Saturday, October 23, 2021

Freshie’s Spotlight: Happiness at YNC is…

Story | Cindy Huang (she/her), Contributing Reporter
Photo | Cindy Huang (she/her)

This month, The Octant invited several students from the Class of 2025 to a conversation focused on their discovery of happiness and strength in the Yale-NUS community. As can be seen in the class Telegram chat, appropriately named “The Last Class of Yale-NUS,” the freshmen have been hit hard by the closure of Yale-NUS. The faith they’ve placed in the exciting possibilities a new chapter at Yale-NUS offers is being challenged in ways unprecedented and entire, but also right at the beginning of their time here, before emotions transcend memories and friendships forge meaning.

In light of this, The Octant presents a collection of the youngest Kingfishers’ happiest little moments as well as their self-reflections on the navigation of college life so far. They strive to seek and sustain what they have, knowing that they have a long way to go.


Freshie’s Spotlight: 

Name: Wang Shi Hui Jeanette 

Age: 19 

Pronouns: she/her 

What’s your life philosophy?: “Always put in the best effort!” 

Despite having a few worries here and there before arriving on campus—a general fear of making friends as a semi-introvert, the uncertainty of community and classroom interaction during COVID, and her aunt’s lingering comments on Yale-NUS’s competitiveness—Jeanette opened up about her favorite moment on campus in the past month or so that revealed to her the supportive environment at Yale-NUS: 

“My spirits were a bit low that day… so I went to see Gohan (Cendana College’s favorite doggo!), alone, and there were a lot of people I didn’t know, a lot of seniors, and we just ended up talking together: about future employment, emotional attachments, a loss of identity perhaps, just releasing stress.”

Jeanette mentioned how she was surprised that the seniors seemed to care more about the impact of the news on her and the freshies, being attentive towards her emotions and response to the town hall announcement. “It really shows that the support system is there.” 

She continued to talk about other aspects of college life that inspired her. The energetic class discussions made her less afraid to engage with others’ opinions. “I come out of class feeling super enriched and content. It was much more interactive than I imagined.” Relating her sentiments on the class dynamic to Yale-NUS’s interdisciplinary education, Jeanette gave a few examples: 

“You start to realize all the courses are interrelated, from LitHum, CSI, PPT, to even QR, like how the analysis of Ramayana from LitHum is related to the methods of interpretation in Bhagavad-Gita from PPT. In QR, you unpack statistics and relate it to a wider social context… that’s what interdisciplinary is.” 

Admitted under the Duke-NUS Medical School pathway, she presented her unique perspective on the liberal arts and humanities education at Yale-NUS:

“[I have] a more science-heavy background. Being at Yale-NUS helps create a more holistic education for me. Thinking back on what my philosopher professor once said: patients give us life stories, and as a doctor, we need to fully understand the patient as a whole, and not just by the symptom. That really stuck with me. The entire reason I entered Yale-NUS was to keep in touch with the humanities, because medicine itself is an art, it is interdisciplinary. You work with so many other specialties, and you interact with humans. In the words of LitHum, it celebrates humanity.”

When asked about some of her pillars of strengths in the face of recent town hall announcements, Jeanette shared spontaneous moments of life with her suitemates:

“I think my suitemates [are] all just clowns. I think one day our neighbors are going to complain they’re hearing too many screams. They make me laugh everyday, and they just remind me that we’re in this together.”

She also talked about the safe space her Residential College Advisor (RCA) created with baked cookies and one-on-one talks when some of them faced academic stress:

“My RCA reminds me that it’s an ungraded semester. Don’t let grades get the better of you, because that’s not really why we’re here. You’re here to learn—everyone is a philosopher.”

For her, the support system is both a source of happiness and what builds resilience. She talks about how her view of community support developed through the town hall announcement:

“The social support network is really dependent on the individuals within this larger community, so if we all work together to evolve, adapt, and change with what is happening, we can change for the better.”

Like many other first-years, she sheds light on a communal mindset of positivity in the face of the challenging news: 

“Although it [Yale-NUS] physically won’t exist, it definitely still exists within us. We are the students, the ones that make up the content. I think that’s what we are. I remember my CSI professor, Prof. Benjamin, saying: ‘We are the ones who create and write history.’ We are writing history right now.”


Name: Avery

Age: 19

Pronouns: she/her

What’s your life philosophy?: “To be a saint is an exception, to be an upright man is the rule” — Victor Hugo 

For Avery, there was almost too much to love about Yale-NUS. Sometimes, it was the little moments that stole her heart: the “how are you doing” from schoolmates in the courtyard, a small interaction that Avery felt was “super heartwarming!”; her RCA’s gentle reminder to not share anything they weren’t comfortable with during their first RCA meeting; holding casual conversations with the Dean of Students in the Residential Colleges “like real family”; and the fruitful conversation with her professor, where a “Eureka” moment struck as her professor passionately introduced her own research. 

More often, it was the general excitement of starting college in a culturally unique and academically excellent liberal arts institution. Avery said: “It’s this whole bustling experience, fully residential, where life and the community joins as one. There’s something that makes you happy happening everyday, and I look forward to the unexpected happiness everyday.”

She painted her happy memory with words: “It was during orientation, and my RCA group went to Saga College’s board game night at the Common Lounge. We stayed up till midnight playing board games. It was not outstanding in any way, but just a really peaceful memory with friends, chilling, chatting, and there was a breeze. We were doing things together, and it felt the best.”

In her recollections, Avery talked extensively about the sense of a safe space being created at Yale-NUS. Coming from a high school where toxic competitiveness floated in the air, Avery was struck by the space Yale-NUS community members held for each other. 

“No one will force things, not even implicitly… [Everyone] is so sensitive and soothing,” she explained. “I’m kind of a shy and private person. But in this community, no one derides differences. I don’t have to feel judged. I don’t have to constantly second-guess whether I am close enough to someone else. I feel safe to go to them, I might feel safe being friends with a thousand-plus people here.” 

After all, Avery said: “How can you not feel safe being here, with people that understand respect?”

She also mentioned how residential life plays a big part in the cultivation of deep connections, where her friend walked all the way from Cendana to Saga and back to talk her through the post-town hall trauma, or how she easily made friends with others at an event: “We both came out for a breath of fresh air, and just like that we’re friends already. It’s the magic of the community.”

For Avery, the safe space, or “the magic,” existed also in Yale-NUS’s academic structures, such as the replacement of rigid dissertations with an individual capstone project for graduation requirements, the ungraded first semester to allow a graceful transition, and the interactive seminar discussions. “It’s symbolic of the college telling us our opinion matters. Engagement and personalization is important for me.”

In relation to her response to the town hall announcement, Avery reaffirmed the uniqueness of the safe feeling Yale-NUS gave her: 

“I was looking for other transfer options, and looking at the variety of colleges avaliable, I just didn’t feel anything else could be like Yale-NUS. I really treasure meeting new people with completely different lives. Our previous environments were different, but once coming here, we are strong as one, we are reassured because we exist in this space together.”


Name: Safinah Barvin

Age: 24 (post-JC and Poly)

Pronouns: she/her

A fun fact about yourself?: “I was a part of Singapore’s NDP Marching Contingent.”

For Safinah, making it to college was a moment of celebration. Emotions of happiness and gratitude were embedded in a single moment during the candlelight ceremony during Orientation. 

“I remember looking around and feeling so happy because I finally made it to university, I finally made it to a place where I can be myself. Seeing the beautiful campus that it is—it’s so much greenery! I just thought that maybe it was worth all the effort I took, like, okay, this is it, all my effort was for this wonderful moment, and for the amazing four years to come.” 

She explained how college also meant a sense of freedom for her. “Yale-NUS’s residential program has really given me time to explore myself. When I’m at home, I’m surrounded by my family members, my parents, my nieces, and I still have a curfew, despite being 24 years old. When I’m alone in my room at Yale-NUS, I am able to reflect what my personality really is. And being away from my family made me realize how dependent I am on them. It’s a part of the rediscovery.”

On what the Yale-NUS community meant for her, Safinah took a similar perspective with Avery: feeling safe.

“What I really, really love about Yale-NUS is that I can just be myself. When I was at other schools [Safinah has studied previously at both Junior College and Polytechnic], I think I always felt like a minority, and I always had to be cautious of what I said and what I did and whether I would face racism… but here, I’m not the only minority, at all. This place is where you can be yourself, free of judgement. And everyone’s just so sweet and nice.” 

For Safinah, the safe community comes from the kindness and understanding of the people. In her experience at other schools, she often wondered: “Oh, will I be the odd one out?” 

She explains: “I think even in secondary schools, you can at least see three or four people who are like me, but in [other] universities, especially the course I specifically chose, I knew that there would be a very high chance that I would be alone.” 

Laughing, she continued: “I think people who come here are just nice people; I don’t know how the admissions team manages to choose students who are just so nice… here, people are aware of other’s different experiences because we all come from different backgrounds, so we know how it should be.” 

She talked about how she first felt safe during the application process. 

“The admission process itself, instead of only judging you by your grades, asks you to talk about yourself and your interests… It’s like they’re saying: ‘Hey, I see that you’re this holistic human being and that’s great, we want to know more of you and what you’ll bring to the community here.’ I started realizing what I’m able to share with the world. So I guess from that moment itself, I started feeling safe.” 

Now at Yale-NUS, she is grateful for the safe community in terms of an ungraded semester and a vibrant social landscape. 

“[Yale-NUS] is different because we’re allowed to explore. I am able to enjoy my first-year classes more since I’m just trying to absorb as much knowledge as possible without worrying about whether it will affect my final CAP.” 

Coming from banking and finance background, Safinah explained how the ungraded semester allowed her to truly enjoy a liberal arts education, as well as try out the various social events Yale-NUS offers. 

“In high school I go to school from 8 am to 5 pm. I don’t think I was given many opportunities like the Rector’s Tea where we invite people to share their life experiences. And the mooncake making sessions—such activities allow me to learn from others, and in that process I learn more about myself too.” 

Participating in a variety of student organizations opened Safinah to a wide range of passions too: “It’s a good break from studying! I enjoyed Bollybhangra; they’re so welcoming and really accepting of newbies. I even joined Oasis, and tried contemporary dance for the very first time. I think I had the space to even try because Yale-NUS nurtures you to explore. And so I really discovered more about myself and my potential.”

Aside from the school, she is also thankful for the sweetest suitemates that help cultivate a safe space for her, informing her in advance whenever a male would be coming into the suite so she could put on her hijab and always remembering to order her non-alcoholic drinks when going out. 


Name: Mohammad Dabeer Ahmed

Age: 19.5

Pronouns: he/him

What’s your life philosophy?: “Two things: first, to be kind, humble and grateful; second, because life is unpredictable, finding happiness in the little things.”

As an online student this semester, Dabeer admitted feeling distanced from the community at times. 

“The biggest challenge is probably a lack of social life. I know I need to meet new people, it’s just been the same people from high school that I’ve been interacting with [due to online restrictions]. I haven’t been able to join a lot of clubs [since] not a lot are going hybrid.” 

Dabeer hasn’t been able to attend school physically since 2020. With abrupt news overflowing, both post-town hall and in his personal life, Dabeer says: “It’s been draining for someone who hasn’t been to school in 18 months. Sometimes it just feels like bad news over bad news. Every day you get something sad.” 

He explains the difficulty of learning through a screen for him: “I love stress, but in [the form of] physical work, you know. For my high school orientation, we attended classes for two days without sleeping, but I was fine even under the intense pressure because I was with people; I was physically going out and about.”

However, Dabeer shares his optimism and open-minded life philosophy towards the unusual and chaotic situation of undergoing the town hall announcement and the cancellation of Week 7 online. 

“I really think everything in life happens for a reason, and I know I’ll be there in person someday, if not tomorrow,” he says. “It’s important to give the situation the benefit of doubt. I think that even if I had been on campus, how I would feel and how things would have been might not be too different.” 

Dabeer’s own unique experiences have brought about a mindset of positivity. Shifting between four schools in four years and having lived in the UAE for 13 years and Pakistan for eight years, he has come to realize that “the people are what matters, not the place.”

The people, like for many other freshmen, are what Dabeer finds a lot of his happiness in at Yale-NUS. “I’m South Asian by ethnicity, and my online classes consist of a lot of South Asian kids, from places like India and Pakistan. It’s like what we talked about in CSI. I guess humans have tendencies to approve of one group over another. I think I would’ve bonded most with my people.” 

He talked about a specific moment where his professor pronounced his and his friends’ names wrong. “We found it to be a sort of bonding moment. Sometimes we chill and talk in our own language in breakout rooms, and that makes online classes more bearable.” 

However, Dabeer goes on to say, “The reason I came is because of diversity, as far as my identity is concerned,” referring to the diversity that Yale-NUS and, in a larger context, Singapore, delivers. 

Dabeer is also grateful for the kindness and accomodation his professors have shown him. “I love my profs. My CSI prof allowed me to submit my paper three days after the deadline with the whole internet situation. My PPT prof took an entire 120  minute seminar just to address the questions on the town hall announcement… it’s nice to have someone to talk about it and provide that safe space.”

Despite some disconnections, Dabeer is confident in his adaptability. Looking forward to reuniting with his Pakistani friends on campus, Dabeer says: “I have faith in how I’ll make the best of my life once I arrive on campus. That’s what matters.”

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