We Need to Talk About Senior Selection

A typical Tembusu journey lasts two years. Yet, a selected group of capable individuals will get to stay in the College beyond these two years, and will spend three or even four years in the Home of Possibilities.

University policies in recent years, however, have dictated that this group of individuals become smaller, with a quota of about 50 third- or fourth-year students being imposed on the College (subject to the number of people leaving on exchange/coming back). The College has noticeably become more youthful in recent years, with up to 250 first-year students and 250 second-year students, and up to 50 exchange students filling up the rest of the spots in the College.

What do we lose when we reduce the number of seniors in the College? What role do seniors play in the College? If we speak of them as moulding the Tembusu culture, what exactly is this ‘culture’? How do we decide which seniors to keep? These are pertinent questions that need to be engaged with as a student body, and should not just be decisions made by the upper management.

As part of a feedback process to the University Administration, the College Students’ Committee (CSC) recently launched a project to gather views on senior selection from the student body and to understand how seniors contribute to Tembusu. I volunteered as a focus group leader for some of the discussions, and the following observations in this article are my own, and should not be taken as representative of the entire process. Quotes from students interviewed have been anonymized.

Who Gets In, Who Doesn’t?

The senior selection process is fairly opaque, and for good reason. Although students applying for senior selection are told at a briefing what attributes the College is looking for, and the questions in the application process ask for your contributions and roles in the College, there is no formal set of criteria available to students to judge who qualifies to be a ‘senior’. This prevents students from ‘gaming’ the system and setting out to ‘check the boxes’ from the start of their first year to get their senior stay, instead of genuinely contributing to the College and pursuing their interests in an organic way.

Therefore, whenever juniors ask seniors what they did to obtain their senior stay, the common refrain will be “I’m not really that sure”. This has not stopped students from psychoanalysing batches of seniors and trying to determine what is common amongst them. As a result, some ‘informal’ criteria have emerged:

  • Seniors are students who are ‘useful’ to the College. This includes tAmbassadors, CSC members, and leaders of Out-of-Classroom Learning projects, to state a few. (The Residential Team is unique in that it only takes in students who have already been accepted through the senior selection process, but as a result of the decreased intake of seniors, they have started taking in suitable second-year students.)
  • Students who implement College-wide initiatives will be looked upon more favourably.
  • As feedback from lecturers, Residential Fellows (RFs), and Directors of the College are taken into account during the senior selection process, it helps to know your professors and make sure they know you. This does not mean you bootlick them (they can tell when you’re doing this), but to genuinely engage them and be part of the co-learning process in the College, instead of the traditional top-down style.
  • Leaders of sports Interest Groups (IGs) get fewer senior stay spots (this has not been empirically proven).
  • Students from less common faculties like Medicine, Architecture, Dentistry, Nursing, and Law have a greater chance of being accepted due to the need to keep the community diverse.

While the criteria listed above remain hearsay and should not be taken as the gospel truth, they raise some interesting questions. Are students who are active in their own houses but not as ‘visible’ in the College in terms of hosting events getting senior stays? Conversely, is it fair that students who contribute a lot to the College but are virtually absent in their own house get senior stays, since Tembusu places so much stock on its house system? Are the heads of some IGs prioritised over others? Does the need to keep the community diverse exclude certain seniors who have made vital contributions, due to the simultaneous need to adhere to the lower quota of seniors?

The opacity of the selection process prevents people from trying to ‘game’ the system, but an inevitable outcome is wild speculation about what goes on behind the scenes, and sometimes a fair amount of hurt feelings. Difficult conversations need to be had about who qualifies to be a ‘senior’ while preserving the sanctity of the process. That said, to pin down who qualifies to be a senior, we need to interrogate what role seniors even play in Tembusu.

What Is the Role of Seniors?

Interacting with my seniors was without a doubt the best part of my first-year life. We spent many nights having supper, imbibing beverages, and engaging in debates about anything from intellectual to inane topics. My neighbour, Navin, was an extremely smart and friendly guy, often organising Trivia Nights for our house and conducting reading pods. He also graduated as valedictorian of his batch, which gave me an indication of just how talented people in Tembusu were. In short, seniors gave me the best introduction I could hope for to college life.

Yet, during the focus group discussions, trying to pin down exactly what was the ‘Tembusu culture’ was hard enough, let alone trying to quantify how seniors contributed to it. As a motto, ‘Home of Possibilities’ sounds great, but its amorphous nature leaves it ill-suited to be defined as a ‘culture’.

Participants during the focus group discussions opined that seniors had a “greater grasp of House dynamics”, and were experienced enough to tell the juniors what events could work, and what couldn’t. They could also provide more stability to IGs, whose transient memberships often result in some dying out after a year or two.

The participants also mentioned that seniors can also facilitate “more meaningful conversations”, and because they have had more experiences such as internships, Student Exchange Programme (SEP), and thesis/Final Year Projects (FYPs), they can provide salient academic and life advice to the juniors. And with the Tembusu motto in mind, they can show people what is ‘possible’ and inspire their juniors to pursue their interests, no matter how far-out they might think it is.

However, to make a case for having more flexibility in the quota of senior students, it is important to make a convincing argument as to what exactly the role of seniors was in the College that made important for them to have a senior stay. As such, while seniors did contribute the above, it was hard to use those reasons to justify their stay, as some participants rightfully pointed out: if some seniors are already coming back to contribute the above, why was there a need to give them a senior stay?

The most convincing argument was that a senior stay would be a sufficient reward for them doing the above. This, however, gives the selection process a somewhat transactional nature, and might not be able to convince the university administration, who need stronger reasons to shift their policies.

Here’s where some cross-College interaction would help. The various Colleges in UTown could come together to share their opinions of what seniors provide to the culture in each College, and to make a collective case for more flexibility with regard to the quota of senior students to the university administration.

Questioning the Policies

However, a more basic question has been left unanswered: why the need to talk about this at all? While the university administration has not formally revealed why they reduced the quota of senior students, a logical corollary is that the move was to facilitate more first-year students being able to stay on campus, which was hinted at in this article published on local online newspaper TODAY.

So why is it that we, the existing students, are trying to justify having more seniors when the university should be the one justifying why it made the decision to reduce the quota of senior students?

I am not trying to downplay taking in more first-year students—they should be given the chance to experience campus life, which has been deeply fulfilling. As participants in the focus group discussions pointed out, trying to justify having more seniors means trying to justify why one less junior should be offered a spot, and that is a difficult trade-off to consider.

What is problematic is that this decision to reduce the number of seniors in the colleges was undertaken without consultation with the students, and treated as a fait accompli when existing seniors have started to question this policy. Who made this decision? What was the justification for it? Could other solutions have been explored? These are conversations which should be had between the university administration and its students.

The Residential Colleges (or Tembusu, at least) function on a co-active learning model, with seminars stressing the importance of learning from, and with, each other. Professors continually adjust their teaching plans through feedback from the Education Working Group, and collaborate with students on projects in the College. When this model is not extended to certain matters such as residential stays, there exists a disjunct in the ethos of the College that can be rather jarring.

Whither Senior Selection?

A participant in the focus group discussions stated that you “cannot solidify a place’s identity with a high turnover’ and that the interaction between seniors and juniors contribute to an “intangible social fabric”. As such, it might be hard to determine what is the ‘value’ of a senior, if there is even a need to do so at all.

It’s also important to keep in mind that as a system, the Residential Colleges are not even a decade old, and hence changes should be expected.

But if we are to keep the Residential Colleges as vibrant places of learning, and more importantly, as diverse and homely communities, we must have difficult conversations about how our communities are constituted, as well as more consultation between the student body and the decision-makers of university policies. If Tembusu is to truly be a “Home of Possibilities”, we must get our own house in order first.

Photos from file

About the author

Isaac is a Year 4 FASS student majoring in Political Science. He wants to explore and understand the world, but is content with just surviving in university for now. He can be found browsing only the dankest memes.