Do what you enjoy: RC4’s Master Peter Pang wants students to ‘chill’ and stay connected

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In this series, NUS News profiles the personalities shaping vibrant residential life and culture on campus, and how they craft a holistic residential experience that brings out the best in student residents.

When Associate Professor Peter Pang switched roles from Dean of Students to Master of Residential College 4 (RC4) in 2020, he worried if students would accept him.

“When you are Dean of Students, you might not be the most popular guy – because you need to tell students, don’t do this (or that). When I first joined RC4, the students might have been apprehensive,” he explained, as his dean role oversaw matters relating to student life and discipline.

His worries were misplaced. “They have been great. We talk to each other. I’m a very open person, and they ask me anything,” shared the mathematics professor, who is often found chatting with students, or shuttling between his second-floor apartment and his basement office, where he puzzles over partial differential equations and geometric analysis.

Founded in 2014, RC4 is one of three residential colleges that offer the NUS University Town College Programme. Students enrolled in this programme spend two years living at one of three colleges – RC4, Tembusu College, or the College of Alice & Peter Tan. These offer a special curriculum that complements the students’ existing degree courses, in place of the general education programme.

“Some people think university is just about taking courses, sitting for exams, getting a grade, and then going out to work,” said Assoc Prof Pang who joined NUS in 1988.

“But what’s equally important for your future success are your soft skills – how you deal with people, how you maintain your wellness…We think the best way to develop these is by experiencing hostel life on campus.”

RC4, which houses 600 students, has a tagline – “Small Systems, Big Hearts”. It draws on the interdisciplinary concept of systems thinking, which recognises that many problems are not standalone but embedded in a complex system with moving and interconnected parts. As such, a holistic solution rather than a piecemeal solution is needed.

The college runs a wide range of seminars and courses on topics grouped around the idea of “systems” – from the climate crisis and infectious diseases to markets and inequality, to one by Assoc Prof Pang on the complexities of social networks.

“Interconnectivity is central to RC4, both in terms of our curriculum and our residential life,” he said. He further elaborated that an interdisciplinary and holistic approach is well-suited to addressing real-world wicked problems, and prepares students on the way to innovation and entrepreneurship.

NUS News sits down with Assoc Prof Pang to find out more about RC4’s Cognitio Pods, chill vibes, and interconnected culture.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What’s a typical day like for you?

Most days are calm and peaceful. I do my usual teaching and research, as well as administrative work for the college. Once in a while, I have to stay up the whole night because there’s an incident or residents require pastoral care.

We have a lot of events organised by students. Last week, there were inter-house games. And in the last few days, one group of students had hotpot and another had a barbecue. Sometimes they invite me, sometimes I gatecrash. I meet the student leaders – college student committee members, resident assistants, and house heads – more often, and run most of the important decisions we make in the college by them.

Q: What’s buzzing at RC4?

I always ask (prospective students), “What is it that attracts you to the college?” A lot of them tell me it’s the vibrant residential life. There are more than 40 active student interest groups – in sports, the arts, community service, lifestyle, etc. You can join any group you like, even if you have zero experience. We are very “chill”. We welcome them; we don’t say, “You don’t have any experience, you will pull our ranking down”.

We have a set of academic interest groups called Cognitio Pods, which are led by a faculty member or student. My number one hobby is Western classical music. I led “Who's Afraid of Beethoven?”, where we discussed Beethoven's works. There are also many Cognitio Pods organised by students – on sustainability, wellness, innovation and so on.

Every year, we have several college-wide events – Orientation, Inter-College Games, Inter-House Games, and a big production called Arts Night.

We also have a big focus on the wellbeing of residents. If you ask any college master what keeps them awake at night, the answer would be residents’ wellness. The thing about wellness – especially mental wellness – is that you need multiple touchpoints. It cannot be just, “You have a problem, go see the university counsellor”.

Recently, we formed a peer support group consisting of students whom we carefully selected and put through training, and who are able to offer a listening ear to their peers. The response from students was extremely encouraging. We needed only about 15 peer supporters, but more than 30 signed up. We are also setting up a quiet room called Oasis, which residents can retreat to if they need a quiet moment.

Q: Tell us what RC4’s tagline – Small Systems, Big Hearts – means.

Every residential college offers a curriculum which differs in focus. Ours is “systems thinking” – we encourage students to look at problems in a more holistic way.

Interconnectivity is central to systems thinking. There are lots of problems in the world, but (sometimes) when you try to solve a problem, other problems crop up because of your actions. This arises because we are not seeing the problem in a holistic-enough manner.

Systems thinking is not an engineering or science concept. It is interdisciplinary, and has a lot of relevance to policy and everyday life. We learn systems thinking for a purpose; our objective is to solve real-world problems and improve lives – and this is what our tagline refers to. A culture of innovation and entrepreneurship is taking hold in RC4 and we are all super excited about it.

Q: What else is unique about RC4?

We try our best to facilitate and enable students to pursue what they enjoy. Upon students’ request, we created a small gym in the college. We had a group of students who requested a “makerspace” with tools and equipment they could use to make gadgets. We repurposed a garage for that. Our students had a field day making and playing with drones. That was when drones were not so commercially available. Now drones are dirt cheap, so the students use the space for hydroponics, equipped with Internet of Things (IoT) gadgets.

We know our curriculum and residential life experience are making a difference in our students’ lives. We have alumni who are doing their PhD and said, “I decided to do this PhD topic because of the RC4 curriculum”. Some other alumni are successful in the startup space. We have an alumnus who graduated in engineering but is now into acting!

Q: Finally, what makes RC4 home for you?

Our community is chill, inclusive, non-competitive, and multi-talented. When I first came in, there was a student who was a fantastic pianist. He would play the piano in the lounge on level one. He was practising Liszt’s b minor piano sonata, which is a very difficult piece. My apartment is on the second floor, so I could hear him every night. It was free music – high quality, too – and I was in heaven. That’s when I knew RC4 was a great place. I thought of organising a little music competition in the college but in the end, I thought, aiyah, let’s not have another competition. I'm just happy that people are doing what they enjoy.



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