Coming Together, Although Apart


When I started my Tembusu College journey in January 2019, the first thing that struck me was how tightly knit the people were.

Upon moving my belongings to my room on my first day, I was pleasantly surprised when a number of curious floor mates not only approached to offer their assistance in helping me unpack, but also invited me for lunch. Thus began my exposure to the community spirit forged in Tembusu.

After observing the Fellows, Residential Team members, and residents in Tembusu during my time here, I was amazed by the informality and friendliness displayed by everyone towards one another. No topic was off the table with everybody having a voice and respecting one another’s views. I soon built rapport with a number of teaching staff and students who welcomed me as part of the College within my first week.

Throughout the semester, I lost count over the number of casual conversations, supper jios and activities such as forums I participated in. But what I do remember is how those events provided spaces for Tembusians to come together and forge strong bonds. The Formal Dinner – the flagship event of Tembusu – left a particularly deep impression as it was where the College population celebrated the achievements of Tembusu over the academic year as one family over food and tributes.  In the process, I felt that I have deepened my roots in Tembusu as I participated in the celebrations with other residents to affirm the College’s excellence in multiple areas.

Classes in the College also propelled the community spirit.  I felt extremely blessed that lessons were conducted in small-sized seminars with passionate Fellows valuing each and every Tembusian’s ideas. In the Junior Seminar I attended in my first semester, I remembered the Fellow encouraging all of us to voice out anything about the readings or module in general. While there were expectations, no pressure was exerted on students whether it is through teaching or the assignment load. As a result, I felt attending the seminar was an extremely cosy experience as I could discuss anything in general about the course with my classmates, forging strong bonds in the process.

My education journey in Tembusu was abruptly disrupted after a semester when I had to take leave of absence for two years for National Service. Little did I know then that this would mark the beginning of a new phase for the remainder of my university experience.

Into the pandemic

Upon returning to Tembusu this academic year, I could not help but feel despondent over the impact of the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic on the College. Restrictions on group sizes as well as the shift of many lessons and events to the online space seemed to have dampened Tembusu’s community spirit as the lounges and corridors were devoid of the hype from numerous, large unrestricted gatherings before COVID-19 came along.

However, I was pleasantly surprised that Tembusians still found creative ways to keep the community spirit alive and enjoy life despite the difficult circumstances. Aside from sports interest groups making formidable attempts to hold physical training sessions which brought their members together, the various houses also worked around group restrictions to hold activities that fostered camaraderie.

For instance, I participated in a lantern making and walking session organised during Recess Week and a carnival where I had fun over “silly” games with my Housemates such as pillow fighting and Mario Kart to wrap up the first semester of the academic year. The current semester also came to a close in a pleasant manner when my floor mates organised a hotpot dinner on the last day of Reading Week (while adhering to prevailing safe-distancing guidelines, of course).

I also gradually came to realise that the online sphere was a way to complement physical events and maintain rather than diminish the community spirit in Tembusu. In the current academic year, certain events such as the Tembusu Forums had limited seating vacancies due to event capacity restrictions. As a result, these activities were conducted in hybrid formats with participants who failed to secure seats at the event venue attending the Forums on Zoom.

It was because of Zoom that the audiences at the Forums were bigger, and discussions could be richer due to participants in the online space attending as well as raising intriguing questions to the speakers, complementing the queries raised by attendees at the Multi-Purpose Hall. Such an environment reinforced the community spirit of Tembusu – where Tembusians could get together in both physical and cyber spaces to explore and engage in activities that they value in common.

Zoom aside, the uncountable number of Telegram channels, chat groups and messages on my phone is testament to how Tembusu has successfully leveraged on technology as an opportunity to come together as a community amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

Apart from disseminating important announcements and information on College events as well as casual chit-chatting on topics ranging from the stresses of school to the silliest jokes, what struck me most was how Tembusians have displayed camaraderie by sending messages on Telegram to spread joy to one another such as birthday celebrations or comfort in difficult times.

On a personal note, I was and remain till today extremely grateful to my Residential Fellow (RF) as well as College mates for sending me messages on Telegram to ask for updates and encourage me to stay hopeful during the difficult period when my father was hospitalised after testing positive for COVID-19. After my father recovered and was discharged from hospital, I was heartened when my RF and a few Tembusians assured me that Tembusu will always be ready to provide support should my family require it.

As the academic year draws to a close, I felt a great sense of relief when safe management measures were relaxed such as the lifting of group size limits, safe-distancing requirements and event capacity restrictions. Mass physical College events returned such as Tembusu’s Open House and Formal Dinner which brought great comfort on a personal note as I could experience Tembusians gathering together on site to celebrate the achievements of the College. This has considerably raised my spirits as I have a strong feeling that moving ahead, the community in Tembusu will have more opportunities to get together once again and enjoy life in a fashion closely resembling pre-pandemic times.

Legacy of a Community Spirit

As I look back on my time spent in the College, I cannot help but feel incredibly blessed to be part of a community that is welcoming of one another, and tightly knit. Instead of letting the pandemic divide us, we have innovatively tapped on technology and worked around restrictions to organise events as platforms to come together to celebrate College life as a family. This is something I will treasure as I head into my final semester of stay in Tembusu and will never forget about when I graduate from the College.

Feature image by Author. Header image by Chang Duong from Unsplash.

About the Author:

Shang Thong Yi is a Year 2 Political Science undergraduate. Passionate about current affairs, he plans to venture into journalism or academia in the future. At present, he just wants to enjoy a positive university experience while testing negative for COVID-19 as long as possible.