story | Cheryl Cosslett and Simonas Bartulis, Guest Contributors
illustration | Justin Ong, Editor-in-Chief
For the biggest, most competitive and prestigious debating tournament in Asia in early October, two of four Yale-NUS teams did not show up. It was not a problem of finances, lack of preparation, or emergency. Rather, the teams consisting of Yale-NUS sophomores could not be excused from an Scientific Inquiry class commitment that they had that week.
Members of the club had been preparing for the tournament the entire year. Class absences were saved for this particular tournament above any other. The Debate team’s unilateral exclusion from the tournament was hence a problematic one considering there was no chance for compromise.
We understand. Exams are important. Academics should take priority in universities. The question is—to what degree? Some professors, for whom we are grateful, showed good faith in the students by accommodating exam timings and not minding one or two missed classes.
Yet this is not about Yale-NUS Debate. More generally, this is an example of academics trumping any other form of life in the college, such as personal wellbeing, extracurricular commitment, and student life. We joke about the lack of sleep, not leaving our rooms, and collective stress over papers and exams, as if they were natural parts of college life.
But that was not the lives that we led at our institutions during our semester abroad at Leiden and Yale University respectively. Class times were shorter, and reading loads were equal but offered a moment of respite as there was no expectation of having to complete the readings and being perfectly prepared for every session. Friends majoring in Mathematical, Computational and Statistical Sciences who were in Yale told us they were expected to submit almost half the amount of problem sets. Failing an exam at Leiden is usually followed up with a second chance, meaning that professors acknowledge the fact it is quite human to be having a bad day, and that failure is not the end of the world. We had a general feeling that we were simply expected to submit fewer assignments, and yet we hardly saw our learning suffer. Instead, we had a novel feeling of being able to take one day off during the week, and not having to feel guilty about not working almost all the time.
Keeping this in mind, it would be unimaginable for Yale or Leiden to not excuse their best debate teams to participate in the regional or world championships. In our debate circle, other institutions always joke about Yale-NUS being invisible members of the Asian debating community, for we only show up once a semester. That is not a problem any of them have experienced.
It would be very strange to see a year in Yale or Leiden during which only one candidate stood for election in their student government leadership positions. In other universities, it is a position of respect, pride, and competitiveness. At Yale-NUS, people assume no one wants to run. It is easy to blame laziness, apathy, and the failure of outreach. But shall we also not consider that people are simply overworked, and that devoting themselves to the school will impede their academics too significantly? At Yale-NUS, the classic reason for members dropping out of extracurriculars is to focus on school. We have friends who have even underloaded specifically to be in leadership positions. This is not sustainable. There are those who were previously active members of Student Government who are discouraging others from running for positions, unless they are ok with compromising academics.
Beyond personal cultivation and hobbies, the effects of our academic culture have spilled into our personal lives and mental health. We have many friends who would not leave the college for three weeks at a time. Our friends have missed birthdays, family occasions, and forced themselves to carry on when they’re physically ill in fear of being indirectly and disproportionately disadvantaged in an academic setting.
On mental health, we know that campus psychologists are perpetually booked in advance because there is not enough manpower. That is surely a huge factor. Yet, all other things considered, we personally feel there is a significant force that drives students to book appointments in the first place: stress from an overly rigorous academic culture.
When Yale-NUS experienced a mental health tragedy a year ago, one of our professors cancelled a big assignment, having realized that perhaps the sheer number of assignments was putting students under undue stress. They were right. Yet, even the aforementioned shock did not make a long-term dent in our evaluations of Yale-NUS’ academic intensity. As soon as the subsequent semesters started, we entered 2000-level courses that felt like 5000-level courses in disguise.
College is supposed to be hard, but it should not force you to make absolute compromises in your student life, personal relationships, extracurricular involvement, and emotional wellbeing. We assume this culture is commonly accepted by the student body, with students even being proud of overworking themselves. Talking about it is difficult, as we are afraid to be perceived as lazy or not hardworking enough to be complaining about issues such as this. We are afraid professors will think we simply want more for less in terms of grades. In turn, we possess no tools nor language to openly discuss the often unrealistic expectations that administration and faculty hold us to.
Is this the culture that we expected to assimilate into when we entered Yale-NUS? Experience Yale-NUS Weekend (EYW) left us with the impression that we could excel in our academic endeavors, all while taking leadership positions and debating for the school. If we are right, Yale-NUS should not feed its students the message of being in a place where you can “do it all”.
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