday struggles, and discovering new realizations at different places in school has been heartwarming. This is the human connection I have found at Yale-NUS. My fellow Residential College Advisors and Dean’s Fellows are a constant source of support, my first years a constant bundle of joy, and I don’t think I have regretted one moment being here.
Of course, there have been trying times, and a considerable amount of them too. But I think they have helped me grow and helped me become a better person than I was when I first entered. That’s for another reflection, but I do think that if I leave this place as an upgraded version of myself, my time here has been worthwhile.
I think this is what I call a community of learning: learning in all dimensions, from classes to extra-curriculars to meals and informal spaces. I have truly learnt from a very very special place. Thank you Yale-NUS.