Chris For most young people, moving into a dorm means moving away from home for the first time. The experience can be both thrilling and frightening, with more academic and social freedom than ever before. Students can discover exciting new subjects, explore their passions through clubs, make lifelong friends, and perhaps fall in love. But these freedoms often come with the stress of balancing busy schedules and negotiating an increasing number of priorities. Plus, students have the immediate challenge of turning a tiny box with blank walls into a comfortable retreat that reflects their unique personality. In other words, they need to make a home away from home.
Luckily, they aren’t alone. Universities often go out of their way to provide both a comfortable built environment and a social infrastructure with Residential Assistants, or RAs, and orientation activities designed to help students adjust to their new home and build a sense of community. Take the National University of Singapore, one of 6 public universities in the country. It provides residential space to around 11,000 of its nearly 39,000 students. These residents comprise a mix of local and international students, mostly in their early twenties.
NUS claims that living on campus offers “an enhanced university experience”. Living on campus means independence and more opportunities to live in the heart of the academic and social action. But more relevant for listeners of this podcast, the university also claims to be “creating homes on campus”. How does the university do this, and what are the limits to its efforts?
I’m Chris McMorran, and you’re listening to Home on the Dot, the podcast about the power and meanings of home in today’s world, all through the stories and lives of my students.
In this episode, Esther explores how the university creates homes on campus. This is always a popular research topic for my students. Those who already live on campus know how hard they work to turn their bland rooms into comfy retreats — turning space into place. And everyone is interested in how the university tries to make residents feel at home through its rhetoric, as well as social activities designed to build friendships and a lasting sense of shared identity. Esther discusses the freedoms and tensions of living on campus, from the lack of a curfew to the problem of homesickness. She speaks with two former residents of Residential College 4 (or RC4), one of whom is now a Residential Assistant, serving on the front line of the university’s effort to make students feel at home.
Finally, I speak with Alexandra, Ryan, and Bryan, who live in another residential college at NUS, called Tembusu. I ask about their experiences living on campus and how they are helping prepare this year’s incoming students through their online magazine, Treehouse.
Esther I’m Esther, and a few years ago I reached a breaking point. During my first two years at NUS I spent almost 3 hours a day commuting back and forth from my home in the north-east part of the island. That adds up to nearly 700 hours or 1 month of my life spent on the train in the course of 2 years. After losing all that precious time, I jumped at the chance to live in a new dorm, or more specifically a residential college (or RC) in 2015.
Chris I hate to interrupt, but I need to explain the difference between a dorm, and a residential college, or RC.
Both offer accommodation on campus. Dorms have their own unique identities, and people get attached to them through clubs and sports teams. Residential colleges have these activities, too. But what makes RCs different is their academic component. Each RC is contained in one building and features one unique theme. For instance, Tembusu has the theme of Science Technology and Society. And RC4’s theme is Systems Thinking. Most RC residents only stay there for their first two years at NUS. And during that time they take 5 modules on the academic theme. Those modules are taught by faculty who often live together with them in the college. This is supposed to build a deeper sense of belonging to the college. A deeper sense of home.
Now let’s get back to Esther and her decision to live on campus.
Esther I did not take living on campus seriously before that, mostly because of the cost. On average, a single air-conditioned room in the RC costs almost $2600 per semester, plus about $1000 for the compulsory meal plan. In other words, staying in an RC for a year would cost slightly over $7000, or about what I pay for a year of tuition fees. By my third year, my parents and I decided it was worth the investment to stay in the RC, so I could be spared from that long commute. In the RC, I would live and learn alongside professors and students. I would be in the middle of the action, close to my classes and able to participate in activities that would have conflicted with my commute if I still lived at home.
Over the next year, my everyday experiences and encounters with the people around me made campus feel like a home away from home. For young people like me living away from our parents for the first time, RAs become authority figures in place of our parents. To understand how RAs work to fulfill the university’s aim of ‘creating homes on campus’, I spoke with Ying Tze, a friend who recently became an RA.
Ying Tze …now the RAs are part of the house committee. You’re just like the level… small leader kind of thing. Floor leader. Together with a group of people, we plan activities and basically try to bond the level itself. So I think it’s like when students stay here, especially for the Year 1 students, they need time to assimilate into the university life also. And most of the people, it is their first time staying in RC, staying away from home. So actually it’s quite… can be quite difficult for some people. Which is what I felt in Year 1 also.
Chris Ying Tze, who admits she is quite shy, relied heavily on her RAs when she first moved to campus. They provided guidance as she navigated the social and academic world of the university. Now she gets to pay it forward.
Ying Tze To have someone to look out for them or to approach whenever they have any difficulties right, is actually a comforting and reassuring thing. In fact, maybe a fellow friend also doesn’t know how to approach or tackle the situation. But having an RA on board, he/she will be able to help you lah, in terms of like some of the things like, he/she is like more experienced than your other friends… That’s what I feel lor. Besides the duties part, there’s also a friendship part. So you build rapport with your residents.
Esther So you mentioned like home away from home right, so do you feel like RC4 is a home away from home for yourself, or for the residents here?
Ying Tze I think generally, people may first think that this is just a place to stay. But I think the nature of the residential college, like how it’s structured, makes you feel that it’s like a mini-home also. Especially with the different houses. And now like more and more people are more bonded to their houses also. It’s like a small tight knit community?
Chris Like the other residential colleges at NUS, RC4 is large, with around 600 residents. So part of the infrastructure used to help create home on campus is further dividing each residential college into four or five houses. Each house plans some unique social activities for its residents, and most houses have a mascot. They are like the houses at Hogwarts. Think about Gryffindor and Ravenclaw. Houses are another way to make residents feel they belong to a community at a more intimate scale. They belong to a house, nested inside the RC, nested in the University as a whole. Different scales of community at which students can feel at home.
Ying Tze So it’s like everyone is also trying to make new friends as well, some people take it a bit slower… A bit more shy… but then people make the effort. Which is what I like about this place. And over the years I think your friendships develop and grow stronger. That’s when you feel that after staying in campus, it’s not just staying you know? You want to be here because your friends are here. And that’s your school buddies, your Monday to Friday family. Yeah. Because you see them more often than you see your families. Yeah.
Esther I think it’s quite cool also, because my prof says he came here with Prof Lynette to look around RC4. Then he said when he went into the basement, then he was attracted by the blackboard, the chalk wall… And then it wrote something about ‘home’… Usually you guys would decorate it right? The RAs?
Ying Tze The College Students Committee. It’s more of their publicity efforts, to make this space feel a bit more homely. And students they get to take part also, as well. So you can draw on the board. You can contribute your messages as well. So it’s like when you let the students have a part to play, it becomes their responsibility, their home as well. Which is why a lot of the house décor, lounge décor, we always involve the students… Yeah. So you take pride in what you have created, and this is your space to hang out with your friends. And I think it’s also a good opportunity for people to try out new things. You stay here, you are encouraged by your friends to try out new things. Because it’s like, my friends will sometimes ‘jio’ me out and do some things. But if I were at home, I don’t think I would take the initiative to try out other things.
Esther It’s a platform for you to try new sports or interest groups?
Ying Tze Correct…
Esther That’s about it.
Ying Tze It’s so nice, I’m recalling all my memories.
Esther It’s like how you first enter your room, you try to make it your own space, you bring your bedsheets from home, you bring pictures of your family…
Ying Tze Yeah… And then by the end of semester, you probably have pictures of your friends, from Formal Dinners and any other occasions.
Esther And the notes you write for each other, and the welfare packs… I think it’s quite… a very good experience. For me also when I stayed last time.
Ying Tze It’s like you create a home.
Chris As Ying Tze and Esther point out, creating a home involves both the material – the physical objects like bed sheets and photographs that express your personality, and the imaginative – the feelings you have for people and spaces that make you feel at home.
In their book titled Home, Geographers Alison Blunt and Robyn Dowling think of home in much the same way. They call home “a process of creating and understanding forms of dwelling and belonging,” that has both material and imaginative elements. Home is both a physical space and a set of values, meanings, and feelings, that are made and remade on a daily basis through our interactions with it.
The university seems to hold this dual understanding of home. It takes great pains to provide both the physical infrastructure and the social infrastructure that allows student residents to feel at home on campus, often in the face of something common among new residents: homesickness.
Ying Tze And most people who are maybe afraid that they will be homesick or anything, I think maybe you will find a bit of consolation that there are other people who will feel homesick as well. And it’s okay to feel homesick…”
Esther RAs like Ying Tze assure residents that the homesickness will pass, as they come to rely on each other and form lasting friendships, so most of them stick it out and learn to appreciate the newfound freedom that comes with living on campus. Of course, most residents have an outlet for homesickness, made possible by Singapore’s tiny size: they can go home every weekend, or even a random weeknight if they like. RAs, on the other hand, have to stay around around their residence, at least every other weekend. This was particularly difficult for Ying Tze, who often felt homesick in her early days as RA.
Ying Tze At least for a lot of my other RA friends, they are okay with staying here, for maybe like extended periods of time, like 1 whole month… but I’m someone who likes to be home. So maybe it’s not representative of everyone. But then after… it got better, I would say. I used to think that “I wanna go home all the time”, it’s not because I don’t like this place, but I just wanted to be home.
Esther How do you try to make it more homely for yourself?
Ying Tze I think maybe I’m more… I wouldn’t say I’m very sociable, but I’m very… I like to be around people. So I would try to make my experience more people-centric. Yah. So I feel that the activities that I do, or the events that I participate in, it’s secondary to the company or the friends that I make.
Esther For Ying Tze, home is not just where you live. It is sense of belonging and community you must earn. We must invest time and energy into those relationships before home can become a place of comfort and relaxation.
Not everyone struggles with living away from their parents. In Singapore, all male citizens must serve 2 years of National Service, or NS, before they enter university. During these 2 years, these 18-20 year-old men live away from their parents’ home, although they can return some weekends to recharge. This is time spent away from home that most young Singaporean women simply don’t experience before university. So it’s understandable that most men might not feel the same homesickness when they move to the campus dorms. They already passed through their homesick phase.
Aloysius never felt homesick. This outgoing and talkative 25-year old former resident soaked up all the social and sports opportunities available to him in the RC.
Aloysius Homesickness. Actually not really. Because I think for most guys right, who have stayed in… Who have served National Service before, most of them would have to stay-in at one point of their military stint or another. And I think that they would be used to it.
Esther While I did not have to live away from home for two years serving my National Service commitment like Aloysius, I never felt homesick, because I relished my new independence and freedom to do all the things that life on campus afforded. It may seem silly, but one the lasting memories of my time in RC was playing badminton at all hours of the day with my friends. Growing up, I never had any siblings. It was tough trying to get my parents and friends to play badminton with me. But at the RC, I could finally play this amazingly fun sport with people my age almost anytime I wanted.
After moving to the RC, I joined the badminton club, which met every Tuesday at 9pm and practiced for a few hours. After these late-night sessions I would go back to studying, fueled by the adrenaline rush. But sometimes we got carried away, reveling in the lack of a curfew and the sheer joy of exercise and friendly competition. One of my most cherished memories from my RC days was playing 5 hours straight one night. I finally collapsed at 2am and crawled into bed, despite my 10am class only hours away and final exams looming two weeks in the future. Living on campus meant we could stay up late, and push our bodies to exhaustion without anybody to judge us. This epitomised the freedom of RC life for me.
Sometimes I even went for a quick run at midnight to relieve stress, something I would never do at home. In fact, one time before moving to the RC, I tried to go for a run around the neighborhood at 11pm. My parents stopped me at the door, saying I was crazy to go out that late. Like most of Singapore, my neighborhood always felt quite safe, but there were some things my parents felt should just not be done. Staying in the RC placed me in a different kind of protective bubble; a space made safe and comfortable thanks to the university’s efforts and like-minded young people using the space at all hours of the day and night. Staying at the RC meant I could judge for myself when it was safe to go out, and I thrived with more independence than I had ever had before.
Chris Living on campus is a unique experience. When else do you have as much freedom to make your own schedule, make lifelong friends, and even make mistakes, without your parents around and without all the responsibilities that come with post-university adulthood? But for some students the transition to life on campus can be overwhelming, not because of homesickness, but because of the surplus of opportunities to get involved.
I walked around the NUS residential colleges during the first week of classes to see what this transition period is like. I visited around 6:30pm, just when I usually go home to eat dinner and unwind. Every space was filled with students studying, doing club activities, and just hanging out. I walked across the campus green, trying not to interrupt a friendly match of ultimate frisbee. I eavesdropped on a 5-piece a capella group taking advantage of the acoustics near a public toilet. And I hung out in the lobby of a residential college as students came and went, some getting dinner and others passing through in happy clusters of new friends.
Ryan, Alex and Bryan, who all live in Tembusu residential college, told me how they had adjusted to life on campus. When Ryan first moved in two years ago, he wanted to do it all. But he quickly learned that he needed to balance his studies with his social commitments.
Ryan There are a lot of social activities happening at the same time, because there are a lot of interest groups, and I think you wanna- On one hand, you wanna try out all the different groups, while on the other hand there’s this like wah… I’m gonna be so tired of all this, because you know, social life can be draining at points.
Chris Alex, now in her second year, also had to learn to balance her time. But it was easier for her to resist the social side of campus life because she didn’t want to compromise her “me” time.
Alex Trying to weave that into my college schedule as well, and trying to find a balance between what works for me socially and what I can do academically was quite difficult, because personally I don’t really like a lot of social interaction. I need a lot of time for myself.
Chris For Bryan, the initial transition to campus life was smooth. But as the semester went along, he found his schedule packed, potentially threatening his studies.
Bryan But the difficulty then comes when the semester progresses, because… It’s such a happening life on RC.
Chris Such a happening life on RC!
Bryan Ya! Like, every night, we have multiple events going on.
Chris Like what?
Bryan And these are all student initiated events. Different interest groups will have student teas or talks, or invite external guest speakers to come have a dialogue session with students. I find that my schedule is always very packed, every weeknight. I’ll be participating in activities in Tembusu College, so that will mean I have less time, perhaps, to work on my academics. Doing that balancing act was what I found a bit difficult. Not so much about living away from home, or in a new environment.
Chris Of course you’re tempted to do everything, but you can’t do everything. So you have to choose, it’s a good kind of stress.
Bryan It’s self discipline, really. It’s self discipline. Because you need to know where to draw the line. And it’s a very personal thing, because- like for me, I know Okay no. This cannot already. Because I’m already too behind on my classes or something. But it’s true, some people, they might go for everything and then later realise after that they’re burning out!
Alex It teaches you where your limits are, definitely.
Chris The one common denominator among these three is that they all joined TreeHouse, an online magazine for student non-fiction writing. In order to help their new neighbours adjust to life at Tembusu, this year they edited an online guide for freshmen. Tembusu calls itself the Home of Possibilities, and TreeHouse tries to present these possibilities in an accessible format that will not overwhelm its newbies.
Chris So you guys recently edited and published an extensive Orientation packet, for new freshmen. These are new freshmen who will be residents in Tembusu.
Bryan Yes, and these are first year students.
Chris And you posted this on your online magazine called Treehouse. Tell me about this Orientation packet.
Alex I think we kind of just wanted to have a guide of more helpful tips, rather than addressing – like Bryan put it – there’s no really particular major concerns about it. So things like, hey if you ever wanted to know about the dining hall menu, there’s a useful board here. Or if you ever wanted to contact someone who’s the head of this particular interest group, their names are here, you can find them on our Facebook chat. Things like that. Some things just help. We didn’t really want it to appear overwhelming, but more of… you know, if you ever wanted the information, here it is. And we hope that, with this, you will be able to have an easier transition. And we wanted to present it in a way that was more fun and entertaining, and we hoped that it would be something that would be very useful to them.
Chris How do you create a sense of home on campus? NUS does so by not only providing a support system of residential assistants, but also by allowing students to take ownership of their busy new lives, through clubs and other opportunities unavailable to them if they lived at home. For some, residential life means cutting their commute time. For others, it means living away from the constant questions from their parents: about grades, personal relationships, and what they will do after graduating. For all of them, though, it is a unique time in their lives in a country where most young people live at home virtually uninterrupted until they marry and move into their first HDB. It’s their first opportunity to try to make a home on their own.
This episode was written and produced by Esther Koh, with help from Toh Jia Han and me. Our sound engineers were Ryan Ang and Stanley Chow. Thank you to Ying Tze and Aloysius for sharing their personal experiences of campus life with Esther. Thanks also to Ryan, Alex and Bryan for chatting with me about their lives in Tembusu. Finally, thank you to Connor Graham for introducing me to these dynamic young people. We have included a link to their magazine Treehouse on our webpage.
If you have comments about the Home on the Dot podcast or suggestions for future topics, please let us know by visiting our homepage at tinyurl.com/homeonthedot or by accessing our Facebook page Home on the Dot. Thank you for listening.