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Social Emotional Leadership — is it a Cult?

All PostsNewsSocial Emotional Leadership — is it a Cult?

Story | Terence Choo, Contributing Reporter

Photo | Wong Zhi Ying


Upon entering the dining hall, I spotted two figures conspicuously seated right in the middle, donning striking costumes. One of them sported a pretty rose-pink bob and a black headset while the other wore a turquoise wig fastened on by white headphones. The addition of shades, scarfs and gloves bequeathed the total concealment of their identity, made all the more mysterious by a pair of typewriters in front of them. Those who were brave enough to approach the Snapjacks left with a pleasant surprise: words of love and wisdom.

The name Snapjack came about as an embodiment of personalities of both Professor Snape (Harry Potter) and Jack Sparrow (Pirates of the Caribbean). The former is portrayed as cold on the exterior but actually full of love on the inside while the latter has a quirky nature. According to Co-president Jessica Sam ’19 of the Social Emotional Leadership (SEL) Club, the Snapjacks were not simply a publicity project but about conveying the message that it is not very difficult to give to someone, even if you do not know the person. “We all see something different in someone and wanted students to understand what it is like to be acknowledged,” said Sam.

SEL, which aims to foster a student body “that is loving, trusting and empowered to create the world they want to see” was founded in 2016 by Sam and Wong Zhi Ying ’19. Having gone through similar workshops on emotional leadership, Wong thought that it would be a game-changer for the College if her exceptional peers gained the knowledge that she had.  Workshops such as Inside Out, a two-and-a-half-day event, provides experiences for people to discover and embrace their identity.

Tan Yan Ru ’19, Secretary General of SEL who was also a participant, said she could “[relate] to the situations in the workshops” and the safe space provided made her feel liberated “to show [her] most vulnerable side”. While she used to have a rigid mindset and saw life as a zero-sum game, the trainings have enabled her to adopt a different approach when making choices. “It is not about me having to give A up for B but how I can make both of them work together,” said Tan.

Wong thinks that the trainings work because participants are made aware of the beliefs underlying the way they behave and help them be free of these ideas that may be preventing positive change. Indeed, participants of SEL workshops have been known to get emotional during the sessions and forge lasting friendships.

The close-knit community of participants, however, has given the impression to others that SEL is a cult. When asked about their opinion on the view that SEL is a cult, Sam’s immediately response was “I love it!”, in a joking manner. “The impression that we are a cult might come from the fact that the training program we have is so intense that when graduates come out of it, they are very, very close. Another reason is that (some participants) come out being emotional and having tears in their eyes. People immediately think that the training tortures them, making them sad and depressed. But crying doesn’t always necessarily signify being sad, it might be a process of liberation for them or simply getting emotionally connected. It’s society’s concept of crying that might cause some to shy away from the training, when there is nothing inherently wrong with showing emotions. It’s part of what makes us human,” said Sam. She encourages people who think that SEL is a cult to attend upcoming events and talk to the members about the Club.

Initially, SEL “was pretty unknown, so I had to reach out to 80 people through Facebook message,” said Wong. “One quarter said they would come, but only half of that number stayed.” The two main difficulties they faced in pioneering this project were the lack of awareness as well as the skepticism and resistance from students when faced with something unfamiliar. But students still benefited from the sessions, and a large part of the training was intended to shift the culture of Yale-NUS to one where people embrace their emotions and feel connected. The recent Inside Out session held on September 8–10 saw a total of 19 participants, up from only 10 participants for the previous run.

“We are getting there in numbers. About 50 people in Yale-NUS who have gone through Inside Out will learn and bring their knowledge out there in the world,” Wong said of the progress made by SEL. Apart from working with the College to build the school culture, SEL also organizes external events such as How to Listen Deeply with SMU and Leadership for the Greater Good for the Social Impact Festival. Future plans include running a Social Emotional Leadership Conference for universities in Singapore. “You can change culture within but when we step into the larger world we might be the ones susceptible to changes,” said Wong.

The experience in managing SEL has also given Sam a deeper appreciation for the people in Yale-NUS, and realizing the extent of the supportive environment that students have here. As a double-degree programme student at NUS Law, she cannot imagine herself founding SEL there as mindsets “are very set in stone and narrow, where they see students in a certain way.” At the College, she is fortunate to have the guidance of the Dean of Students Office and the Centre for International and Professional Experience (CIPE), who work closely with the operations of SEL. “I really love Yale-NUS, a lot and I don’t think that there is another place like this for us to create with the support, trust, and faith of the school,” she said.

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