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Ch-ch-ch-changes: The life cycle of the NTU student

Andrew Duffy expounds his Theory of Student Evolution

One of the perks of professor-hood is to watch young people grow. Since I stand in front of classes of them, live on campus with them and join in their daily attempt to break the Guinness World Record for the Most Number of People with Backpacks and Badminton Racquets All Looking at Phones While Trying to Get On a Bus, I witness their metamorphosis.

This article is like a time-lapse nature documentary compressing their four-year life cycle into one minute. (It’s even faster for Nanyang Business School students who graduate after three years and still pack in five internships if they want to.) I record particularly the different physical transformations of the males and the females.

Year Ones sport drab plumage chosen by mature female relatives who don’t want them to catch the eye of predatory Year Twos. But, like Pokémon, this is not their final form and they transform like butterflies after they go clothes shopping with someone under the age of 25. A cognitive leap sees them moving away from knowing stuff to actually thinking about stuff. This leap is undertaken at the same time as joining too many societies and supper at 2am every day, and as a result, their brains and bodies inexplicably exist in two separate time-space dimensions simultaneously.

Ensure that everyone notices how shredded they are from NS by wearing T-shirts evidently from when they were in Sec 4.
Separated from the males for two years, they pretend not to notice this shreddedness. They fool no one.

In Year Two, a mental transformation happens on overseas exchange, as over half the cohort leave the herd for pastures new. They come back with experiences they will never tell me about. Exchange returnees have one of two mindsets: they’re either itching to get away again and Singapore is too small to hold them; or they’re grateful to be home and Bukit Batok is all the world they’ll ever need.

Still trying to keep their NS figure they hit the gym and wear T-shirts with worrying slogans such as “Hello, I’m a senior”.
Former JC girls start to dress like poly students and former poly students start to dress like JC girls. No one can explain this.

Year Three is turbulent. Students look at Year Ones and see how much they have grown since then; and look at Year Fours and see how far there is still to go. They leave for internships as happy-go-lucky youngsters and return as worldly-wise semi-adults with classier clothes, sharper haircuts and an illusion of expertise.

NS is a fading memory and athlete-sized canteen portions have not been balanced with athletic SRC routines. They start the tragic journey from “boy” to “uncle”. Many resist but the change is inevitable.
Auntiehood is years away. But while for the males it is a gradual, ongoing process, for the females it happens slowly and then very fast.

By the end of Year Four, adulting is complete. The chrysalis breaks. The fledglings shed their fluff. The bold ones call their professors by their first names. Only once, though. Respect is perhaps the last lesson they must learn at university.

Realisation dawns that 35 years of deskwork and annual IPPTs beckon, and they try to halt the slide into uncledom. They are 25, and this is their last chance at sporting glory – unless Carom is a sport.
The final flowering of fashion before the corporate pencil skirt and blouse consume them. Their plumage becomes exotic, perhaps silk shirts or T-shirts with funny memes. Their hair changes colour for the last time.

Finally, in the dying weeks of the last semester comes the heart-breaking moment when I see the monochrome shape of things to come: project presentation day, when Year Fours don white shirts and black skirts or trousers. It’s a signal that they have achieved maturity and must now pursue a career beyond the university. Or apply to graduate school, in which case the whole process starts over.

Andrew Duffy is an Assistant Professor at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication & Information. He has previously worked for The New Paper and The Straits Times.