To seek, strive and excel, at NUS Kent Ridge Hall

“Every student, an athlete; every teacher, a coach”—this is the pedagogical philosophy that encapsulates Associate Professor Kua Harn Wei’s approach to his teaching, coaching, and latest role as the recently appointed Hall Master of NUS Kent Ridge Hall (KR).

A student can achieve his or her full potential with a growth mindset and razor-sharp focus, and to make that happen, a teacher must know when and how to transit from teaching to coaching, guiding, and inspiring. With that belief, Prof Kua, who hails from the NUS School of Design and Environment (SDE), brings his energy and vision to Kent Ridge Hall, more than four months into his new appointment.

As Hall Master, Prof Kua oversees the smooth daily operations of the Hall Office, as well as all aspects of the vibrant student residential life that Kent Ridge Hall is known for. Working with his colleagues in the Senior Common Room Committee (SCRC), he supervises Kent Ridge Hall’s student leaders in organising a plethora of resident activities, ranging from sports and cultural activities to community service initiatives, and creates a conducive and engaging living environment for the Hall’s 450-plus student residents.

He views it as a key task to cultivate a sense of stakeholdership and camaraderie among student residents, and a culture of active participation in hall governance. “We believe in giving students as much autonomy and support as possible in designing and organising their activities, because we trust that Kent Ridgeans have their peers’ and the Hall’s best interests at heart, while showing creativity in their conceptualisation of these activities,” he affirms.

And with residents viewing the hall as a home away from home, it is the interactions with students that Prof Kua finds most rewarding. He marvels at how the student residents have developed a sense of community and kinship amid the ongoing pandemic – the much-anticipated annual tradition of Rag and Flag and the Freshmen Welcome Orientation Camp, as well as the annual Bash (a social event culminating in the crowning of Mr and Miss KR) have all had to be creatively modified to adhere to Safe Management Measures (SMMs).

“Even the SMMs cannot hold back their creativity in decorating their living environment (including one another’s doors) as part of orientation activities. It is always a joy to see these decorations during my frequent walks through the blocks,” says Prof Kua.

Crafting the Hall experience

Prof Kua is also no stranger to Hall life, having served as a Resident Fellow in NUS Raffles Hall for seven and a half years from 2012 to 2019, and as a Residential Advisor to NUS students living at the ACS(I) Boarding School for one and a half years after. Revolving around Hall sports, orientation activities, and community service, his stint at Raffles Hall gave him an in-depth understanding of the work required of a residential staff member, facilitating his transition into his current position.

Mr Liu Chixuan, a current graduate student who had stayed at Raffles Hall, attests to Prof Kua’s friendliness, approachability, and strong sense of presence in the Hall, while Mr Soh Hua Qun, another alumnus of Raffles Hall, recalls the regular suppers Prof Kua organised to engage its student residents and provide an avenue for them to bond.

Prof Kua’s strikingly calm and humble demeanour make students feel comfortable sharing their concerns,” Mr Soh shares. “He is also a man of action as he listens to their feedback and takes prompt action to make positive changes to their living environment.”

Sharing the love of sports

Besides wearing many hats in a professional capacity, from Assistant Dean (Academic) at SDE to the leader of SDE’s Smart Materials Laboratory and sitting on the University Sustainability and Climate Action Council, Prof Kua has also been an avid sportsman and dedicated triathlete for the past 30 years. He is also the current coach of the NUS Aquathlon team, of which he is an alumnus.

He has also qualified for the national triathlon team and represented Singapore in various competitions, including the Ironman Triathlon World Championship in Hawaii in 1997, where he went on to set three Asian Records on the global ultra-triathlon (with distances longer than those in an Ironman triathlon) scene between 2001 and 2006, all of which still stand today. In 2008, during his second year as an Assistant Professor in NUS, he competed in the ultra-triathlon world circuit and ended the season (with 5 ultra-triathlons in about 7 months) as World Number 2, helping to raise about $1 million for NUS alumni activities and lifelong learning programmes in the process. He also participated in a military-style adventure race in Virginia, USA, which was endorsed by the US Navy SEALS; he won his age-group and came in second overall.

As someone with in-depth knowledge of competitive sports, Prof Kua guided Raffles Hall athletes in different sporting activities, including the annual Inter-Hall Games, by sharing competition experiences and counselling student athletes.

And now at Kent Ridge Hall, a culture of fitness is being cultivated as well. The student Sports Directors have come up with a Fitness Challenge, a new event in which student residents of the Hall’s five blocks compete to achieve the highest number of accumulated push-ups and sit-ups, and the number of people completing a 2.4km run within a certain period of time – all adhering to the prevailing SMMs.

“Prof Kua establishes rapport with students and brings out the best in his athletes by his friendliness, patience and encouragement,” says Chixuan, who upon returning to NUS for his graduate studies, was recruited back into the NUS Aquathlon team by Prof Kua. “As a coach, he is definitely not the ‘old-school’ type. Instead of teaching, he always chooses sharing, respecting differences across individuals and always staying open to suggestions.”

Inculcating a spirit of service

Above and beyond his professional commitments, Prof Kua is also extensively involved in community work in his bid to reach out to the less fortunate.

“Life is an ultramarathon, in which no one makes it alone. Our ability to get most out of our lives depends on how much we can help one another fulfil our individual potential to the fullest.

From giving free physical training lessons to juvenile inmates in the Singapore Boys’ Home, to participating in a befriender programme to reach out to underprivileged families and spending three months as a volunteer builder of infrastructure in Tanzania, Prof Kua has dedicated his time and energy in a wide range of community service activities. He has also introduced NUS students from SDE, and his own children, to environmental volunteer activities in the Northwest district, such as helping Tzu Chi Foundation with their waste-sorting sessions and conducting handicraft classes for pre-schoolers in the Northwest district.

Indeed, it is this same spirit of giving back to the community and society at large that he strives to inculcate in Kent Ridgeans.

“All along, Kent Ridge Hall has had a very good reputation as a dynamic hall that is bold and creative in its thinking,” he observes. “In my capacity as Hall Master, I hope to build on this solid tradition and cultural foundation, and inculcate a sense of civic-mindedness and social awareness among Kent Ridgeans, so that as they enjoy the friendships forged in the Hall through all the meaningful activities in store, they will also contribute to the greater good of the communities beyond the Hall.”

The aim is for residents to embody the Hall's spirit and its motto: To seek, strive and excel.

Asked what words of advice he has for students on making the most of their university life, Prof Kua urges, “As much as you should see NUS as your intellectual home, it should not be your entire world. NUS should be, or become, your springboard to the universe beyond – Singapore and the whole world!”