story | Harrison Linder, Staff Writer and Sofia Sigal-Passeck, Contributing Reporter
photo | Harrison Linder
Feb. 7 marked the end of Transitions – Understanding College and College Life, a short course designed to help freshmen adapt to college life. The first five sessions of this six-session-long course took place in classrooms and were spearheaded by the Vice Rectors, who instructed around twenty-five students at once. These sessions focused on time budgeting, communication with professors, identifying one’s learning style, and other similar themes regarding college life.
However, unlike the first five sessions, the final session took place in the Black Box Theater, gathered nearly 75 freshmen, and went over a very different topic: culture and “cultural competency”. While this session had good intentions, its content seemed ignorant of the diversity that exists in Yale-NUS College.
The session started with a variation of bingo in which the objective was to get as many signatures as possible from people who “match the description listed in the squares”, according to the handout. These descriptions included “a person who grew up in a single-parent household”, “a person who is gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender”, and “a person who is differently-abled”. The object of this game itself could be seen as somewhat culturally insensitive; for example, there are those in Yale-NUS who may prefer not to have their sexual orientation known.
The activity created a situation in which phrases like, “You are gay, right? Can you sign my box, please?” could have been thrown around in a relatively trivial atmosphere. It also created a coercive atmosphere in which one might have to confront another about something very personal in order to progress. The structure of this game and the chaotic, competitive atmosphere that it created might have caused some to feel very uncomfortable.
Immediately after this game, students were asked to sit on the floor of the Black Box Theater and watch a slideshow presentation. After a short while, it became clear to participants that the slideshow and most of the other materials used in the session were designed for an American context. The presentation included references to Black History Month, an American-originated observance that is recognized in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., the Netherlands, and Germany, but not in Singapore. The bingo game included a box in which the description was a person who “Celebrates Kwanzaa”. Kwanzaa is a week-long holiday that celebrates and honors African heritage in African-American culture. According to some members of the Yale-NUS Afro Society, there is not a single African-American in the freshman cohort, so this box was likely unsignable. Additionally, the presentation included a U.S. State Department video on culture.
Even if the underlying philosophy on cultural competency that they espoused was good for the college, the presentation would have been much more appropriate if it included allusions to the various cultures of the students in the room. It is not difficult to think of the many other holidays and events that individuals in the Yale-NUS community celebrate, such as Deepavali and Hari Raya, just to name a few.
There was another piece of this presentation that was not only out of place in a Yale-NUS context, but also in the topic of cultural competency itself. In the middle of the presentation, a quote from Marcus Garvey appeared on the screen: “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” This quote in itself was mostly harmless, but those who were familiar with Marcus Garvey found the use of this quote inappropriate. He was a very influential black nationalist in early 20th century America and a staunch supporter of racial segregation. With Yale-NUS being one of the most racially diverse campuses in the world, it seemed out of place to quote Marcus Garvey in a cultural competency session held at the heart of our campus.
Unlike the rest of Transitions, this final session seemed to be put together in a rushed and unmindful way. On the bingo game mentioned earlier, there was a box that asked for a signature from “Someone who his [sic] right-handed” and another for “Someone who is from the planet [sic] Earth”. If Transitions continues to include this session on culture in the years to come, clearly some changes should be made: better planning, no coercive games that lead students to uncomfortable situations, and content that is more relevant to the Yale-NUS community.
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