How I got here: A candid chat with Prof Chen Zhi Xiong – inaugural Master of LightHouse.

From his years as a resident fellow in King Edward VII Hall to being appointed as Master of LightHouse, it seems that Prof Chen has come full circle in his journey and experience of residential life. When did the spark begin, what are his dreams for LightHouse and what advice does he have for us? Read on to find out as Prof Chen tells us, in his own words.


It’s funny how life works.

When I first matriculated into NUS in my early twenties, I was so averse to staying on campus. I thought that it was an unnecessary distraction. Don’t get me wrong, I like to socialise, but I was afraid that I’d lose sight of what was most important – my academic goals. Okay I admit … maybe not being able to eat my mum’s delectable home-cooked meals did play a part too. Fast forward twenty odd years later, I’m the Master of LightHouse, the newest hostel on NUS residential scene. I would’ve never imagined!

Hi there! I’m Zhi Xiong, LightHouse’s inaugural Master.

Obviously, my mindset towards campus living has taken a 180-degree turn. In this blog article, I’d not only like to share with you how this transition happened, but I’d also like to share what LightHouse aims to become for students who are on their own journey of self-discovery.

My family and I enjoying a nice home-cooked meal prepared by my wife at our LightHouse apartment. A treasured occasion for us as she hardly cooks!


A change of heart towards campus living

When I think about how I became open to campus living, two incidents stood out. The first was when I spoke to one of my research students. She was a busy bee, always running around from one place to the next. I soon discovered that she was the Vice-President of King Edward VII Hall (KEVII) Junior Common Room Committee (JCRC). I asked her (somewhat sarcastically) how she was able to juggle so many things on her plate and she explained to me how being involved in hall was an essential experience that could not be acquired through academics. That was the first time someone had so passionately explained the pull of campus living to me, and that conversation inevitably became stuck in my head.

Student who inspired me – Hon Qi (3rd from left)

Not long after, I was approached by Professor Hanry Yu who asked me if I would be interested in becoming a Resident Fellow (RF) at KEVII. As you can imagine, that came as a total surprise! I wonder what signal I had sent which made him think that I’d be a good candidate for the position. However, I’m a firm believer that, oftentimes, other people may see things in us that we may not be able to see in ourselves. As I was also intrigued as to why he himself agreed to become an RF, I decided to be open-minded and to give it a shot as well. After all, I’ve never stayed on campus as an NUS student, so it could be a ‘revenge’ experience!

A photo of KEVII SCRC at our annual dinner generously hosted by our ex-Master Prof Ho Yew Kee (second from left).  Prof Yu is fifth from the left.


A whole new world

When I moved in, the first thing I noticed was the vibes. Although I was new to the hall, I was immediately made to feel at home. It did not take me long to realize that the vibrancy of campus living lies in the staff, the students, the community and simply put, the everyday people. It was a perfect place for my family to learn from those around them and for me to grow as a father and educator, and stay young at the same time!

RF Supper in my KEVII apartment! (This photo was taken pre-Covid)

And that is what I hope LightHouse will become and more for future residents. Struggling to find our identity is part and parcel of life. We hope to normalise that here. It does not make us weak or less of a person in any way if we don’t currently know who we are or our purpose. Even after you leave LightHouse, you may not have the answer to this. However, you can be sure of the support you’ll receive from a community that is on the same journey as you.

An adventure on all-terrain vehicles after serving the community in Laos. At LightHouse, let’s help each other prepare for all-situations.


Relationship building is like spinning a spider web

If I reflected on my own experience as a student and as an educator, that support from relationships was really what I needed. A lot of the time, what we are looking for is a listening ear and someone to do life together. At LightHouse, we want to create opportunities strategically yet organically for social interaction, be it in a one-to-one or group setting, so that residents will never feel (or walk) alone. (Disclaimer: I’m not a Liverpool fan. :))

A photo taken at a KEVII Formal Hall Dinner. Not so formal! (This photo was taken pre-Covid)

Our RFs and administrative leaders share this vision, and I am excited for you to meet them. Within the blocks, we’ll work with residents to design social and physical structures that promote interaction. The teams will have the creative licence to do what they want to do.  After all, relationship-building should be a self-directed, organic and ground-up process. We want the network to grow not just within each block, but across the blocks, and beyond. Just like a web where every resident is ‘securely supported’ by ‘threads of connectedness’ coming from different angles and directions.

What makes LightHouse unique, though it may seem contradictory, is the simultaneous emphasis on ‘the other’ as well as ‘the individual’. At LightHouse, everyone is encouraged to be themselves, yet at the same time, mindful of and empathetic towards those around them. The small animal corner, community garden and ‘lightscape’ that LightHouse plans to set up are examples of opportunity for residents to express who they are as individuals, sub-communities, and LightHouse community as a whole.

These are initial ideas that we hope young adults will take interest in, and we look forward to receive and implement many more in the years to come! In this way, we can put our hearts and minds together to ‘exterior-design’ LightHouse and make it our home. This is a place where we can co-create, partake and enjoy. Through co-creation, we will understand ourselves and others better.

Designing the right physical and social environment from the individual apartments to the common spaces is vital as it is the catalyst for human relations to form. If you want to exercise and do crunches, the courtyard welcomes you! If you want to take out your guitar and jam at the landing between basement and level 1, go ahead! In fact, I would love to see someone break out and dance in the middle of the walkway! Residents should be free to express themselves and relieve the stresses of everyday life through chill, healthy and respectful fun!

A photo taken at Formal Hall Dinner where everyone was encouraged to dress up according to cartoon characters! (This photo was taken pre-Covid)


Remember – you don’t have to control everything in life

The last thing I want to say is: I noticed those who tend to be the most stressed out are the ones who seek to control every aspect of their lives. As morbid as it sounds, I’d like us to picture this: As a biomedical scientist, I study cells. Imagine a million of them on a petri dish. I feed them today and they are ‘happy’. I harvest them tomorrow and they wouldn’t see it coming. It’s the same for us. We are limited by our bodily senses, much like the cells in our body. Even with our best wisdom and technology, it is impossible to know with 100% certainty what will happen to us in the next minute. While we may not always be able to change or predict what’s coming, we can change the way we perceive and respond. As with everyone having a purpose, so does everything. Whether we like it or not, everything has a purpose including failing exams! Do your best, live your light, but don’t control the rest. 🙂

My life hack would be to live everyday to the fullest by treating everyone the best-est as if everyday is our last. Making a difference to the lives of others is the only thing that matters, the only thing that will survive us, and the only thing that others will remember of us.

Where you give of yourselves to others, there your purpose and identity will be found.


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