story | Justin Ong, Guest Writer
photo | Paul Jerusalem
On the day before capstone was due, I walked into my suite to find a group of seniors sitting around the living area munching on Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC). Judging from the looks of guilt, I could already tell. We went in a circle to disclose our progress with our capstones, and it turns out that none of us were close to submission. We roared with nervous laughter and went about gossiping about what was happening in school to dispel the guilt. At the back of our minds, we knew there would be a long and sleepless night ahead, full of citations and backspaced paragraphs, existential questioning, some of us wondering if submitting late and dropping half a grade would be a worthy wager. But for now, we just continued eating our chicken.
It was in that moment, with a whole night of proofreading ahead, that it dawned upon me that I did not want to leave this college. I felt this even though the school that I knew in year one was no longer the school I knew now. Now, when I step into the dining hall I will probably be eating alone around a sea of unfamiliar faces. My Friday nights have been quiet and uneventful, with late night suppers and conversations till 4 am seeming harder to come by now than ever before.
When I first matriculated, fresh out of National Service and into a then brand-new campus, I saw enthusiasm all around me, in the faces of freshpeople saying hi to each other in the crowded lifts, sleepy during Common Curriculum lectures, at greasy butteries serving indomee late into the night. We were wide-eyed and in wonder when we went on our RCX trips, and then came Week Seven when the wonder never ceased; we saw more of the world in our first semester of college than any other educational institute before could have granted us.
This enthusiasm and energy didn’t just shine when planes left the tarmac. They were there in dining hall conversations as well, a large group of us sitting at long tables after lectures or classes, chatting endlessly about anything under the sun. These conversations carried on at suite gatherings, a group of us 20 strong sitting around playing silly games, laughing till we couldn’t stop, only for 4 am to roll around to see us still deep in conversation and trying to come to terms with this community we had conjured without really meaning to.
It is important to admit that what started out as a close-knit community that Public Affairs would be happy to feature did not last for me. The parties dissipated, the late night conversations waned, and I felt very much alone. There was no single cause for this, but perhaps some of us (myself included) decided to prioritize schoolwork, personal relationships, found other smaller circles of friends. I only felt the full brunt of this dissolution when my best friend and suitemate went on his semester abroad during the second semester of our second year.
During his absence, I went home a lot. I met up with my secondary school and army friends and found my own support system outside. I became very serious about long-distance running and let the exhaustion of training sap me of my energy so I could sleep soundly every night. With every decision to go home, or to meet people outside of campus, I felt more and more estranged from this community that had welcomed me with such open arms in my first year.
The feeling of wanting to go home was a low point for me, not in the sense that I was escaping from something, but rather that there was nothing to look forward to back on campus. An alumnus who had taken a semester’s leave of absence warned me about this; that to be cooped up in an environment where you see the same people and fall into the same excellence-driven routines every day can eventually exhaust you, sap you of motivation that only a change in your environment can afford.
I was a Penelope that left Ithaca a lot more than she should, but once my suitemate was back I felt a lot more at home. Most of my friend groups function on a fulcrum that comprised of me and him, and if either one of us were missing these groups simply did not exist. Brick by boring brick, some semblance of normal service resumed, with smaller groups of friends getting together when it counted, and us consuming a Gatsby-esque amount of drinks every now and then. So when it was my turn to decide if I should pursue my own semester abroad, I hesitated. It seemed counterintuitive to leave a home you were beginning to build again, and attempt to find a new one so far away from everything familiar.
But in the end, I was urged to do so, almost forced into the decision. “Don’t be stupid, you have to do it,” my suitemate said as if there really was no other option. I confirmed my spot on the exchange program, but without much conviction. I was convinced right until I boarded the flight that I did not make the right choice.
The winter on the East Coast of the United States was cold and unyielding, and I was not close to any of my batchmates in the same program. But one thing that was different from a place a few thousand kilometers from home is that there is no alternative than to be present with the people I was with. And so we reached out to each other. I organized lunches, meetups, study sessions, late night drinks. I did everything that I had neglected to do back in Singapore when I chose to go home time and again. The semester abroad turned out to be the exact opposite of what I feared, with late night conversations, people looking out for each other, spontaneous lunches. The sense of community that eluded me for so long came back to me in a dream.
And this did not come as a happy accident. It came from caring enough about the place I was in, putting in the effort to maintain ties and giving people all my time and attention. It did not come from simply sitting back, but from constantly asking myself what I could do for those around me. This was something that I was too entitled in the past to realize when I thought that I would always be allotted this sacred space of freshperson year where friendships magically form.
Now that I’m back and almost done with my final year, I do not want to go home. I want to spend every minute here until security waits at the door for me to pack my bags. It is an almost cruel irony to think at the moment I most want to stay here that this space will be gone, lost to the cruelest kind of disappearance– not a physical one but a symbolic one. The next batch of seniors will soon inhabit the spaces that we leave behind, and the rooms we used to laugh and chat in, where we confessed our deepest secrets and spilled curry sauce over the couches, will soon be wiped clean of their memories and replaced by those we do not possess.
So, what became of the Capstone night KFC supper? As morning rolled around and the deadline drew nearer, at least one of us succumbed, and had to swallow the grade penalty for a late submission. But if you asked us whether the night was defined by this change in grade, or by the capstone projects at all, we could only tell you that the conversation we had in our 45 minutes of guilt-eating was one of our best ones yet. We talked about Tape Days, about the post-end-of-semester dinner mixers, things that happened in freshperson year that we remain ashamed of. We talked about Week Seven, RCX trips, the butteries when we still inhabited it, of suitemates come and gone. Even when we stopped talking about the past, the fact that we were even talking about anything at all had me thinking about everything these four years meant: the struggle to find myself in this space culminating in this conversation that, had we followed conventional wisdom at all, should not have happened. It was with this thought that I found myself missing this place more than I thought I ever would, and what a strange feeling it was, to miss something as it is happening as opposed to something that has already happened. But at that moment, that was the precise feeling I felt. There are probably no words for that.