story | Huang Runchen, Esther Koh, and Wong Shiying, Contributing Reporters
photo | Olivia Dure, Dean’s Fellow
With dizzying dehydration in the middle of the day, no contact with the outside world and only $20 for food, Elm College freshpeople were made to walk at least 20 km from Sembawang to Clementi in groups of six as part of an orientation activity organized by local non-profit organization Ground-Up Initiative (GUI). More than a month after this experience, freshpeople are still buzzing with indignation about the activity.
GUI has said, however, that they had conducted similar activities before for “secondary school students and youths of the similar age” without any complaints, but acknowledged that for the Yale-NUS College Orientation there was leeway to make the activity less strenuous.
The teambuilder activity held on Aug. 3 by GUI began with a tour of a farm in Kranji where students tried their hands at farming activities.
Students that The Octant spoke to said they enjoyed the activities at first, but most agreed that things soon took a turn for the worse.
Groups of Elm College freshpeople were tasked to embark on a hike from a farm — Kampung Kampus in Sembawang — back to Yale-NUS College. They were placed in a hypothetical scenario where artificial intelligence had taken over the world and they had to escape without any mobile devices. The groups of six possessed only a map and $20 for food. Some groups took as long as six hours to complete the task.
“We’re very aware that the experience was not the most wonderful for the students,” a GUI representative said in an interview with The Octant. “We pushed them a bit too hard in the second half of the program… But it was designed to stretch the participants physical and team dynamics and cause discomfort and frustration in some groups.”
GUI told The Octant that it aimed to provide a different experience that the classroom could not offer. “We know that a lot of experiences that Yale-NUS has are exposures that are more intellectual and [involve] critical thinking, which is important, but we hoped to give an alternative [experience], and that was the intent when we designed this,” the spokesperson said.
Barring the harshness of the activity, the lack of preparation was a bugbear to many.
“There was no proper safety briefing,” said Elm freshperson Tavis Tan ’22. “Without our phones and wallets, nor our backpacks, we were at a loss. If someone fainted or got injured, we didn’t know what to do. Our RCAs didn’t either.”
GUI explained the rationale for taking these items away, and said that “by taking their phones and valuables … We [emphasise] the importance to disconnect to reconnect… To slow down, connect with nature and connect with each other.”
Elm freshperson Saoirse Lightborne ’22 said that besides just phones and valuables, many basic essentials were absent from what was to be a grueling and unexpected six-hour hike.
“Some of us who were on our periods didn’t bring a change of pads or tampons, and a lot of us didn’t even fill up our water bottles,” Lightborne said. “This was really detrimental because we had to go on a hike around Singapore without the essentials.”
Tan said that a main problem of the activity was that there was no water given to students before they set off, with participants having to walk as long as two hours to get to designated “water points.”
With certain water points being difficult to find, dehydration, heat exhaustion and giddiness began to set in for some.
“At that point most of my teammates had run out of water and we were really thirsty,” said Tan. “When I asked the organizers about it, they were quite unsympathetic to our situation. I didn’t feel like they were responsible for our safety.”
When asked about the safety of the activity, GUI said that although they had “no [GPS] trackers” on the students, that they had developed a checkpoint system that keeps them in the know about the locations of the students, and had previously used the same system on other student activities with no incident.
On the issue of water, GUI said that there were clues in the instructions given on where to find water and containers at the checkpoints along the route, which were spaced out such that participants could “experience thirst in a safe manner”. In addition, there was the option of collecting potable water from taps, said the spokesperson.
GUI also said that $20 was “more than enough to buy water for collective consumption.”
Despite the challenges, Tan acknowledged the school had done a good job in remedying the situation, giving students the option to drop out of the exercise midway to return to school.
This was the saving grace for Lightborne, who — being from Ireland — was not used to the hot and humid climate of Singapore and was shuttled back to campus on a taxi.
“As an international student, I was not used to Singapore’s heat, and I knew I was susceptible to heat strokes too,” said Lightborne. “I asked my RCA what would happen if I felt unwell and she didn’t even know what to do as she didn’t have her phone with her either. That’s when I felt really helpless.”
It was only when they reached Toa Payoh Station that the station master helped Lightborne call a cab.
GUI acknowledged that they could have better considered the profiles of the participants, many of which are internationals who, like Lightborne, had just arrived in Singapore and at that time were not used to the warm weather and humidity.
“With demographics being so wide, we could have done an activity that was more neutral,” said GUI.
Joanne Roberts, Interim Dean of Students (DoS), said that the Elm Teambuilder was “a disappointing experience” and was “definitely a low point” for the Yale-NUS.
“The vendor had great reviews and we (did our) due diligence,” said Ms. Roberts. “(But) a few things did sort of slip through.”
GUI also said that they ran their proposal through the DoS Office and Elm College, and subsequently got the green light after explaining the rationale of the activity.
Amber Carpenter, Rector of Elm College, acknowledged that there were flaws in the planning and execution of the teambuilder.
She said, “The Dean’s Fellows will do a trial run of future activities before deeming them appropriate for students. As Ground-Up Initiative has conducted similar activities for this target group before, there were no red flags when we initially contacted them.”
Manager in the Dean of Students Office Sahar Kazemini said that it is through partnerships and collaborations with external organizations that Yale-NUS is able to offer experiences beyond our campus, and that the RCX trips in previous years were also outsourced.
Ms. Carpenter said that she is “open to any suggestions from students on how to improve on future activities,” and has since given her feedback to GUI.
“We’ve learnt from it. We’ll do better going forward,” added Ms. Roberts.
Both GUI and Yale-NUS said that they plan to talk about the orientation activity, but due to the sudden passing of GUI’s founder, these talks have been put on hold.
Not all students, however, felt the activity to be pointless or haphazard, and instead chose to see the good in it.
Despite the logistical inadequacies, Damien Kee ’22 said that his group made the most of the situation. With only a couple of dollars left to feed his entire group of six, their dinner of white bread and assorted biscuits dipped in spaghetti sauce was “surprisingly yummy.”
“(Our group) really bonded through adversity and learnt to be resourceful,” Kee said.
When asked what changes GUI would be making if they ever held an activity of the like, the spokesperson said that there would be considering more rest time between activities, as well as more options to drop out if participants should feel uncomfortable.
“We hope to do better,” said the spokesperson. “[The activity] was meant to trigger certain emotions but not meant to cause stress and unhappiness… Whilst pushing them a bit, we want this to be a happy occasion.”