Find refuge, recharge and rest: LightHouse Master Chen Zhi Xiong sheds light on what makes his hostel a haven

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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.

Driving down Prince George’s Park Road one night, Associate Professor Chen Zhi Xiong surveyed the blocks of student accommodation on his left. Much of it was dark. It was 2021, and the COVID-19 pandemic had emptied out most of the hostels at NUS – including a new cluster of eight-storey blocks that he would be helming.

As he passed one gloomy block after another, Assoc Prof Chen suddenly had an “Aha!” moment. “That’s it, this place needs some light,” he exclaimed. That was how LightHouse – one of NUS’ newest hostels since its opening in August 2022 – got its name.

Today, Assoc Prof Chen, who was appointed its Master in July 2022, is a familiar sight to residents. The affable Assistant Dean (Education) at NUS Medicine can often be seen walking Bailey, his Labrador, in the evenings.

For students staying there, it’s not uncommon to find him stopping for a chat – even if he may not always remember their names. “The hardest thing about being a master is trying to get to know everyone. As much as I want to, I am terribly embarrassed that I’m unable to remember all 527 names and their courses,” he remarked.

But he has not stopped trying. The idea is to create a familial atmosphere, said Assoc Prof Chen, who insists that the hostel staff call him by his first name rather than “Prof”.

LightHouse is one of the three Houses at NUS. Unlike Halls, Residential Colleges and Student Residences, they are a relatively new type of accommodation, with different models of CCA participation and increased emphasis on peer support.

Find out how Assoc Prof Chen has made LightHouse a welcoming space for students to live their light.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: How did you become the Master of LightHouse?

A: I first started living on campus in 2015 as a resident fellow in King Edward VII Hall. While classroom learning may give students their degrees to go into their first jobs, it is out-of-classroom campus living that will prepare them to stay on course in career and in life.

With this experience, I was extremely grateful when the opportunity to start a new hostel arose. I found that this hostel was going to have a new campus-living concept which would focus on purpose and meaning. Excitedly, I accepted the offer to become the Master of LightHouse.

Q: What do you hope students will take away from their time here?

A: Our goal at LightHouse is to give students the opportunity to do something they want to – not because of others’ expectations, transactional motivations or because they feel compelled to due to prior experiences. Instead, they are encouraged to take action to step into something that they have always wanted to do, but never did. Excellence is not just about perfecting. It is first and foremost about trying and experiencing. 

To do this, we embraced a community-of-practice (CoP) framework. It allows activities to be organised in an organic, spontaneous and informal approach that would create psychological safety for participation. The flat structure of CoP allows for dynamism and flexibility, and minimises pressure. We developed matching processes that give students the space, time and resources to embark on various activities ranging from arts and crafts to climbing to dodgeball. All these are student-initiated and student-run.

Next, we have “Iced Milo, Kopi, Teh?”, a metaphorical term used to describe a concept inspired by a group of professors who gathered at the same place, same time every day to drink coffee and tea together since my student days at NUS. I found this incredibly fascinating – what makes them come together every day, what conversations could go on for so long?

Hence, “Iced Milo, Kopi, Teh?” was birthed, a social and physical environment engineering concept whereby staff and students co-organise and enjoy activities such as movies-under-the-stars, fireside chats, and open-air jam sessions. LightHouse students also get to co-transform their lived environment by painting their own mural, turning the staircase landing into a stage, and constructing MeowHouse, among other things. All these create the conditions for building shared memories through common experiences that will hopefully motivate them to ‘la kopi, teh or milo’ (Hokkien phrase meaning to catch up over a cup of coffee) with one another, long after they leave LightHouse.

Q: How does LightHouse differentiate itself from the other hostels?

A: Each hostel appeals to different students in different seasons of their lives. At LightHouse, we say: “Do come out of your room to join us, but no pressure, and no strings attached.”

Our admission and retention process is not based on the quality and quantity of what students do or organise. It is difficult to make a value judgment between a student who participated in many activities and another who participated less but transformed the lives of their three neighbours. Therefore, we used a mixed-method approach to evaluate the strength and quality of connections that each student makes.

To complement this, we run programmes where student volunteers coach and mentor peers in areas such as goal-setting and reflective practices, whilst providing emotional, mental and moral support. The aim is for residents to grow close like a family, making LightHouse a home for everyone as much as possible.

Q: What makes it home for you, then?

I live in the Master’s apartment with my wife (whom I met outside Lecture Theatre 26 when we were students), together with our two kids, dog, pet fish, water snails, and lots of plants. Our team developed LightHouse into a comfortable living space with common amenities such as a karaoke room, café, band room, quiet reading lounge, student lounge with a pool table, PS4, and coffee machine with ‘trust-based payment’. There is also plenty of cosy space to study, chill, and cook up a storm throughout the House. There is no better physical home than this!

But beyond the amenities, it is about relationships.

A physical space is nothing without connections. So, it is only natural that we share this space by opening our apartment at least once a semester for students to vibe. Our apartment is as much as theirs. By sharing space, we share connections – not only with students, but also with our amazing Resident Fellows, residential staff, and their families. With them, home is complete.

Q: How would you pitch LightHouse to potential students?

A: At LightHouse, you “Live your Light”.

We hope our students will slowly find the light in themselves. When found, that light should not be hidden. It is meant to illuminate the lives of others by showing the path and avoiding the dangers, so that others may in turn find their own light.

Our logo, designed by our manager, Ms Foong Jing Fang, has the colour black in it too. It acknowledges that life is not always bright and sunny. On days that are dark and gloomy, LightHouse is a shelter for refuge. On days when the heat turns up, it is a place of shade and rest. Whatever your days may be, it is always a place to recharge and rediscover life’s purpose and meaning.