story | Daryl Yang, Guest Writer

photo | Yale-NUS Public Affairs

 

Four years ago, almost two hundred bright-eyed students matriculated as the second pioneering class of Yale-NUS College. We had ideals and ideas to build this institution and its community. The possibilities seemed almost endless. In that first year of college, I witnessed Yale-NUS become the first college in Singapore to offer gender-neutral housing. We set up our Student Government and held our first elections. People around me were starting new student organisations or reinventing existing ones. I must have made the right choice in coming here. Our college was going to be the game-changer in higher education and the next few years were going to be amazing.

In Literature & Humanities II, we read Voltaire’s Candide. At one point, Cacambo asked the titular Candide what Optimism was. Rejecting Pangloss the Optimist’s view that this is the best of all possible worlds, the latter replied, “It is the mania for insisting that all is well when all is by no means well”. In 2015, several news articles raised doubts in some of our minds about the state of affairs at Yale-NUS. An article in The Straits Times reported about “erratic grades and confusing lectures” in our curriculum while another by TODAY interviewed students who were leaving the college because our courses “do not match academic expectations”.

These articles only marked the beginning of many more problems that surfaced. That same year, Jessica Teng wrote about the problems plaguing the Double Degree Programme with Law and another piece was published in The Octant about the future of the Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) major the next year. Non-academic concerns also arose. From mental health to the values of diversity and free inquiry, controversy would strike our community on an almost monthly basis. Our “halcyon days” are over, two of my peers declared last year. Everything came to a head earlier this semester when a group of frustrated students organised a sit-in to agitate for change.

Clearly, all is by no means well with our college. Unlike what some may have thought (or were told it was) when we matriculated or when we attended the Experience Yale-NUS Weekend, Yale-NUS is not the best of all possible colleges. Indeed, there are some who even wonder if or wish that our college should cease to exist in light of the challenges that confront the future of this place we have called home for the past four years. However, to wish the failure of our college may be overly alarmist and a little melodramatic.

The uncertain future of Yale-NUS

What now then? In her book “Hope in the Dark”, Rebecca Solnit wrote of hope, optimists and pessimists:

“Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterward either, but they matter all the same, and history is full of people whose influence was most powerful after they were gone.”

Of all the controversies and uncertainties that our Class has encountered over these past four years, I have witnessed how we have tried to approach them with two pinches of optimism and pessimism and a hopeful heart. Most of us have argued and debated so vigorously over every matter at this college, no matter how small or significant, with the best interests of our community in mind.

The future of Yale-NUS is now (largely) out of our hands. Our legacy lies in having hopefully cultivated a culture of care, advocacy and faith among the younger batches to continue building the vibrant community of learning that we will be graduating from. Upon reflection, there will always be things we wish we could have done better or differently and things we wish we did not do at all. Yet, all that is too late now.

An intolerable college experience

In the last chapter of Candide, Martin suggested, “Let us work without disputing; it is the only way to render life tolerable.” I think the same thought sometimes when things get too heated, too complicated. Yet, I am ultimately grateful for the very intolerable college experience we have had. As Professor Anju Paul described, “In our difference and diversity, we find freedom and richness. In our intimacy, we find the opportunity to learn from one another.” I have grown immensely from each conflict and every disagreement, as they forced me to confront uncomfortable conversations and differences in beliefs and values.

I remember the difficult conversations I had with many people as Coordinator of The G Spot over our Governing Board member Ambassador Chan’s comments at the United Nations on LGBTQ rights in Singapore. Some friends demanded that The G Spot call for her resignation, others supported our more ambivalent position calling for dialogue. It was a wild several weeks that have been a defining moment in my personal journey as an aspiring student activist and young gay Singaporean.

We have built a unique environment where we can safely share our vulnerabilities with each other and help one another grow as students and young people navigating an increasingly fractious and unaccommodating world. It was at Yale-NUS that I learned to challenge my own biases and assumptions. It was here where I learned what it meant to disagree without having to be disagreeable. Most importantly of all, it was here where I learned to come to terms with the realities of a world with more than just fifty shades of gray, that is not as black-and-white as we are conditioned to believe.

At the very end of the book, Pangloss the Optimist insists to Candide that “there is a concatenation of events in this best of all possible worlds”; had not the numerous unfortunate events befallen on Candide, he would not have ended up where he was, “eating preserved citrons and pistachio-nuts”. I am not sure what the counterfactual to Yale-NUS would have been and neither did Candide. He replied, “All that is very well but let us cultivate our garden.”

Let us cultivate our gardens, be they at Goldman Sachs, graduate school or Greenpeace. Congratulations and happy graduation, Class of 2018!

 

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