Saturday, October 23, 2021

Back to School: Yale-NUS in the Week After Closure Announcement

Story | Naia Nathan (she/her), Contributing Reporter
Photo | Joshua Vargas (he/him)

At the August 27 town hall where it was announced that Yale-NUS College would be closing, Madam Kay Kuok Oon Kwong, Chair of the Yale-NUS Governing Board, declared that life at Yale-NUS would be “business as usual” going forward. In the wake of the grief and anger following the announcement, students and staff alike couldn’t fathom how this would be. 

Apart from canceled classes on the 27th, school did resume. This article reflects on how the members of the Yale-NUS community dealt with this.

A safe, reflective space

Suffice to say, academic life at Yale-NUS was not business as usual for the most part in the week after the announcement. Many class loads were reduced, students took time off lessons, and some professors spent lessons reflecting on the announcement rather than pressing on with academic content. 

That Monday, May-yi Shaw, Assistant Dean of Cendana College, emailed students to say that while many professors still hoped to hold their classes as usual, they would also treat it as a “safe and reflective space” to “talk and process things together.”

Max Pasakorn ‘24 was grateful that this was the case in some of his classes. “Thankfully, some professors gave us the space and time to process our thoughts and emotions. They spoke to us about how they felt about the college, and about our futures.” 

The Octant also spoke to four students who missed classes to recuperate from the impact of the news. They affirmed that they were able to take time off without being penalized, either by receiving AD notes or speaking to professors directly.

Several classes also reduced or modified the curriculum to support students, particularly for Common Curriculum classes. The Scientific Inquiry teaching team reduced homework and readings for sophomores by half for two weeks after the announcement, while the Comparative Social Inquiry teaching team removed one topic from the syllabus to reduce first-year students’ academic load.

However, some professors pushed on with classes, shifting content that was meant to be covered on Friday’s canceled classes to the next lesson. To some, this provided stability but also posed a significant challenge. “I was thankful to my prof for pressing on with the lesson because it gave me some semblance of normalcy. But it was also very difficult to move on,” said Eileen Chua ‘24.

In the Double Degree Programme in Law and Liberal Arts (DDP), on the other hand, students did not experience reduced workloads. A DDP student from the class of 2024 who requested to remain anonymous said: “Law school isn’t as forgiving as Yale-NUS. When the news broke, we asked our professor for an extension of the assignment which was due the next day, but unfortunately, they couldn’t grant it to us.”

“The sky is falling and I’m expected to do readings”

For many, Friday’s announcement was a profoundly destabilizing one, triggering such intense emotions of anxiety, anger, and grief that returning to academic studies felt impossible. Dain Kim ’24 said: “I mean, the sky is falling, and I’m expected to do readings and go to class like the sky is still there? I don’t know how to describe it other than everything being overwhelming and impossible.” 

Benjamin Goh ’22 further described the impossibility of returning to normal life after the town hall, saying: “Our lives were upended in an hour and I was told my alma mater would basically disappear in the span of four years. Yet, I had to do my readings. I had to do my assignments. I really couldn’t summon the strength to do anything or to read anything.”

Shaw echoed the despair faced by students in the wake of the announcement. In an email to The Octant, she reflected on students’ reactions to a water play event organized by Cendana College on September 1, writing: “Those who participated seemed to have so much fun that I bet to any outside visitor, it would have appeared as if life had gone on as usual … But the reality is, the facade of our students coming together to talk, play, hold events, or initiate projects together in such spontaneous and creative ways over this past week perhaps reflects a deep layer of despair and sense of powerlessness, as they didn’t know what else they could do to mend the hurt.”

She continued: “The angrier they [were] at this feeling of having their own agency stripped away, the more they resorted to temporary outlets, such as in the form of the water play. To me, it was far from being a moment of fun; it was perhaps more of a chilling moment of catharsis (and a sad, agonizing one), regardless of how it appeared to be.”

“Pointless”

Post-announcement, students have struggled with finding the motivation to continue with academic work. An international student studying remotely, who preferred to remain anonymous, said: “Staying motivated is already hard enough when you are remote.” After the announcement, they felt no motivation to go to class. 

More severely, a growing sense of the pointlessness of following the academic program was echoed by some students. 

Odette Yiu ‘24 said: “Learning determined and allocated by an institution whose rules, schedule and fancies you need to abide by feels pointless indeed. Any previous sense I had of academic overwork being arbitrary has now been validated.” 

Kim further said: “If normal ever meant anything, it meant nothing now… my old schedule and classes seemed nothing more than a farce”. 

This deeper sense of alienation and meaninglessness impaired students from being able to engage in school activities the week of the announcement and could impact the mood of the school going forward. It remains to be seen, though, whether such sentiments will last and if they will spur any changes in the school.

Hope

Amidst the pain, many have found hope in advocacy against the merger. In the week following the announcement, T-shirts bearing the “I made it, thanks.” slogan were printed in solidarity, referencing the comments made by Tan Eng Chye, President of NUS, on the decision to close Yale-NUS. A website memorializing community reactions to the merger was also launched, while the #NoMoreTopDown petition calling for greater accountability from NUS garnered over 14,500 signatures at press time. These efforts have brought genuine hope to students that the merger will be reversed.

Many students shared that they did not consider the decision final and felt that it was time to fight, not grieve. As Yiu put it, rather than “mourn as if things are absolutely final, I choose to be angry.” They continued: “The #NoMoreTopDown [movement] has brought me a lot of hope.”

Chloe Ang ’24 expressed gratitude for the various solidarity efforts. They reflected that in Singapore, many are socialized to believe that if higher-ups make decisions, you simply have to follow. “This is the first place I found I could mobilize and demand more,” they said.

You’re hurting, I’m hurting; how can I support you?

Many have also found solace in solidarity with the community. Through the shared experience of pain, there has been an outpouring of mutual support and stronger unity within the school. Many members of the Yale-NUS community shared that strangers, students, friends, and faculty alike checked in on each other regularly and offered support.

Petrina Loh, Senior Manager of the Student Affairs Office, shared: “When I walked around campus, so many students stopped to ask me how I was doing… So many students whom I know are in pain were also the ones checking in, which is so beautiful. It’s such a reflection of our community… I got so many emails from alumni and current students asking: ‘How are you doing? I know how much effort you put into the school. You’re hurting, I’m hurting; how can I support you?’ It’s just really beautiful.”

This sense of community was also displayed and furthered by how student organizations and even individual students organized events that promoted the school spirit of their own accord. On the day of the announcement, a durian festival was held by the Yale-NUS Southeast Asian Society. In the next few weeks, other ground-up initiatives such as the Visual Arts Society’s urban sketching and art therapy sessions emerged. Residential Colleges also organized solidarity events, with Elm and Cendana holding a candlelight ceremony, Cendana holding a water play event, and Saga holding a solidarity picnic. 

Daniel Lee ‘24, President of the Southeast Asian Society, reflected on their decision to go ahead with the durian festival the day of the announcement. “We could have canceled the event, but the prevailing thought in my mind was that this was the time to show what the Yale-NUS community is all about.” 

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