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Stepping out of the Steel Gates and Ivory Towers: A Guide (Part 1)

All PostsFeaturesStepping out of the Steel Gates and Ivory Towers: A Guide (Part 1)

story | Paul Jerusalem

photo | Paul Jerusalem

In an article by Ethel Pang ’22, she ponders: Where’s the NUS in Yale-NUS? This is undoubtedly an important question that, as Pang notes, has been asked time and again by other Yale-NUS College students. It is understandable that a first-year student would feel a disconnection more keenly, having only attended common curriculum classes, and for less than a semester at that.

An entire essay could be written to unpack this disconnection and problematize issues that Pang highlights in her article of what it means to be a “true blue” Singaporean or to “lapse” (an extremely unfortunate word choice) into Singapore Colloquial English.

Instead, I have decided to focus on answering the very question in her title: Where is the NUS in Yale-NUS? In trying to answer this question, I’ve found that the real question her article seems to ask is this: Where is the Yale-NUS in NUS?

This is the first of a two-part series for those who would like to make meaningful connections with the National University of Singapore (NUS) community but do not know where to start.

To be sure, the intention of this article is not to set a normative rule about how Yale-NUS students interact with the NUS community. Rather, it is to put forth the possibilities available to Yale-NUS students who want to make the most out of their proximity to NUS.

How one prioritizes their time is entirely up to them. However, with the wealth of opportunities available at NUS, it would be remiss for a Yale-NUS student to not look beyond the steel gates and ivory towers, or to merely venture to UTown Starbucks and mistake that for an adventure.

Join a sports or performing arts group

With the relatively smooth process for initiating new student organizations, it is common for Yale-NUS students to start new student organizations if there isn’t one that meets their needs. For example, in 2015, a group of freshpeople founded (aside), having identified an absence of repertory theatre groups at Yale-NUS.

Nevertheless, forming groups dedicated to niche interests is not always easy, given the small size of Yale-NUS’ student body.

Many Yale-NUS students have joined NUS clubs and societies for the above reason. This is prevalent for those participating in niche sports, such as Marissa Foo ’19 who joined the NUS Sailing Varsity Team in her third year to try a new sport, and Leong Kit Ling ’20 who has been with the NUS Judo team since her second year.

The absence of a symphony orchestra at Yale-NUS also prompted Lucy Davis ’20 to join the NUS Symphony Orchestra (NUSSO), which she has been a part of since her first year. Furthermore, Davis said that since the NUSSO is more established, the repertoire there is far more challenging and better suited to her liking.

More resources in place

Jay Ong ’21, who currently serves as the President of the NUS Jazz Band, had thought about setting up a jazz band at Yale-NUS as well, but said that “it made more sense to join NUS Jazz,” because the group “already has the infrastructure and resources in place.”

These resources include an extensive mentoring and tutoring system, including regular music history lessons, private tutoring sessions, and ad hoc events such as the NUS Jazz Band’s Speaker Series, on top of group rehearsals.

According to Ong, the NUS Jazz Band is only able to pull this off because it has a sufficiently big group of about 60 members, of which six are Yale-NUS students.

This sentiment resonated with Yale-NUS students who had joined NUS groups despite the existence of a Yale-NUS counterpart, such as Marc Koo ’19, who joined NUS Dance Blast! — a multi-genre street dance group — because it is bigger and more well-known in the Singapore dance scene, and is thus well-positioned to provide more opportunities for its members.

Daniela Salazar ’21, who has been a part of the NUS Choir since this year, echoed much of Ong and Koo’s opinions. While noting that there does not exist a “Yale-NUS equivalent” since all singing groups are different, she said that the NUS Choir’s larger size and years of establishment have made it more conducive for her experience as a singer, as it has a stratified leadership structure that handles musical and administrative matters separately.

This enabled the choir to regulate attendance and ensure that there was “no flakiness,” according to Salazar. In contrast, leaders of smaller singing groups often find themselves having to multitask between musical direction and administrative tasks.

More rigorous training standards

For others, varsity teams at NUS are more compatible with their athletic interests given the years of experience that they’ve had with the sport. Justin Ong ’19 wrote in an earlier article for The Octant that he joined the NUS Cross-Country team because he wanted to train in a competitive running team that held regular trainings, whereas the Yale-NUS team trained only in preparation for the Inter-Faculty Games and the Inter-Collegiate Games.

Similarly for Andrew Kwan ’20, the opportunity to be a part of a more established team where the level of competition is “far higher” enticed him to join the NUS Tennis team. However, Kwan said that this does not make it an exclusionary team, and that NUS Tennis places a huge focus on building a tight community in addition to maintaining high standards.

Although it was easier for Kwan to be included in the NUS Tennis team since he has known many of their members as peers and rivals since he started competing in primary school, Kwan said that “we always do our best to make everyone feel included,” regardless of their national or ethnic background, “as long as they make it through the trials.”

Ms. Ching S. Sia, Team Manager of NUS Muay Thai, concurs, saying that both the varsity and recreational teams accept Yale-NUS students.

Fear of exclusion quickly abated

It is important to note, however, that joining an NUS group will be more challenging for some than for others. Having been in the tennis scene for years, Kwan naturally found it easier to integrate into NUS tennis, but the same isn’t necessarily true for students who have had no background in the sports. For instance, Kanako Sugawara ’20 found her experience in NUS Wushu more challenging as not only a beginner but also an international student.

Sugawara attributed her eventual departure from the group to her busy schedule which was unable to accommodate the team’s demanding training roster, but said that there was often a language barrier during trainings.

She said the coach only spoke in Mandarin Chinese, and even when her teammates spoke in English, it was often in Singapore Colloquial English, usually interlaced with Chinese words, which made it difficult to keep up with conversations.

Despite this, she emphasized that her teammates were extremely welcoming, and said that “they always tried to include me into the conversation when they could, but it’s difficult when only one person can’t speak the language in the group.” She added that she felt bad that her teammates constantly had to translate the coach’s instructions, especially since Wushu was “literally Chinese martial arts”.

Due to her positive experiences with her hospitable peers, Sugawara said that though the Yale-NUS bubble may be comfortable to be in, international students should not be quick to write off NUS students as unwelcoming. She added that “they just have a hugely different lifestyle from us (international students)” but ultimately, they are warm and accommodating.

Salazar further agrees with Sugawara’s point, saying that her peers in NUS Choir have been extremely inclusive, and her initial fears that she would have no friends were quickly abated as they would make efforts to help her feel integrated and more comfortable among her fellow choristers.

Not a zero-sum game

With such a diverse range of extracurricular activities available at NUS, Yale-NUS students should not hesitate to explore these groups.

It might be tempting to think that Yale-NUS students joining NUS groups comes at the expense of Yale-NUS groups, and numerous Yale-NUS students choose to remain in Yale-NUS groups to contribute to developing the vibrancy of our campus life.

Yet, for many Yale-NUS students who have joined NUS groups, it has been an opportunity not only for self-development, but also to bring what they’ve learned back to the college.

Carson Huang ’20 initially joined NUS Choir in his third year out of curiosity, hoping to “see what the Choir was all about and how [he] compared to them,” having been a part of his school choirs since secondary school. Upon joining, however, he has stayed on for a longer time because it gave him the opportunity to develop more professionalism and skills, which he was able to impart to the Chamber Choir at Yale-NUS.

Although timing clashes have prevented Kwan from being part of the Yale-NUS Tennis team after his first year, he continues to play an advisory role by watching the Inter-Collegiate and Inter-Faculty Games, giving the team tips and pointers.

Koo, on the other hand, used some of his experience with NUS Dance Blast! to bring street jazz to the Society of Yale-NUS College Dancers (sYNCd).

When Yale-NUS students participate in NUS extracurriculars, they kill two birds with one stone, by helping to demystify certain misconceptions about Yale-NUS students being “isolationist and elitist” and deconstruct the imposing image of the Yale-NUS campus, while also bringing back ideas and best practices that can be useful for much younger student groups at Yale-NUS.

Most NUS sport teams accept enquiries through their Facebook pages or through email. A list of NUS’ Varsity Sports Leaders for AY17/18 can be found here with their corresponding email addresses. More information about performing arts groups at NUS comprising dance, music, theatre, production, and film can be found on the NUS Centre for the Arts’ website, with social media links and email addresses on each page. Most groups hold semesterly or annual auditions, but enquiries are always welcome.

In the next part of this series, we will feature students who are involved in NUS research and academics, and community involvement and advocacy work. Yale-NUS students who have had meaningful connections — or otherwise — are invited to send a message to Paul Jerusalem ‘19 via email at paulmjerusalem@u.yale-nus.edu.sg or Facebook messenger, for an interview.

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