I don’t remember much of what it was like stepping into Tembusu for the first time in August 2016. What I do recall is that there were a lot of people saying a lot of things about how I should maximize my experience here. It was a daunting period for me and I had troubles adapting. I felt that if I did not go for as many events as possible, I would be missing out, or, that if I did not proactively make new friends, I was not making full use of my time. The amount of noise around me was so overwhelming that within the first few weeks I would head over to the quieter ERC because I could enjoy the silence.
Fast forward 4 semesters, and I am about to reach the end of my 2-year stay. I feel an odd mix of many emotions, although you wouldn’t find me saying that I absolutely hated or adored this college. What I will say is that my last two years cannot be described meaningfully apart from this college.
How do I feel now, with the benefit of hindsight, about how I made use of my college experience? Would I have done anything differently? What did I enjoy and what did I dislike? I will share five short but important lessons I have taken away.
1) You won’t click naturally with everyone, but you will also click with a few.
Sometimes in Tembusu, I would see a few popular people in the college and wonder how they did it. How can some people know everyone, and be liked by so many people? How did they get the energy to do that? With many people, I didn’t know what to say, nor feel compelled to make a deeper conversation.
After some time, I also started realizing that there were a few people with whom I found it much easier to build and sustain a connection. These were the people whom I continued to make an effort to talk to, and vice versa. They would turn out to be one of the most important anchors of my 4 semesters here. These people are so precious and worth cherishing.
2) You will be deemed ‘unsuitable’ or ‘not good enough’ for certain things. And that’s okay.
I tried pursuing my interests in this college, but I was not always successful. For example, in my first year, I tried to run for the CSC but failed. Subsequently, I applied to be part of the welfare committee but was rejected too. For two years in a row, I applied to act as part of Slate’s production but was told that there were ‘too many applicants’. I tried to be a T-Ambassador but was informed that I was found to be unsuitable.
When these moments happened, I felt deeply disappointed. But I guess that’s also an important part of life – learning to accept rejections and remembering that there will still be possibilities to life beyond them. I would learn to pick myself up after each rejection and go on to find new opportunities.
3) There’s no such thing as ‘being phantom’. It’s who you are a phantom to. And that’s okay too.
‘Phantomizing’ others is a common practice in our college. To a large extent, it becomes a stigma. What makes it worse is that when someone is a phantom, it is understood implicitly that it is the individual’s fault, not his or her environment.
I hold a different opinion. I honestly believe that almost no Tembusian comes into this college and sets out to be non-participative. Everyone, to a reasonable extent, would want to join in some aspects of this college. Yet, it is usually external reasons, such as the nature of events, the timing of interest groups, the type of house committees, that do play a big part in influencing how individuals feel about the college.
Ultimately, I have accepted that, save for a few people, we can’t be everywhere in the college. Some communities in the college are bound to find us a phantom, but what is more important is that we still have an open mind and heart to contribute in other ways (even if they are less visible).
4) The modules are difficult, and it’s okay if you don’t like them or are not as good at them.
Not all of us can write essays well or are used to the kind of abstract and philosophical ways of thinking that many college modules expect us to do. I remember during my first few IEM lessons, I was completely disinterested in the module and felt incredibly overwhelmed by the expectations of the professor. A few of my friends, especially those who were not from a humanities background, were also struggling.
I remember I had a chat with that particular professor halfway through the semester together with another course mate. We told him how difficult and daunting the module was, and that we simply were not able to meet some of the expectations. My course mate also started crying and my professor was taken aback. That very same day, he sent us an email and promised to do his very best to recalibrate his teaching of the module.
It’s okay if you find a module difficult – it’s not your fault that it is compulsory for you to do it. It is not indicative of your abilities. We cannot make even the most elegant of fishes climb a tree. In the same way, how you do for compulsory IEMs and seminars is in no way a representation of your potential as a student.
5) You can still find a place you belong – but be patient, give yourself the time and space to explore, and don’t let others tell how you should live your college life.
It’s easy to feel out of place at times in the college. Sometimes, I find many high-achievers around me and one of my previous suitemates was always teased for being a CAP 5.0. I remember scoring a B- in my first semester and realizing how that grade simply didn’t fit into the discourse of the college. Other times, I would be invited for house events, but I would feel really afraid of the number of people I had to socialize with in a large group setting. The same applied for interest groups – as much as I wished to do certain activities, I got anxious at the prospect of needing to talk to people.
After a while, I started learning how to try and live my college life independently of these expectations. It wasn’t that I rejected them completely, but I started to realize that I was the steward of my college experience, and people, even if well intentioned, were not the ones in my shoes. By doing that, I could have more time and space to explore the crevices of the college that I could slip into, fit into, and be part of.
This post has a more individualistic slant, but I hope that it is not misunderstood to be an interpretation of college life as individualistic. It’s just that sometimes we forget that the dominant way of defining college life can unintentionally isolate some of us. These lessons are, ultimately, an attempt to reach out to those like myself who might have felt out of place at times.
Tembusu College will always have a special place in my life. Not because I remember it as the college where I found lots of success and many friends, but because it offered a large enough space of possibilities where someone like myself could find some belonging. Not everyone will resonate with this post, but if you do – if you’re one of us who are trying to belong – don’t give up.
Pictures by Ryan Quek and Quek Yong Jian.
About the Author
Yang Long has a deep interest in the social world. He believes that the events in our lives are the result of a confluence of larger social forces. He also enjoys guiding young children to ensure that they have as best a start in life as possible. In his free time, he reads and writes. He hopes to work in the humanitarian field one day.