What I Found Coming Back

I left Tembusu in Summer 2017. I had completed the University Town College Program, said my farewells and was ready to start my next adventure. I never thought I would make it back. I planned to pursue a Leave of Absence, go on a Student Exchange Program and spend my final year grinding my thesis out — plans which I managed to follow successfully, in time for graduation.

Fast forward 18 months, I received an email notifying me that I had been offered the chance to return to Tembusu in my final semester (January 2019). Coming back would mean meeting fresh faces and going through the hyper-socialization of introductions once more. During this time, friends remarked that the senior experience was romanticized by a sense of jaded selves in a young Tembusu community. Returning would mean potentially going through all that, and failing to enjoy this process. Yet, I was also very curious to understand what the elusive third-year experience was all about. I replied to the email without much hesitation.

Same Same But Different

In my first week, I struggled with integrating back into residential college life. I was intrigued by the many changes to the college since I left. While I was out pursuing projects for myself, I had forgotten that the college would continue to grow at the same time. The Tembusu Facebook Group is now less active; we now live in the age of Telegram channels to share college information. I was heartened to find new projects such as the Yearbook and the Open Day video. There was also a lot of catching up due, as I understood how my then-juniors now-seniors had matured while I was gone. Some had started and led Interest Groups of their own, others became Residential Assistants and even joined the College Students Committee to be the change they wanted to see in the college. Each one of them was creating their own legacy to give back to a community that they had grown to love.

My situation was rather unique as a final year student returning to Tembusu in the second semester. 18 months is an almost complete cycle for a complete turnover of faces in the college. My Residential Fellow was telling me about how he had raised my name during a house committee meeting and no one knew my name. The only ones who knew me were my juniors and batchmates who were in the same third-year college program. Integrating back into interest groups was also daunting at this point of the year when most orientation programs had already run their time.

I struggled with finding opportunities to meet people and fumbled with being the only person to make awkward introductions in the second semester. I empathized, then, with the anecdotes by friends who explained how they were exhausted with the social cues required of them with each new batch of faces. People can find such a process tiresome, alongside the expectations placed on them, which is an aspect to being a senior resident that many may not have considered at the time of application. While we persist in the third-year experience in part for our own desires of familiarity and on-campus residence convenience, the effort required, as I later understood, suggested that the third-year experience was not for everybody.

Finding Familiarity in Change

Slowly but surely, I was able to turn awkward introductions into fuller conversations through the weeks as I took my own healthy mix of being present. I bummed in the lounge and made an effort to be forward with introductions — enthusiasm that may have come across as creepy, in retrospect. What I found most comforting during this whole process was the sense of familiarity amidst the differences. I could not have integrated back unless people first reciprocated; it was a privilege I had taken for granted when leaving this space. As an over-thinker struggling to find ways to make conversations, I had also received prompts by my neighbours who would make the effort to include and introduce me to people. Coming back, I became cognizant about the roles people in the college play to build our community. I remember a random comment where a neighbour was inviting me to come by the lounge more often, having seen me there in early mornings but not in later nights. (I could confess to avoiding the lounge at night because more people would come by, and awkward first conversations were tiring me out — which, to this day, I still wonder if said neighbour figured out.) The simple outreach went a very a long way for a newcomer like me.

I was also surprised by the different expectations that came with me as a returning senior in his final year. I was now amongst the oldest students in the college community as a 25-year-old Singaporean male, with others now turning to me for advice. I was heartened by how my perspective of university through modules, grades and internships was helpful in guiding others through their own university life. Through this I also became more appreciative of the many seniors who had played this role for me. I too had a role to play coming back, as I realized the impact the practice my seniors had on me was one I was unconsciously teaching to my juniors as well. My absence from Tembusu allowed me to appreciate the architecture that built our strong sense of community here. The home of possibilities is a product of seniors and juniors who took on roles in house committees, interest groups and college student committees to make this possible.

Random dialogue of 3am conversations of what we did well to enter Tembusu on a lounge door

One of the more unexpected outcomes was finding similarities in me manifested through the fresher faces of Tembusians I met. We may have had an at least a four-year age gap (six-year gap with the girls), where I carried a jaded post-university view, but we still shared the common curiosity to understand the things around us. I commented about this odd resonance I had with the freshmen and this led to the conversation about how our original Tembusu interview went (cue above). There was a heightened sense of diplomacy in the space I had missed where people somehow found the balance between respectful and assertive. The sense of dejavu was very haunting as I remember a 3am conversation in the lounge where the entire level was procrastinating on assignments talking about best-kept secrets.

Discovering My Home of Possibilites

I cannot say I have used my time back at Tembusu to change the wheel. My involvement in the college was restricted to short-lived projects like the Open Day video and interacting with the members of my house. I had friends who remarked that coming back to Tembusu in my graduating semester would be heartbreaking since these relationships I build might only last the four months.

Yet, beyond the existential crisis of friendships in a busy capitalist world, I felt heartened to discover Tembusu through new eyes. I was oddly able to think about change and graduating from Tembusu more positively. After all, this would be my second time leaving this space. This time for good.

In the time I was gone, as I was out pursuing projects making growth for myself, the college itself was also thriving through new projects and people. The Tembusu I had left in 2017 was remarkably different from the Tembusu that I know now. From batches past, the juniors I met now were different yet one of the same. The millennial days of “yas” past were now “yeet” present but we shared a common denominator to embody the same behaviour of being accepting and critical but also helpful. Despite the two-year difference and a different set of faces, the home of possibilities remained central to the college identity. There is a sense of diplomacy, curiosity and community to this place, but my time back led me to see how this was embodied first in attitude rather than only the community.

My time back has enabled me to see how the dynamics of Tembusu are not built by chance but a joint product of students, professors and even alumni. Through my 18-month absence, I was also able to compare past and present to see both personal and community growth. My time away was pivotal in how I had this fresh perspective to know Tembusu and fortunate to learn about it again. I had the privilege to understand the change and reasons why I enjoyed this space. Perhaps what was most enlightening of all was how the home of possibilities was less a location but a state of mind.  As I look back on my time here, through my growth in how I think, speak and live, I could not be more thankful to have been a part of this community through these years, and am excited to take the ideas and friendships I have forged here for years to come.


Pictures by author.


About the author

Asking me to choose my favourite bubble tea is like asking me to choose my favourite child. In which case, I pick Koi. Biz admin kid that gets a bit too excited about food.