Championing student life in challenging times

“If the first half of my career was about building myself up, then the second half should be about giving of myself back to others.” This is the mental model with which Associate Professor Ho Han Kiat, the Dean of Students at the Office of Student Affairs (OSA), views his role.

He succeeded Associate Professor Leong Ching, and now, four and a half months into his appointment, continues to bring his energy and vision to NUS student life.

In his capacity as the Dean of Students, Prof Ho oversees OSA, whose raison d’être is to provide institutional support for the holistic development of students into leaders of change for tomorrow. This covers a wide scope of functions in enhancing the quality and effectiveness of student life on campus.

The engines that power this growth include the training, support and management of student activities and initiatives, residential life, clubs and societies, sports, community engagement, student wellness and mental wellbeing, pastoral care, and student services.

OSA also holds leadership summits with the student leaders of Halls of Residence and Residential Colleges, as well as dialogue sessions with the NUS Students’ Union (NUSSU). These address students’ concerns and facilitates proper communication with student stakeholders.

“There is no short cut to effective student engagement, except to spend quality time with them. Students do reciprocate because they are empathetic about the world and feel strongly enough to speak up to make a difference,” Prof Ho shares on student-championed causes. “By creating suitable platforms for engagement, we hope to build the trust for students to come to us as their first resource rather than the last resort.”

In fact. one of the most memorable issues he has handled since becoming the Dean of Students epitomises precisely this spirit of engagement between students and university management.

There were reservations over two student groups’ proposal to hold blood donation drives on campus amid COVID-19. However, the students’ passionate debate for their cause, strong justifications, risk mitigation plans as well as support from the health authorities allowed the blood donation drives to proceed, which turned out to be rousing successes.

“The takeaway from this is that we should not be too quick to dismiss possibilities on the basis of past experiences,” Prof Ho reflects. “Consistent with the age of disruptive change, we should be mindful that the risk management approach may be more meritorious than simply risk aversion.”

A culmination of past experiences

No stranger to engaging with students at the ground level, Prof Ho also brings a wealth of pedagogical and professional experience to the table, tapping on a trove of past experiences to contribute in his new role.

Besides his position as Deputy Head (Education) at the Department of Pharmacy from 2016 to 2020, he held a joint appointment with the University Scholars Programme, and is an elected fellow of the NUS Teaching Academy. He also spent 6.5 years as a Resident Fellow at NUS Raffles Hall from July 2011 to December 2017, where he oversaw student impact and leadership development.

Indeed, every experience counts for something, and hence I do not see my role as Dean of Students as a diversion of my career, but rather as a culmination of my purpose,” he muses, citing his years at Raffles Hall for opening his mind to a significant part of student life that eludes the classroom, yet shapes the character and soft skills of individuals for the future.

“This exposure has helped me appreciate, rationalise and even defend educational policies where necessary,” he adds.

Assoc Prof Ho fondly recalls the original musical productions students put up at Raffles Hall, which saw them take charge of all elements of the projects, from script-writing, to music composition, to dance choreography, all from scratch.

It is always a great delight to see students put their creativity into action, combining their varied skill sets to assemble something that surprise you. It is eclecticism at its best,” he marvels.

Now, as the Dean of Students, he strives to make more of such opportunities available and accessible to all students.

A vision of holistic development

Armed with the philosophy that student life is integral to holistic development, Prof Ho’s vision is simple: since the majority of values found in the NUS educational philosophy— a well-rounded mind and character, a resourceful and enterprising spirit, responsible and constructive membership in the community—cannot be achieved purely within the classroom, student life must be mobilised as the platform to materialise this vision.

Asked what words of advice he has for students on making the most of their university life, he says, “Try to see the many facets of university life beyond the classroom, because this is what holistic development is all about. However, one should pick and choose according to one’s interests and ability to cope.”

It is just like going to a buffet table, you will need to pick and choose what you like. If you take a piece of everything, you will end up with indigestion and may end up enjoying the meal even less,” he quips.

Of hormesis and resilience

As a strong advocate for the concept of anti-fragility, which is to perceive disruption not only as a stress point but as a vehicle for growth, Prof Ho also identifies resilience as a critical life skill in an age of change.

What does the toxicological principle of hormesis have to do with cultivating a mindset of resilience in students? Everything, according to Prof Ho. The scientific analogy states that a controlled amount of stress substance actually produces beneficial effects rather than harm.

“This is because stress itself can trigger stress responses in a biological system that are protective in nature, as long as the stress point is not overwhelming. Therefore, this concept validates Friedrich Nietzsche’s ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’,” he explains.

“As we embrace this knowledge, I hope students will develop courage through trials.”

Ultimately, Prof Ho’s personal philosophy boils down to this: “The extraordinary is not limited to a few, but to everyone who pursues the ordinary with unequivocal authenticity and passion. To get there, individuals will have to find their cause, stay the course and count the cost.”

“With the training in hard and soft skills that students have received from a university education and student life experience, they have to engage the world with passion and purpose,” he says. “When their skills meet their hearts, and their works meet the world, I believe they will truly become the leaders of change that we hope them to be.”

Hear more from Prof Ho below.