Grey Goo: The aftermath of Tembusu’s orientation

Orientation Group

Over the last few years NUS orientations have come under increasing scrutiny in the public sphere. Orientation at Tembusu has also been a topic of contention since last year. This article reflects on the ambitious and original Tembusu College Orientation of 2014, asking the question: What should an orientation be?

A big welcome to the new batch of Tembusians. Hope that you are enjoying your stay here! Kudos to the College Students’ Committee for pulling off this year’s orientation at such a grand scale. From the detailed storyline of a fictional Grey Goo apocalypse to the level of meticulous planning and sourcing for sponsorships, the Orientation Committee did a brilliant job. There were attempts at things that had never been tried during past college orientations, or possibly even in any other NUS orientation programme.

Orientation Beach Day

But, looking at the various orientation activities and questioning their fundamental focus could leave someone perplexed. Presented as an intellectual mirage with elements that pointed toward a United Nations styled debate, it was actually full of fun filled, physical and leisurely activities. Through this piece, we attempt to question the focus of such elaborate orientation and whether it is even required to plan one so meticulously. Also, we discuss if orientation is merely an initiation into university life or actual intellectual engagement along with introduction to the college philosophy? And if the part about actual intellectual engagement is true, we go on to discuss if we think the freshmen are ready for it.

This orientation program had a key focus on fun, enjoyment and developing friendships. Without it, the orientation would have been boring. It followed the proven formula – icebreakers, team building games, an amazing race, a day at the beach and a finale event. Such activities allow freshmen to mingle with their peers and seniors, get to know more about the university life and have a great time. The Orientation Committee did an awesome job in complementing this usual structured program with luxurious breakfasts, a performance night, a barbecue night and a slimy obstacle course that involved NERF guns. These activities were indeed fun, no doubt about that. However, it was easy to observe that during the days for amazing race and at the beach, orientation groups were seen deviating from the structure to spend more time doing their own things rather than sticking to the meticulously planned activities. Was it necessary for freshmen to undergo a structured orientation experience? The freshmen in many orientations groups left halfway through the program for the day. So should the freshmen be given the freedom to choose how to familiarize themselves with the new people and surroundings? Definitely, there would be operational issues running such a loosely structured orientation programme, but we believe it is worth thinking about this in principle. But after scripting a program and supplementing it with logistics it is heart-breaking for the organizers to see some of the freshmen abandoning ship.

Though the focus of the orientation was fun, there had to be an effort to actually do something that involved thinking. The program tried to differentiate itself through branding its intellectual engagement segment as a standalone event on the last day. It was a brave attempt to introduce a Model United Nations event, something that is not usually associated with an orientation program. Freshmen usually come in to a new environment wanting to engage in constructive discussion with small groups of other freshmen and seniors on topics such as module bidding, college life and other mostly non-academic and technical details of undergraduate life. Discussing as well as defending policies and ideologies is probably not on their bucket list when they arrive for orientation. In addition, it takes a long time to train for a Model United Nations event and is quite difficult to get things to flow smoothly given its complex procedural nature. Alex Yeo, who was the coordinator for the event, said that it usually took weeks or sometimes even months to prepare for such an event. However, despite all these challenges, about 40 freshmen engaged in constant quality dialogue – a good start to this brave new initiative. To Alex, Angus, Ingmar and Celeste – we congratulate you all on your efforts in shifting away from pure mindless fun to some actual thinking. But, given that there was also a large majority which was not as vocal, we wonder if it is possible to sustain the attention of all the freshmen and rally them to actively participate in such activities given the cultural setting we operate in? In a relatively new environment, few are motivated or even brave enough to speak their mind, especially when it comes to going against professors or taking a stance that’s reflective of the ideology assigned to the group but against one’s personal viewpoint. Moreover, assuming we continue down this path of intellectual engagement, how else can we ensure sustained participation of all?

Earlier during the last semester, there was a heated debate about a post-it on the wall in the lobby that read “Tembusu Hall – we were supposed to be different.” Making that distinction clear to Tembusians right at the start of their journey should be a great way of tackling such criticism. Indeed, there was an attempt to differentiate by incorporating more meaningful and intellectually stimulating activities. A key example that stood out was an attempt to highlight how student teas are conducted by Moazzam Khan. Dr Jeremy Kingsley at the Middle East Institute was interviewed by Moazzam in the afternoon with half a dozen questions being thrown out to him on Islam, the Shia-Sunni divide and conflict in Gaza. A sizeable number of freshmen were seen crowding around Dr Kingsley after the tea to continue the discussion. In stark contrast to this, mass games were held in the morning at the West Coast Park just before the tea. Eusoff Hall was also having their own orientation camp games there. Water filled plastic bags soaring across the field, it looked quite like a hall camp. In fact, barring the few wearing Tembusu t-shirts, it would have been impossible to tell students from either camp apart. As a result, some may argue that the post-it again carries some weight and one instinctively questions: should we be entirely different? After all, there is an expectation that orientation programmes will take the form that we are familiar with (ice-breakers, games, amazing races, and team activities). If we do believe in differentiation, then are we ready to accept a new form of orientation which mixes fun with intellect, enjoyment with the ability to discuss complex issues along the lines of what we had this year?

Although the Tembusu orientation tried to incorporate intellectual activities, the role of academic offerings in the college was virtually non-existent. The entire offering of classes and interaction with faculty on modules being taught this semester was not an essential part of the programme and was slated to be presented on a separate day. I may seem operationally logical to compile the academic side of the college and showcase it on a separate day because no one wants to listen to academic talks at an orientation program. However, given that curiosity, cross-disciplinary learning and growing intellectually is all part of Tembusu’s fabric, should the orientation cover the introduction to the modules that are being taught in the college? Or does the separate day for academic offerings allow students to think more clearly about their academic choices, assuming they would not be as physically and mentally tired as can be the case if it was sandwiched in the middle of the orientation programme? The intentional segregation could be avoided if there was a way to incorporate module themes as part of the storyline. Given that this year the committee pulled off a MUN, we are sure we can look forward to more surprises in future iterations.

Orientation Model United Nations

Historically, traditions and customs have been an integral part of orientation programmes in universities around the world. Be it in the form of freshmen inaugural addresses, welcome dinners, Rag & Flag day (which greet freshmen every year as they join NUS), the waving of napkins to a college song (as is the custom in Yale), traditions build camaraderie and build a sense of belonging and give a sense that you are becoming part of history. As a young residential college, we do not have any such customs as part of the orientation program. However, one may argue that the way we conduct our orientation with its unique games and beach days could be considered a custom. We feel that since it is Tembusu and not a hall, it wouldn’t hurt to incorporate some level of brain activity in the games. It would force the freshmen to think and given that it is orientation, think collectively, breeding an inquisitive and problem solving culture. Thus, it is important to consider if traditions like these are merely ceremonies, or are they of value to the group? Should we come up with our unique Tembusu tradition that students-to-follow can proudly adopt?

The questions raised are to act merely as stimulants to reflect on. Tembusu pioneered an orientation with an intellectual angle and we again congratulate the organisers for that. When people think about the form and objectives of future orientation programs, we feel it is worthwhile discussing whether the intellectual twist is worth pursuing; whether the expectations of the college, the organising committee and the future batches are met and; if we are ready for existing and even further transition in the form of orientation. As the freshmen settle in, their involvement and interest in college’s informal learning programs will be a good indicator of how successful the orientation has been in introducing the college to them.

Till then, we wait.