The Yale-NUS Culture of Busyness
story | Gabe Ibasco, contributing reporter
photo | Rachel Juay
In the residential college elevators, students can be found tinkering with their phones—despite the complete lack of connectivity—or mindlessly re-reading walls of posters to avoid awkward eye contact with their fellow lift-riders. Nonetheless, the standard question of courtesy occasionally punctuates the elevator silence: “How are you?”
“Oh, I’m busy—you know, with the usual,” a student might reply with a strategic sigh, carrying a laptop in hand for the now ritual library study session. The inquirer would smile back in solidarity, perhaps ending the conversation with a “me too.” At Yale-NUS College, many students would argue that “busy” has now become an emotional indicator—a relatable substitute for the traditional “good” or “doing well” to mark one’s current status. Defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “having a great deal to do”, “busy” is a word that occupies a place in the cultural fabric of this school, and for valid reasons. On top of essays, exams, problem sets, and readings, Yale-NUS students are also committed to clubs, organizations, and polishing their resumes. Notice that this list does not include personal relationships and family commitments that students already manage beyond the College walls.
At its core, Yale-NUS has already been structured as a busy place from the moment it was conceived. The name of our College in itself carries lofty expectations, promising a meaningful connection to two universities hailed as some of the best in the world. Yale-NUS students naturally feel the immense responsibility to live up to the standards of these juggernauts, which benefit from years of historical backing. In contrast, the clubs and organizations at Yale-NUS are still in their infant stages. Lishani Ramanayake ’18 said, “I think that our engagement with CCAs [cocurricular activities] … and the way we are intimately involved in creating these organizations … makes our extracurricular commitments seem all the more pressing.” The school makes these expectations implicit, with admissions criteria heavily grounded in the depth of one’s extracurricular and personal achievements.
However, in such a uniquely close-knit, residential setting, can “busyness” be solely attributed to workload and institutional expectations? Some would argue that being busy, regardless of whether one actually has “a great deal to do”, has become commodified into a socially desirable trait that connotes success and productivity within the community.
Are students pressured to be busy?
An article published in 2012 on Psychology Today argues that students may choose to immerse themselves in work to validate their own sense of meaning and purpose in an increasingly work-driven global environment—a subconscious method of “existential reassurance”. Ironically, the perceived need to be at work in every waking moment may actually undermine productivity levels. It unnecessarily extends how much time students allocate to certain tasks and drains energy reserves.
Although this piece is contextualized to US universities, the social posturing phenomenon also applies to Yale-NUS. Maruša Godina ’18 highlights the stark differences in work culture between Yale-NUS and Sciences Po in Paris, where she is currently spending her semester as an exchange student. “I think people [at Sciences Po] are not necessarily less hardworking [than students at Yale-NUS are], nor are the courses less demanding, but people make time for fun and relaxation,” Godina said. “In Paris, it isn’t cool to be busy or constantly working, because it implies you are being inefficient with your time.” The reverse may be true at Yale-NUS. It is common to valorize students who devote themselves to a hectic work schedule, despite the lack of shut-eye these achievements might require. “There’s this tendency to perform—to put yourself forward as really active and interesting,” Evan Ma ’17 said.
Dean’s Fellow D Dangaran, an alumnus of Yale University, offers a similar take on the unique work-intensive culture at Yale-NUS. “I have heard students talk about a social pressure to stay up late, to be involved in as many activities as possible, and to have a smile on as they do it,” Dangaran said. “We had similar ambient pressure to work hard and be happy simultaneously at Yale, captured in a phrase called ‘work hard, play hard’ that I don’t hear as often at Yale-NUS as I did at Yale.” While Yale students “dive deep” into specific niches—whether they be fraternities or sports teams—Yale-NUS students are generally more inclined to juggle a wide range of commitments. Perhaps this catch-all trend emerges from the pioneer spirit of exploration established by the first class.
While social pressure can inform the tendency to overwork, Ma suggests an additional factor, pointing out that the Yale-NUS academic workload is distinctly heavy. “The rigor of classes here is a lot more intense than at other universities, save for some of the top few,” Ma said. On an average week, Ma and his fellow students majoring in Mathematics and Computational Sciences have to submit as many as four problem sets, each of which can easily take around 8–10 hours to complete.
The intimate size and the residential context of Yale-NUS may also amplify the pressure to conform to this busy atmosphere. As pointed out by Sha-En Yeo, former Senior Manager at the Health and Wellness Centre, “the residential system, where students stay on campus for four years, definitely contributes to the work-heavy setting.” With less than 800 students on campus, individual achievements can rarely be anonymized. The school’s pervasive social media presence—ranging from the newly-formed “YNC Shoutouts” group to the official “Yale-NUS College” Facebook page—helps to broadcast success stories within the community. As such, students may find it almost impossible to avoid the social gaze, feeling compelled to match up to peers with noteworthy awards and emerging startups under their belts.
Are students too busy for themselves?
“I feel like stress is very normalized here. I constantly see people around me overwhelmed with deadlines and commitments with [co-curricular activities]. So on some irrational level, I feel if I’m not equally as stressed, it feels like I’m doing something wrong, like I’m not measuring up in some way,” Ramanayake said.
The once-innocent virtue of hard work can translate to a self-perpetuating cycle of pressure and stress. Ramanayake said, “Most people are quite content to commiserate about how stressed we all are. A friend of mine once said that it seems like most people at Yale-NUS are struggling with stress. And I think that when talking to my friends, this seems really true.” These honest conversations, while useful for establishing solidarity, may inadvertently exacerbate feelings of mental and emotional strain by making them seem “normal”. Instead of actively trying to break out of this cycle, students may become socially conditioned to believe unmanageable stress is an expected component of daily life.
However, stress is not always a bad thing—“Stress that challenges one to push forward and do new things can make a person grow, and actually be useful,” Yeo said. Anandita Sabherwal ’19, who is overloading this semester, said, “At times I have felt inspired to stretch my boundaries and time after hearing a friend talk about the long list of things they have been up to.” Nonetheless, Sabherwal concedes that this work-heavy environment may be pressuring for some, coercing them into activities that they do not truly enjoy in the first place.
In an atmosphere where chugging through work is the norm, it comes as no surprise that alternative lifestyles may be implicitly frowned upon. “I’ve heard students express that it’s stigmatized to read for fun or take a true mental break through watching TV or playing a video game,” Dangaran said. Acts of leisure might be viewed as emblems of idleness and irresponsibility, rather than modes of self-cultivation that are just as valid as academic work. Most of the time, this stigma is self-enforced, as students feel the impulse to live up to the ideal image others project of themselves. “I feel guilty when I have nothing to do,” Godina said. “There definitely is peer pressure when you see what everyone else is doing.”
How can students escape the busy trap?
Godina argues that the “work hard, play not-at-all” environment of Yale-NUS is predominantly a cultural phenomenon, and as the first four cohorts, students have to power to alter it. “Chill and start thinking about goals beyond careers and grades,” Godina advised, “and remember that working harder will not necessarily make it easier to achieve those goals.” Students can redirect that extra hour spent on perfecting an assignment toward an equally enriching means of personal care.
Ultimately, students should avoid feeling guilty about taking a break from the daily grind. “One of my favorite quotations is from Audre Lorde, who said, ‘Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare,’” Dangaran said. “You can achieve your dreams so much more readily if you allow yourself time to rest along the way.”
Even seemingly trivial changes to one’s schedule can have a profound long-term impact on one’s well-being. “It might seem silly, but block out when it’s time to brush your teeth, get ready for bed, meditate, do yoga, journal, and eventually sleep. Find a routine of self-care activities, which can be even better than one-off self-care methods,” Dangaran said. Allocating time for self-care in advance not only helps to relieve stress, but also “psyches” one out to become more efficient by designating a limited time frame for work.
At a very basic level, Yeo suggests that students should rank their top three priorities (e.g. friends, health, academics) at Yale-NUS and analyze the values underlying these priorities. With this framework, students must decide which activities are important enough to keep and which are worth discarding. This simple yet essential exercise is particularly relevant to freshmen, who are still in the stage of sampling various extracurricular and academic options. Ideally, students should be intrinsically interested in the activities students choose to commit to, so at least bouts of stress can be balanced with a strong sense of fulfilment and autonomy.
During periods when the pressure feels insurmountable, students have highlighted the importance of close support groups. Sabherwal said, “I think one thing that helps me survive is a supportive friend group to fall back on. These are people I met before I held executive positions or overloaded … so these relationships aren’t contingent on how busy or productive I am but are rather highly personal.” In the residential context of Yale-NUS, it may be difficult to disentangle the personal from the professional. Stepping off campus every now and then can create some space to breathe.
It is easy to get caught up in the endless whirlwind of readings, essays, meetings, and projects—especially in such a small, concentrated community. Flashing commitments in the elevator, while honest for the most part, may preclude more important conversations about why people choose to be busy and the emotional ramifications of this choice. At the end of the day, while social pressure does exist, Yale-NUS features a deeply honest and caring community that takes shape in various forms: free cookies in the Elm College Office, P.S. We Care’s dedication to late-night counselling services, and simple notes of appreciation on the elevator walls, among other things. Students can afford to take off their busy suit every now and then—even without it, they still have something to show for.