People / Unplugged
Professor of Student Life
Advising a student on a final-year project, celebrating the Lunar New Year with student leaders, checking out a new café on campus – all in a day’s work for Assoc Prof Kwok Kian Woon, Associate Provost (Student Life). The sociologist gives his well-worn trainers an hour’s break to explain to Communication Studies student Cassandra Yeap why he is numb to the taste of pizza

Revving up campus life: At Artease Café, the latest student hangout, Assoc Prof Kwok shares a light moment with NTU Students’ Union President Christian Wihananto and student leader Swathi Eswaramurthi.
PHOTOS: SAM CHIN

If you were to rate campus life at NTU on a scale of 1 to 10, what number would you give it and why?
7.5, because our campus offers a wonderful range of opportunities for students to fulfill themselves, but as our students often say, “what we get out of university life depends on what we put into it”. We will certainly keep improving our facilities and spaces, but campus life is really about our students making the most of university life, taking ownership and initiative, and getting the support they need from our faculty and staff as fellow members of the university community.That's the spirit of NTU!

We hear you have some ideas for spicing up campus life – what can students look forward to?
There are already many exciting activities happening on campus throughout the academic year – cultural performances, sports events, festivals, debates and seminars. These activities tend to reach out to those who take a special interest in them. But university life is full of surprises and discoveries. Students who step out of their comfort zones would experience and achieve things they never imagined they could, for example, run a marathon, start a business, learn to sing or dance, organise a rock concert! So what we really need is a very visible campus calendar – a cycle of weekly, monthly and annual events that all students, faculty and staff can participate in. This also includes a series of annual flagship or signature events. “Celebrate NTU!” on 12 March is one of them.

Tell us more about “Celebrate NTU!”…
For the first time, we are having a campus-wide celebration involving students, faculty and staff. We have achieved so much as a community. So it’s time to look at where we are, where we are going and, at the same time, have fun together with great music and food – and showcase our own talents on campus. NTU President Prof Bertil Andersson will deliver his State of the University address, and the Nanyang Awards will recognise the achievements of the university community. After that, there’s the Quad party, where we’ll have a good time with non-stop entertainment from late afternoon through the evening.

What do you think of the “NTU Confessions” Facebook page?
It’s yet another online way for students to express themselves. Of course, anonymity brings with it the usual challenges of social media. It can be all good fun and a meaningful form of sharing, but that comes with a sense of civility, responsibility, good taste and critical peer judgment, which, by the way, is part of the ethos of scholarship and teaching at a university.

If there were one thing you’d like to “confess” to NTU students, what would it be?
I’ve always lived both an active and a contemplative life, and I enjoy bringing my intellectual resources to my university work, including student life. A confession is a kind of yearning, so let’s just say that I yearn for more sustained time for deeper philosophical reflection and sociological analysis. And more time for academic writing.

What were you like as an undergrad?
I was very involved in many student activities, and also stayed at a hall. I’ll tell you what my contemporaries still say about me. At a secondary school briefing I attended, the school principal advised parents that their sons must avoid studying at the last minute. When he noticed that I was in the audience, he blurted out words to the effect – “unless your boys are like Kwok Kian Woon at university, always on his motorbike and rushing to student activities”.

So you studied at the last minute for your exams?
Of course. But I did read voraciously all the time.

Did you do well?
Ahem, yes.

What was your secret?
I think if you’re passionate about what you do and if you have a wide range of interests and then focus on turning your ideas and ideals into reality – in other words, you keep trying – it’s a matter of time before you get it done. And I also apply this to NTU student life. There are just so many areas to improve on. Of course, we are not perfect – we can always make things better. We need to work with one another, and there needs to be a common enthusiasm. It doesn’t work any other way. And we will do it!

What do you think the NTU campus can offer over other university campuses in Singapore?
With all the infrastructural projects we are having now and starting in good time – including two learning hubs and eight more halls – this will be even more of a residential campus. Think of the entire NTU campus as a township or mini city, with a number of hubs – like the North Spine and South Spine – and villages that are connected with the clusters of residential halls. Our campus has its own special charm and unique eco-system, and we can transform it into a thriving intellectual and social hub that we’ll all be proud of. Notice, for example, the growing number of alumni couples who return to the campus for their wedding photo shoots!

How can the average student get his views across to senior management?
A good way would be to join clubs and societies and either seek to be elected as a student leader or work with student leaders. Then your voice is not a lone one but an organised voice. It’s hands-on learning – learning how to think through issues that affect individuals, understanding the underlying systemic factors involved, and coming up with creative solutions. Coming together and learning how to improve the environment – that’s a form of learning that begins on campus. Tell me: why wouldn’t the NTU management welcome that, and which employer doesn’t value that quality in our graduates?

Do you think that senior management is doing enough to consult with students?
Our President, Prof Andersson, meets up regularly with student leaders. It is also now NTU policy that any significant changes related to campus facilities, for example, the building of a new residential hall or the tender for a new cafeteria, must involve consultation with student leaders. We may not agree on everything, but we hear each other out. We believe that things really do turn out better when we put our heads together, and there’s also a sense of shared ownership and responsibility.

What is it about NTU students that you love or that annoys you?
What I love about the NTU students I’ve met is their sense of “let’s not sit back and complain and expect all good things to fall from the sky”. I feel that more and more of our students are developing a new culture of engagement, rather than be stuck in a culture of entitlement. They are willing to go the extra mile to make a positive difference. When I interact with these students, I am always thinking: “We bring out the best in each other.” And it’s really a joy when you see all this. On the few occasions when these qualities are not displayed, I guess that would be the opposite.

How many students do you engage with each week?
I’ve participated in so many meetings with student leaders from the Students’ Union and Graduate Students’ Club, as well as other clubs, societies and hall groups. I also meet students with new proposals. For those involving long meetings in the evenings, the dinner that is served is always Canadian Pizza because it’s “one for one”. I’ve engaged with so many students that I’m numb to the taste of Canadian Pizza. That’s just a joke because I’m not fussy about food. But it just goes to show.

You were a visiting scientist at the Institute of Mental Health and are currently conducting a baseline study on mental health in Singapore. Can you tell us more about your interest in this area?
Mental health is a challenging area globally and in Singapore. It is not just a question of brain chemistry. All of us have ups and downs in life. Our common challenge is not just to cope with the stresses of life but to thrive and live life to the fullest. It’s the saddest thing to see a young person with his or her whole life ahead being beaten down by pressure. This is why our message to all students is: You will never walk alone. You can always find a peer, a professor, a staff member or a student counsellor to hear you out, and there is always a way to steer through any difficult phase in life, and come out even stronger.

What else can students do to guard their mental health?
Sports and recreation – it’s the best antidote to stress besides social support. I’ve never been a sportsman in my life, but I’ve taken to swimming. When I’m really stressed, my secret weapon is one hour of non-stop swimming in the NTU pool.

Pick a dessert that describes NTU students.
Fried durian ice-cream. The durian comes from a secret location in NTU. You also sprinkle brown sugar and caramelise it, using a blowtorch from one of our labs, and while you’re at it, add a sprig of mint. It looks really good on the outside, and it’s got real substance on the inside. NTU students – they can take the heat anytime, and they stay cool all the time.