<![CDATA[OUMSSA - Blog]]>Mon, 08 Feb 2016 09:26:08 -0800Weebly<![CDATA[Oxmas dinner]]>Thu, 28 Nov 2013 16:26:05 GMThttp://www.oumssa.org/blog/oxmas-dinner Oxmas dinner this year was slightly controversial when the details were released – because of the increase in expected turnout, we broke from tradition by choosing to cater at an external venue instead of cooking. In retrospect it was a good call – Wig and Pen was packed to the brim and then some (there were more people than chairs) and the food turned out pretty good too!

For the uninitiated, Oxmas is Oxford's way of celebrating Christmas: because term ends for the Christmas season, Christmas is celebrated a month before the actual event – 25 November. Oxmas dinner was held in the same week along with many other college and society Oxmas events.
Food was served buffet-style and it was a spread – sandwiches, chicken, profiteroles...longs queues naturally formed and devoured the food in due course. Some even went for second and thirds! After getting their food people sat together in the long tables (a la college halls, haha) and caught up with each other.
The comm directed our energies for cooking up a storm into putting up a good programme for everyone instead. We decked out in Christmas dress, decorated the function room and set up a rockin' sound system for the performances. About halfway into the night Du Xuan and Elaine kickstarted the performances with beautiful renditions of “Baby, It's Cold Outside” and “Last Christmas”. It was followed by Theophi who regaled us with his own poetic compositions, one about Singapore and one about a certain girl with whom he spent a night cooking and chatting (hehe). Next was Linus with the unbelievable rope trick which may have inspired a few would-be magicians. Becks and Sarah followed with “The Only Exception”. Yifan embarrassed himself by belting out Eason Chan's 圣诞节 having just learnt it the night before. Torsten was the showstopper, both literally and figuratively – his was the final act and he sang wonderfully. There was loud applause all round for our brave performers!
Then it was time to unveil the secret santas! Liki and Eewei, dressed as Santa and Rudolph respectively, enlisted the help of their elves (i.e. the rest of the comm) to deliver the gifts to everyone, who were pleasantly surprised. Following that the comm came out for a final performance to cap off the night, dancing to a cute Christmas jingle. It was so well received that we did an encore! (or it was mostly a chance for people to laugh at the comm haha)
The night was still young and the bar was still open, so many stayed back after the performances and dinner for drinks, to chat, take pictures, and dance to the groovy club music that had been turned on.
On the whole it was a good night. A learning point was maybe to do away with tables and just have chairs instead to allow people to mingle more freely. No matter what, it seems like Oxmas dinners in the future will be equally well-attended (: Thanks guys!

p.s.: In the spirit of Oxmas, we'd like to wish everyone Merry Christmas and Happy New Year (: here's to a great 2014!
<![CDATA[Asian Food Festival 2013]]>Fri, 22 Nov 2013 23:17:45 GMThttp://www.oumssa.org/blog/asian-food-festival-2013
For this year's Asian Food Festival, the Committee decided to attempt one of the most iconic Singaporean dishes around - chicken rice! We had in our minds fragrant grains of Thaihommali rice and juicy and tender chicken, accompanied by a kickass chilli sauce, and set out to find the perfect recipe i.e. Googling 'chicken rice recipe' and clicking on the first link in the search results.

In the kitchen...

For the whole of Thursday night and the Friday before the Festival, cooks worked hard in Becky's kitchen. Mincing garlic, mincing ginger, chopping spring onions, peeling chicken, getting rid of its feathers, stuffing it silly with spring onions and ginger....

Then came cooking. Putting the chicken into boiling hot water, spearing it into an ice bath, then peeling the chicken and adding seasoning, then using the broth to cook the rice e t c. Over the course of it all we learnt very important things,  including:
  1. Mincing too much garlic will lead to hands feeling like you've rubbed chilli all over it for five minutes
  2. Nevertheless continuous mincing might settle you into a state of zen (at least for Liki)
  3. Spring onions are onions and will make you cry
  4. Chicken butts have lots of unplucked feathers
  5. Playing contact is the best way to distract yourself while senselessly chopping ingredients

(Don't worry we were actually very hygienic)
We lived and breathed chicken, and tasted so much chicken (and rice) we're basically not gonna crave it for a good few months. Major major thanks to Becky the kitchen goddess and to all her housemates for putting up with a house that essentially smelled like chicken broth for two nights. And for trying to finish the chicken from the less successful first and second tries of our recipe! 
The beginnings of a kitchen mess


Yum yum in my tum
And we finally moved it all to the Catholic Chaplaincy! We quickly formed into an assembly line of Singaporean efficiency - Liki scooping the rice, Du Xuan dishing out the chicken, Yu-Jia garnishing each plate with parsley, cucumber and spring onions, Eewei adding the chilli sauce, Nick collecting the money and Yifan and Becky promoting/serving plates of chicken. 
Even more yum in my tum (also note red/white tablecloth)
Altogether we sold more than two hundred plates, which were enjoyed by Singaporeans and non-Singaporeans alike. The dizzying delicious plates of chicken rice had people coming back for more. Hahaha or at least we hope so.
Look at the queue mahaha
Happy Singaporeans with their chicken rice
Highly creative artwork
Last seven MASSIVE plates of chicken rice
THANKS EVERYONE FOR COMING! For OUMSSA members who came down, we hope we brought you a taste of home, even though it wasn't really priced like it. It's funny how food is such a part of our identity. Whenever you want chicken rice again, you can just ask us.... for the recipe. Happy garlic and ginger mincing!

Photo credits to Sara Sim, Yifan Zhang, Gan Yu-Jia, Isaac Lee
<![CDATA[Welcome Back Drinks MT13]]>Thu, 17 Oct 2013 10:40:13 GMThttp://www.oumssa.org/blog/welcome-back-drinks-mt13 In keeping with what might be OUMSSA’s most sacred tradition, the committee kicked off the Michaelmas calendar with the ever-popular Welcome Back Drinks. Returning to the stately halls of Harris Manchester for a second time, the event as an opportune time for everyone to meet up after a long vacation, amidst an array of delectable snacks. With no end in sight to the supply of good food and drink (that most hallowed of Singaporean obsessions), conversation went on well into the night as everyone took the chance to catch up with friends old and new.
On display was an even wider selection of drinks than before, catered for both the discerning connosieur and the casual drinker. A whole range of mixers was available for the more daring and experimental, complemented by Singaporean tidbits brought back by generous society members. So whether you were a fan of bagua or Bacardi – there was something for everyone to reminisce over. And making its triumphant return was the now-familiar sight of the kaya toast stand, with our tireless Secretary Yu-Jia resuming her post to dish out lavish servings of kaya and butter (now flanked by helpful committee members to meet the inevitable demand).
The King's Speech: OUMSSA edition.
But perhaps the main attraction, as always, was the people. With frenzied finalists and wide-eyed freshers both making the rounds, the stage was set for fantastic conversations. Old friends caught up and lamented the horrors of collections, while the newbies exchanged Fresher Week stories of terrifying tutors and nights out on the town. Summer vacation stories were swapped, with the more adventurous regaling others of their sojourns through Europe, while others rattled off an envy-inducing checklist of Singaporean foods they feasted on while back home. OUMSSA families got the chance to reunite too, with ‘kids’ already seeking advice on how to survive the dreaming spires from their battle-hardened ‘parents’.
It was a fantastic start to what will undoubtedly be another exciting year in Oxford – so check out some of our photos below, and look forward to more to come as your Committee enters its next term!

Nicholas Tan

<![CDATA[Summer Series: the Balkans]]>Tue, 01 Oct 2013 15:03:00 GMThttp://www.oumssa.org/blog/summer-series-the-balkans
Plitvice Lakes, Croatia. Don’t be fooled by this pretty place – this beautiful region was the place where the bloody conflict of the Croatian War of Independence started.
The Balkans, beauty as their lands are, are below the radar of many tourists due to their reputation for poor safety and infrastructure. Travelling from place to place without high-speed rail becomes (literally) a pain in the ass, but the region is safe: the local mafias do not engage in petty thefts and carjacking (it is, rather, done in Western Europe where there are nicer cars to steal, and then they get resold here).

Fortunately, that also means the Balkans are still untainted by the hordes of tourists on package tours which have afflicted the countries and cities that have marketed themselves better. In particular, Serbia, Macedonia and Albania still retain a ‘backpacker tourist’ atmosphere, which means that accommodation on the lower end of the market is still plentiful, incredibly cheap and of good quality – try that in London or Paris! There is also a considerable absence of the ‘party’ traveller crowd in the region as well, and most people follow the same route – you might even bump into the same people in the same few hostels again, and again…and again.

Time for some history: After centuries of domination by the Ottoman Empire, most of the countries in the Western Balkans became part of the former Yugoslavia, which arose out of the idea of a single state for all Southern Slavs. The breakup of the federation since 1990 led to the countries of Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia and Kosovo. Basically, the other republics feared the dominance of Serbia ever since the demagogue Serb Slobodan Milošević came to power and wanted out, triggering bloody wars of independence and NATO-led air strikes. Fortunately, peace has now come and travel is now perfectly safe in the Balkans. Except if you’re going to the weed-producing region near Gjirokastër, Albania, that is: when the Albanian police arrived there to clear the plantations, they were met with anti-tank missiles and heavy machine guns.
A complete wreck of a building: the former Jugoslav National Army headquarters, bombarded as punishment for Milošević’s murderous exploits in Kosovo
With some friends from junior college, I took a long loop in the Western Balkans through Serbia, Macedonia, Albania, and then Montenegro, Bosnia-Hercegovina and Croatia. I arrived at Belgrade in a cool morning after long train journeys all the way from London. Almost of all the countries speak the same language (though they’d like to disagree) and I hoped that an extremely rudimentary knowledge of Russian (when spoken very slowly, it is intelligible with Serbo-Croat), failing English, could help me get what I needed.

In Serbia, we went on a day-trip with our guide, Dejan, a veteran of the Yugoslav army (he was posted to the Croatian border, and boasts wounds left by shrapnel on his body), to the monasteries in the forest in Fruska Gora. After visiting a monastery, Grgeteg, founded by the despot Vuk Grgurević Branković, known as ‘Wolf the Fire-Dragon’, we stopped by Mirko’s (one of Dejan’s friends) ranch in Neradin for some siesta time. Situated in the rolling Vojvodinan countryside, Mirko explains that Neradin means ‘no work’ in Serbian, and we relaxed by drinking elderflower cordial and the house rakija (Serbian whiskey, families brew their own). He brings us to an old road that was used by the Romans – ‘they still find Roman coins there, and remember – Serbia produced the largest number of [the late] Roman emperors!’ – translates Dejan – and invites us to taste his produce – fresh apples and plums.
The former Yugoslavia has been burdened by its exceptionally recent historical baggage, and it still lingers in the psyches of many there today. There is ‘big, cool (but not necessarily good) brother Serbia’ – Belgrade boasts one of the best nightlife in the entire region, yet Serbian politicians ignore Kosovo’s plea for independence. Croatia (and also, Slovenia), has abandoned the family and went on to join the EU, but not without murderous exploits – for all the mutual animosity, they even teamed up with Serbia in an attempt to carve up Bosnia. On the other hand, Bosnia is now split into two, the Bosnian (Muslim and Croat) part and the Serb part (known as the Srpska Republic), and shrapnel can be seen all over Bosnia (our host in Mostar even had a personal collection of leftover ordnance!)

But nonetheless what all these people shared, after all these years of killing each other, was generosity, trust, and hospitality. After visiting sights, we walked into restaurants and locals invited us to share some of the food on their plates; dinner with friends involved sipping shot after shot of homemade rakija (my favourite is the peach). It wasn’t merely about the ticking of boxes and covering more ground and looking at the sights, but rather, as a visitor (invited or not), to see a different way of life in a foreign land.

Chin Zhi Hui
<![CDATA[Summer Series: Education Partnerships Africa]]>Sun, 29 Sep 2013 15:19:20 GMThttp://www.oumssa.org/blog/summer-series-education-partnerships-africa
Earlier this summer, Sarah Siaw, Howard Chiu and Tan Wei Qing spent ten weeks in Uganda and Kenya on one of the programmes offered at Oxford - Education Partnerships Africa. They share their experiences below:


“I want to spend my summer doing something meaningful!”
“I love helping people!”
“Community service is great!”
If you’re anything like me, you probably had two instinctive reactions to those quotations. The first was approval and identification – yes, helping people is good and rewarding (for both volunteer and beneficiary). But the second reaction pulled against the first – caution, it says, that sounds a little idealistic. Maybe you, like me, have heard of too many community service stories gone wrong. There is an important place for skepticism in volunteer work: does it really make a difference? Does it degrade local culture instead of celebrating it? Does it leave the community with, instead of satisfactory shelters, a slapdash thatch roof that will require constant repair (or, worse, replacement) by the inhabitants?

Both these reactions are right. And that’s why I was on the lookout this summer for a project that was different from the others. I didn’t want a feel-good 10-day trip to <Third World Country> to contribute <skills I don’t possess>, with flights and accommodation costing double the monetary value I brought to the community. But besides this aversion, I didn’t know what I was looking for. So at Freshers’ Fair in 2012, I doubtfully approached a booth labelled ‘Education Partnerships Africa’ thinking, Oh, one of those, and a year later found myself on board a flight to Uganda, Africa as an EPAfrica project worker. Hopefully the following description of what I did for the next 70 days will show you why EPAfrica proved, despite my skepticism, to be just the kind of team I wanted to be working with. Wei Qing and Howard both did the same project but at different sites, and I’m sure they’ll gladly elaborate their own experiences if asked.

The Project

I and two other project partners were headed for a secondary school (Shuuku Vocational Secondary School - SVSS) in rural Uganda. It is a co-ed secondary school nestled between the rolling hills of Mbarara. 
I barely knew either of my project partners, but we were going to spend the next 70 days living and working together for one purpose only: to improve the quality of education at SVSS. EPAfrica focuses on sustainable development in schools, targeting 6 main areas: 
  1. Investing resources in the school, like textbooks or laboratory equipment
  2. Promoting gender equality in the school
  3. Improving the school’s hygiene and the overall health of students and staff
  4. Educating the students about post-secondary opportunities, both educational and vocational, and helping the school to sustain this education after we leave
  5. Improving the school’s sports, music, arts and drama (i.e. CCA) activities and facilities to encourage holistic development
  6. To improve the school’s administrative and teaching processes, making them more effective and efficient We had a budget of £2700 to help us achieve these objectives for the school.

But how? Frankly, we had no idea. We had basic information about the school but our budget had been deliberately left undecided – we wanted to put the sum to the best possible use by first getting to know the school inside out. A week after arriving in Uganda, we drove for two hours in a 4-by-4 over potholes and dirt tracks into the village where we’d spend the next two months. Picture small, square cement huts, most selling produce outside (usually tomatoes, avocadoes, eggs), and wide dusty streets.
From left to right: Top row: me, James (the school’s director), Helen and Jam (my project partners) Bottom row: Kenneth (the school’s head teacher)
Something I wasn’t personally prepared for was how much we’d be stared at. As we walked in the village people would stare at us, unsmiling and unabashed, and occasionally address us with cries of ‘mzungu!’ (‘white person’). My hopes that they would get used to us and begin showing more friendliness were disappointed; the stares followed us every single day for 2 months and were never more friendly than that first day.

Eventually I came to realize that unsmiling faces are not, in Africa, signs of hostility. I learned to meet their stares with smiles and their shouts with a friendly ‘good morning’ in the local language, and sometimes – not all the time, but often enough – the stony face would melt into a jovial grin. Now and then, someone would mistake my ‘good morning’ as an indication that I was thoroughly fluent in Runyankore and babble on in excitement. I’d give a helpless shrug, they’d laugh at me and wave me on my way.

Our first few weeks at the school were spent getting acquainted with its workings as intimately as possible. We met the administration and various staff; discussed student concerns with the school prefects; sat in for lessons. We poked our noses into everything we could think of, from water supply to staff salary to disciplinary system. Most of the time, we didn’t know what we were looking for until we found it: a complaint about dormitory hygiene – a visit to a disorganized library – realizing, while invigilating, that the English examination paper was riddled with errors. 
A room in the girls’ dormitory. Each bed frame houses three mattresses. 2 students share each mattress.
About our third week, we began deciding how to spend the £2700. I don’t want to bore you with details about our expenditure, so here’s a quick list: we installed clocks in all the classrooms, bought a ton of new laboratory equipment, bought keyboards for the school’s computers, added new textbooks into the library, printed notes for three departments, taught the secondary 4 girls how to make affordable, comfortable and reusable sanitary pads, organized a Careers Day, etc.

But not all of our contributions were physical. I spent days in the library completely reorganizing and cataloguing its 4,000+ books. We created a new staff post – Careers Teacher – and designed a method for the school to keep track of its graduating alumni. We created a report based on our lesson observations and presented it to the staff, in an effort to encourage active learning techniques, instead of the dictatorial ‘chalk-and-talk’ which was the most popular (and least effective) style of teaching.
The library, full of boxes containing books that had been donated by another NGO, and which the school had never unpacked as there was no space for them on the shelves. Most were UK books that did not align to the Ugandan syllabus, or were A-level texts (our students graduated after O-level).
Spending 2 months at the school, and having full flexibility with the budget, allowed us to ensure that the changes we made in the school were (1) holistic, in the sense of being bolstered by supporting initiatives in other areas of school life, and (2) sustainable, in the sense that the school would be both able and willing to carry them on.

For example, improvements in the school’s physical resources – e.g. laboratory equipment – were matched by widening the students’ conception of what awaited them after graduating, so that they would be more motivated to study (instead of allowing newly purchased equipment and textbooks to languish unused). This, in turn, was made sustainable by creating a new post of Careers Teacher, in charge of maintaining the alumni network, giving careers counselling to students and organising regular Careers events at the school.

One of our proudest accomplishments was a School Constitution. Its origin remains a mystery. One day, one of our friends asked us, “Does your school have a constitution?” “No,” we replied, alarmed, and immediately began working on one. A couple of weeks later we asked to see his school’s constitution, to which he replied confusedly, “What is a school constitution?” To this day we don’t know if we misheard him that first time, or whether his subconscious genius birthed this incredible idea through a slip-of-the-tongue.

Either way, it proved extremely helpful. It gave us a way of streamlining all the school’s major administrative processes in one focused document. Through meetings with the school authorities, we drew up a list of staff roles and responsibilities, determined the procedure for awarding bursaries and the conditions that would have to be met, drafted a list of school rules and corresponding punishments, and typed out the teacher’s code of conduct – all in the name of the School Constitution.

To be honest, I felt at times that I was completely under-qualified. What did we know about running a school or handing out needy student subsidies? But we had fresh pairs of eyes, we had ideas that made sense, and (perhaps most importantly) we were there. In other words, we were the most qualified people the school could access. So we did our best and turned this fictitious idea into reality. That task taught me courage.

I’ve spoken about this project as if it was all work. That would be a lie. Over the months, we had an amazing time getting to know one another and the staff and students. Our school had a Culture Day, at which students put up the most beautiful cultural performances, and at which we also performed (and were, unsurprisingly, outperformed). 
Culture Day at SVSS. Students learn many traditional dances from their elders; one typical dance theme is weddings.
We visited a student’s home and were treated to a DVD of rock songs from our childhood (think Linkin Park, Avril Lavigne and Good Charlotte). We played cards with teachers and threw a dinner for them. We danced with the students. One week was a holiday week – Howard climbed partway up a mountain, Wei Qing witnessed the fabled wildebeest migration in Kenya, I languished lazily in the waters of Lake Bunyonyi. 
PictureJam and I with Jean.
There is one more thing that I loved about EPAfrica  Through it I met the most wonderful people – and, even better, got to work with them. Our school’s director, James, founded the school in 2001 with his personal money and financial support from people who believe in him. It opened with under a hundred students and now has over 900. He is one of the most upright, discerning and insightful men I know, and it was my honour to work with him. He’s not just a good administrator. He buys medicine for students who can’t afford or access it when he goes into town and, under his direction, the school takes in a very high proportion of vulnerable students (an estimated 200 of 900 students are complete orphans – many of whom can’t afford their fees and are sponsored by the school). As a result, James has to work hard to make ends meet for the school – for example, going all the way to Nairobi to buy lab equipment from a cheaper supplier. In our months at the school, he rarely left work before 9 p.m. at night. 

Jean, a history teacher at our school, was tasked with looking after us ‘whites’. She prepared lunch for us while we were at the school, and forewent many hours of sleep working on history revision notes that we would type out and print for students to use, since there weren’t enough textbooks to go around. (The notes were eventually about 160 pages long, and she handwrote most of them for us to type out, being computer-illiterate herself.) At our Careers Day, she told the students something they needed desperately to hear: that career choice should not be determined solely by parental pressure. “You need to think about what your strengths are,” she said. Instead of pursuing a professional degree, she chose teaching because she loves it and is good at it. She’s been with the school since it was founded.

Robert, the Director of Studies at our school, invested personal money constructing a chicken coop for the school, so that the school could have a poultry farm (important both for agricultural demonstrations, and also for the students’ diet, which was only maize and beans, three meals a day). He did this while supporting four sisters with his income and funding his own course (agriculture) at university. 

Education Partnerships Africa (Mbarara Team), project workers and head teachers, summer 2013
To me these people are visionaries, legends. It is tempting to pride myself on my little volunteer trip to Uganda until I remember that they wake up every day to substandard living conditions and still manage to pull themselves out of their own worlds. They’re not just doing their jobs, setting some money by, stopping at the minimum. They go above and beyond for the students, working overtime and on weekends. Their dedication is unrivalled by that of any teachers I’ve seen, in the UK or in Singapore. Teaching doesn’t pay well; that’s not why they do it. In the words of our Director of Studies, Robert: “Don’t be selfish, unless you want to sell fish.”

I can’t sum my summer up in any better way than saying that EPAfrica was the best community service experience of my life. I firmly believe that it is a model that works. It changed me. More importantly, I think it changed the school, for the better. If you are looking for something meaningful to do this coming summer, I hope you seriously consider it.


Sarah has written extensively about what EPAfrica does and the charity’s model, and it is a model that we keep in mind as we work in our various schools. I had the opportunity to work in a technical school as opposed to a purely academic secondary school (like the one Sarah was in), and the students did very different subjects. Putting it into the context of the Singaporean education system, Kakiika (pronounced ka-chi-ka) Technical School was like the ITE among the other secondary schools within our educational landscape. 

Not surprisingly, they faced the stigma that a technical education is inferior to a purely academic one, and that the prevailing view of society was that technical school was for the students who could not make it. Of course, it is not something that can be changed overnight, but we still tried our best to challenge that notion by bringing in people who had been there and gone on to establish successful careers for the school’s Careers Day.
External speakers speaking to the students on Careers Day in Kakiika Technical School
Much unlike the “mainstream” schools, Kakiika offers 4 courses: Blocklaying & Concrete Practice, Carpentry & Joinery, Tailoring & Cutting Garments and Motor Vehicle Mechanics. Lessons are a throwback to the Singaporean education system of the yesteryear, dictation and rote learning featuring largely due to the lack of resources – the school did not have many textbooks and the teacher will usually be the only person in class with a copy.
Of course, our time there was not just all work and no play. We had quiet mornings to take in the scenery around the school, there’s a Holiday Week included in the middle of the 10 weeks to give us a breather and some time off from the school, as well as the occasional jaunts into town to do some groceries and grab some snacks. I stayed within the school as the school had kindly allocated us one of the teacher accommodations, and we even had dinner parties where we had the teachers over and we cooked for them! 
Food, glorious food!
Much has been said, but I'll let the pictures convey the thousands of words running through my mind as I recall the exciting events of the past 70 days.
The view from the back of Kakiika in the late morning
Entirely unexpected reminders of home kept us going strong and made for the most interesting of discoveries, even though Singapore (to many people) is still effectively a part of China.
The man himself, spotted in a bookshop (left), and a car advertisement involving our own Marina Bay Sands (right)
Brings a whole new meaning to a human flag during the restringing of the pole used for flag raising (left) and Domo-kun makes a surprise appearance in another incarnation (right). In case you were wondering, it’s a charcoal stove!
Surprise! A feature of staff meetings everywhere (left) and an especially encouraging road sign that almost seemed like it was erected in response to my awesome sense of humour (right)

Wei Qing

Proudly carrying my sugarcane. In the background are the policies we created together with teachers, displayed on the staffroom noticeboard.
Since Sarah and Howard have given such vivid accounts of our work in East Africa, let me provide a more personal narrative on the eight weeks I spent living in Nyanko, the not-so-little village in which my school was located.  
Becoming Kerubo.
PictureWith the church choir, who are excited to touch my hair
Three days after a matatu (kind of like the primary school minivan buses, but 3 times as crowded) unceremoniously deposits us in the dusty, riotous hub of central Kisii, I meet Henry. Henry is the head teacher of the school where I will work for the next two months. He is pleased to learn that I have an intelligible name (I introduced myself as ‘Wei’ since ‘Wei Qing’ is not generally pronounceable outside of Singapore), but bestows me a local name, ‘Kerubo’, as a gesture of goodwill and friendship. 

‘Kerubo’ hails from the ekegusii (Kisii dialect) word for a swampy place; it is a popular girl’s name and will serve as my name for the next 10 weeks. I only later realise that ‘Kerubo’ doubles as a (somewhat) forbidding metaphor for a lady who is tough.

Although I try to be Kerubo I cannot change the colour of my skin; the lilt of my voice marks me as distinctly foreign. It is difficult to be the centre of attention in a remote, hilly tribe where people surmise from the sturdiness of your shoes and the crispness of your shirt that you are rich and that you should ‘assist’ them. Difficult, because the guilt which accompanies the recognition that they are –in some small way- right cannot erase the futility of attempting to sponsor an entire country out of poverty.

In town I sense the suspicion with which my ethnicity is viewed— I am Chinese, and China has just entered into an extensive web of exploitative contracts with Kenya. Back in my village Kerubo makes up for this by stopping to greet everyone on the road in the local language, playing with the children in church and visiting the elderly at their homes. I am aware that the school with which I work is woven from the same fabric of ties and traditions that my village is cut from, so I try to endear Kerubo to its custodians.

Yet I realise also that the school is stitched together with values and goals of its Catholic sponsor, and bound up in the rules of a faceless national authority. So now Kerubo must navigate the currents of the three sub-cultures which animate the school, on top of my own (pre-Kerubo) principles and goals. It is a challenge I relish and I spend countless hours listening to teachers, head teachers, cooks, church elders, butchers, carpenters and children of all sizes. (Of course I also spend time haggling over prices of beakers with shopkeepers and on the computer recording book titles.)

In the end I think I do, somehow, become Kerubo. There is a change in the way my head teacher speaks to and of his staff. The new lab technician greets me with a salute and asks if he’s doing a good job (he is). The influential local businessman catches me after my last weekend at church to convey the people’s thanks to Kerubo for helping the school; an unfamiliar little boy trails alongside me as I walk home to tell me that he will be sad to see Kerubo go on Friday. Ten weeks is far too little to become the person a village school can rely upon for years of success, but maybe (just maybe) it was enough for Kerubo to inspire some small change in one small village’s school.    

More information on EPAfrica can be found at http://www.epafrica.org/.
<![CDATA[OUMSSA Chalet 2013]]>Sat, 28 Sep 2013 02:54:28 GMThttp://www.oumssa.org/blog/oumssa-chalet-2013 Following on the heels of our Freshers’ Tea 2013, OUMSSA members got together once again for the annual chalet at Pasir Ris Home Team. While the chalet has traditionally been for incoming freshers to get to know one another better, this year’s event saw an impressive turn-out from the second and third years.

The chalet featured a game show theme where participants were randomly thrown into groups (named lovingly after ‘English’ food- Eton Mess, Fish & Chips, Bangers & Mash, Hassan’s Kebab, Mushy Peas and the world-renowned Tesco Meal Deal) and pitted against one another in epic battles of wit/creativity/dance moves/thickskinness.
The grand finale of the chalet took after popular Chinese dating show 非诚勿扰 (which literally means “not sincere don’t bother” though a quick entry into Google translate gives us “You Are The One”..), where groups sent forth one male human sacrifice each who had to display their various talents (cartwheels and calf-flexing were very well received) and had to be subjected to the grueling questions of a panel of 9 ‘single ladies’ (half of whom were not in fact single). While this might or might not have been a discreet attempt to get sponsorship from SDU, we gladly conclude that no hearts were broken in the process.
Aniq reminding us why he’s Mr Oxford UKBound
All in all, the chalet was a huge success, and all of us walked away with many stories to tell and many new friendships forged! Look out for the complete collection of photos coming soon on Facebook (:
<![CDATA[Summer Series: University of Vienna International Summer Programme]]>Thu, 12 Sep 2013 15:58:02 GMThttp://www.oumssa.org/blog/summer-series-university-of-vienna-international-summer-programme
The way I discovered the Sommerhochschule was pretty unimpressive - Googled 'summer schools in Europe' and ended up with this, which seemed to perfectly fit into my calendar. But when the organisers knew me by name the moment I walked into the campus, I knew that this was going to be a very special experience.

The Sommerhochschule is organized by the University of Vienna, offering courses in European studies and the German language. However, the programme itself was not held in Vienna, but Strobl, a village just off Salzburg, and next to the Wolfgangsee.

The Place

Strobl itself is a ridiculously beautiful village. Homes were decorated with flowers and creeping vines, and stood out against  huge backdrops of blues and greens. The town lies on the edge of a massive lake, and sunlight playing on the waters makes for a very comforting sight on most days.

Most people here are on holiday, so the atmosphere is pretty lazy. Ice-cream shops dot the main pavement and there are plenty of alfresco dining options in the afternoons and evenings.

Strobl is only one of quite a few towns that border Lake Wolfgangsee in the Salzkammergut region, so quite a few afternoons were spent exploring the nearby towns, such as Ebensee and Bad Ischl. One day we decided to bike around the lake - it took an entire afternoon but the views were amazing and we covered lots of ground in a few hours.

Weather was great in July and August, with 20ish degrees in the morning that dropped to 10ish at night. While Strobl was meant to be a rainy town, the four weeks we were there we were greeted with at least three of sunshine. Our thoughts soon turned from "we better make the most out of the sun!!!!!" to "ok it'll still be sunny tomorrow."

The Campus

You'd think that a summer programme at the University of Vienna would mean city life and lights, but bringing the whole experience to Strobl made it really special. There isn't anything quite like studying and living in an environment full of hills and lakes. The air just felt so much fresher and cleaner - even the water tasted better. 

The campus was located five minutes away from the heart of the village, and a stone's throw from the lake itself. Rooms were furnished nicely and dining hall was yummy. We had our own SHS boathouse, which made plans for the afternoon easy enough - a dip in the waters followed by time spent on the next day's readings. There were also surfboards and rowboats available for rental for those more adventurous.
This was the building in which half of the participants were housed in. All the classroom buildings and dining halls were easily accessible, and there was also a clubhouse where you could use the gym facilities and play pool or foosball. There were study rooms available, and also a sports room with a table tennis table set up.

The Programme

The programme itself was fairly intensive, with four hours of lectures a day. Evening seminars were interdisciplinary in nature and brought the different courses together in a different perspective. Our profs were mostly from the University of Vienna and the quality of teaching was high. I took courses in international commercial arbitration and international investment law, among others, but there were also European economic and political courses.

What I liked was the level of interaction between professors and students, and how seriously feedback seemed to be taken. Before the fortnight's courses (you study two courses every two weeks), there would be course presentations by the professors, and you were able to decide whether or not you wanted to switch courses after these presentations. During lessons, professors made genuine efforts to engage everyone in class, with class participation forming a significant part of the grade.
What made this summer programme really different, though, was the effort invested in student life. Free windsurfing and tennis courses are provided throughout the four weeks. The place itself also just made you want to be healthy - sun and sky and gorgeous hills made evening jogs way more bearable for someone as lazy as me. Lunch was always a three course meal of typical Austrian dishes, which made afternoon naps forever tempting. A game of table tennis or badminton in the afternoon helped keep us hungry for dinner, which was always a buffet.
Climbing up a hill in the sun, to be greeted by good homemade wine and a great view
There is a bar open every night for students to socialise, and the staff were game to organise parties in the main hall whenever we wanted one. In the first week we had a pub quiz, in the second, birthday parties, and the last night we set up our own disco in the main hall as a nice end to the programme. There are also dance lessons weekly, where international traditional dances are taught, including the classic Viennese waltz, which we learnt for the opening dance of the Midsummer Night’s Ball. A Chamber Concert was also organised for the participants. 
Excursions and hikes were organised weekly, to places like Salzburg and Ebensee. Cue lots of touristy moments. On top of that, there were also two Austrian festivals, which made for very interesting nights. 

The People

What's an international summer programme without diversity? This year there were more than 80 students from 28 countries (a number oft repeated to us), which made for an intriguing and entertaining mix.

The first week was a crash course in cultural differences. In everything we did we learnt something more about someone else: how people ate at dinner, the way in which we responded in class, and what we wanted to do when we went to a new town. The second and third weeks we fell into a rhythm. We tried our best to get up for class, went for walks after dinner in the evening light, spent the nights at the bar, watched falling stars at the boathouse. Danced the cha, the waltz, different national dances. Went to the lake, played tennis, windsurfed, biked, water skied.
In between all these we found pockets to get to know each other better, helped each other in class, found similarities instead of differences. There were numerous intercultural competence seminars that told us to beware of cultural clashes, but I found that we were more alike than we think we are. It probably has something to do with the fact that we all chose to come here – to find something different, more challenging, more exciting, more precious. 

In 2014...

PictureClosing Ceremony - Austrian dirndl and Indian sari
In fewer words: definitely consider it! It was an intellectually, physically and maybe even spiritually (hahaha) rejuvenating four weeks, and writing this post makes me miss it quite a bit now.

What you gain in terms of interacting with people from other countries is invaluable. Being the only one from Southeast Asia made it slightly daunting at the start, but being open to every single culture, and always thinking about representing yours properly, gives you a perspective that you will otherwise never have.

The programme fee is reasonable given the excellent facilities and organisation. Application is more tedious than other summer schools (as a senior warned me at the start) but it's worth the effort.

Programme website: http://shs.univie.ac.at/shs

Written by Seah Ee Wei

<![CDATA[Freshers. Family. Food!]]>Mon, 09 Sep 2013 16:48:59 GMThttp://www.oumssa.org/blog/freshers-family-food Freshers’ Tea, our first OUMSSA event of the summer, was a boisterous affair held on 17 August at The Florida’s function room. The 75-strong turnout proved a tad too crowded for the room’s official capacity of 50 people, so some resorted to socializing outdoors, notwithstanding the heavy showers that afternoon.
Look at 'em crowds!
Being a society comprising mainly conservative Asians, our committee settled for a sexual division of labour in preparation for Freshers’ Tea – females to the kitchen, and males to the hard (logistical) labour of moving ice boxes. (With that said, shifting some 80 over baguettes, numerous cookies, cake, and three different sandwich fillings made in anticipation of 100 people was a feat that the girls accomplished single-genderedly!) Meet our (all-female) team of lunch providers, who hand-made and wrapped sandwiches on the spot for hungry freshers and OUMSSA members:
Since the Tea was from an awkward timing of 11am to 3.45pm, an assortment of other kinds of food was provided as well for tea – kuehs, cookies, cake, crumble, and such. Special thanks to Shinny, Nicole, Sandra, and other lovely OUMSSA members who might have contributed a sincerely baked dish or two!

Then the structured mingling began proper. First, by subject:
Meet the energetic economists!
Hello hungry historians!
And here are the loquacious lawyers! (this photo does no justice – pun unintended – to their actual numbers.)
Hello gregarious grads!
Next, we met in families. Here’s a heartwarming sample of a conscientious single mum doing her best to entertain her three children as her hubby, miles away, gallivants in summer school.
Three cheers for Choi Choi!
Although Freshers’ Tea is an event attended mostly by freshers and second years, some rising thirds and fresh grads were spotted in the crowd too.
Hello rising thirds!
Amongst them is a bespectacled, curly-haired fresh-faced fresher named Mike who claims to be studying Classics.
It was all in all a wonderful afternoon of eating, socializing, languishing in the air-con and getting to meet the incoming batch of freshers. We look forward to Freshers’ Chalet, happening in less than a week’s time from 14-15 September – more fun and (decidedly incriminating) photos are to come!
<![CDATA[Summer Series: Yale Summer Session]]>Fri, 06 Sep 2013 15:26:08 GMThttp://www.oumssa.org/blog/summer-series-yale-summer-sessionSo I applied to summer school at Yale, “Sustainability and Institutions”, from 1 July to National Day, thinking it'll be a nice but typical course about environmentalism. I was quite wrong, but pleasantly so! I learnt a new way of framing problems, which I think is more valuable than gaining content knowledge. Also, I made many awesome friends from 8 countries, and improved my Chinese (not kidding).

A small aside to plug for the International Alliance of Research Universities Global Summer Program: it was the program through which I applied to Yale, and it's awesome. It's more selective than a typical summer school, but it's subsidised by half so you end up paying only about $3,500. It brings together students from 10 universities across 8 countries, so there's a lot of diversity in class! Applying to any of its programs in any of the 10 universities is fine, but Yale's sustainability course was really nice (: The down side is you have no flexibility with regard to course options (you can only take one, no additional courses allowed); the upside is you save on costs (which come up to near $10,000 if you do 2 course in the regular summer session) and you get a lot of free time to chill or do other cool things.
AND they gave us this monster of a steak. If that doesn't draw you to the programme, I don't know what will.
Yale is a beautiful place, in many ways reminding you of Oxford (and Cambridge, urgh). A really funny piece of trivia is that many of the buildings at Yale were only built in the 19th and 20th centuries, but in order to make them exude similar age and poise as Oxbridge buildings the architect actually poured acid down some of them. I would hesitate staying at the top floors of those towers! On the other hand, the campus is larger than Oxford or Cambridge, and the buildings have a much wider variety of styles, some being built with redbrick, some with wood, instead of only sandstone as you have at Oxbridge. Some of the buildings are really modern, too, particular the very cool Beinecke Library (which has one of the original Illuminated Manuscripts!).
New Haven town is a quaint little conclave, with main attractions being food and museums. Not super exciting, but it was good enough for 6 weeks. Louis' Burger, which made the first every hamburger, is here; there's good but expensive Chinese food at Taste of China, Thai food at Thai Taste, and Japanese at Sono Bano (which is 5 km away from town, get a cab). Yale itself provides full catering, and the food's usually decent (and buffet!); dinners are better than lunches, though, and breakfasts are the same every time (scrambled eggs, toast, hashbrowns, steelcut oats). The Art Gallery is highly worth visiting, as is the Center for British Art; I did not manage to visit the Musical Instruments Collection, sadly.

Everyone in the GSP was housed together in Ezra Stiles College (Yale has a collegiate system much like Oxford does, but without the teaching element), so I got to know my coursemates pretty well! There were people from America, Australia, China, Denmark, Japan, Singapore, Switzerland, and the UK, so it was really international, too. Inevitably we Asians stuck together more, because we frequented Asian restaurants and went on excursions together. The Chinese got to learn some Japanese and the Japanese some Chinese, so it was nice! We had only lessons twice a week so we had many free periods. I'd spend some time in the amazing Payne Whitney Gym, the largest in the world (at 9 storeys!) and absolutely free! Otherwise we played pool, ping pong, air hockey or foosball in the games rooms in college, went to movies in town (the Summer Session had discounted $5 tickets), or went to bars to grab a pint. Or eat, heh.
Having fun the old school way. Yale is an old school!
About improving my Chinese: not to stereotype, but there were just so many students from China in Yale! I was glad I took the GSP and not a regular Summer Session module, because I could've literally been the only non-Chinese in the class. On the bright side it was easy to make new friends, and, yes, improve your Chinese. 意外惊喜呀!

The fun thing about going for summer school in the States is travelling and exploring the region, especially for me as it was my first time in the US. I had loads of fun in Boston, going to the Museum of Fine Arts and eating Boston Lobster (which is properly amazing); I stayed at Chinatown in New York, had a blast in MOMA and the Metropolitan Museum, and just enjoying the sights of Manhattan in general. We took a road trip around Rhode Island, travelling to Providence and Newport, and got ourselves nearly killed more than a few times in the process; all good fun! The Summer Session arranged trips to Target and an outlet village, too, awesome. Unfortunately I could not go to Washington or New Jersey, but that's a regret to make up for in the future.
The beautiful skyline along the Boston Back Bay at night.
About what's arguably the most important aspect of the summer school – the summer school. Yale Summer Session has Session A, which we cannot make, and Session B, which we can, and GSP, which you should apply for because it's awesome! (it overlaps with Session B, but starts a week earlier) Sustainability and Institutions was nothing I had imagined and absolutely amazing; I learnt to be a sustainability consultant and to look at how to effectively integrate sustainability considerations (and all the technical things which go into them) in organisations through change management and systems thinking. It was a fresh angle to sustainability, interesting, and highly relevant. We used Yale as a living laboratory to explore sustainability concepts, and we had the people in charge of dining, estates, energy, waste, and more to talk to us – loads of important and highly accomplished people to learn from! We took a small trip to the University of Connecticut to appreciate its sustainability context, too, and had the best organic local-made ice cream ever. There were no timed exams so that was a big plus, too; for my final paper I did a comparison of sustainability strategies at Oxford, Cambridge and Yale. Not bad for 6 weeks, huh?
The Australiasians at Yale GSP 2013. Awesome bunch (:
The biggest adventure came when I was concluding my stay in the US. It was a stormy Friday and my bus to Boston was delayed, and then the public transit in Boston to the airport was delayed, so I got to the airport with barely an hour to spare before the flight. I was fully prepared to rush through security only to discover my flight was cancelled due to the weather. Bugger! I wracked my brains and expended every resource to fix my flight (I had a connecting flight from London to Singapore I could not miss) and by the skin of my teeth got to Heathrow airport with an hour from gate to gate. Lesson learnt: always be prepared for contingencies, and nothing is impossible if you try!


P.S.: Everyone who's done something fun during the summer, or just wants to write a blog for OUMSSA, please let us know! Message any of the committee members on Facebook or drop us an email (:
<![CDATA[Punts and Pints]]>Wed, 05 Jun 2013 09:54:10 GMThttp://www.oumssa.org/blog/punts-and-pints
Botanical Gardens. Punts. Water-guns. Bubbles. Barley. Pimm's. What's not to love?
A week ago we had Punts & Pints, an event all Singaporeans were looking forward to.  The weather was effortlessly beautiful, with the much-anticipated sun finally deciding to grant us her presence. Shop was set up in the Botanical Gardens, just by the river. Combined with the company of fellow Singaporeans, this was a very welcome break from work, especially for those who were to face their exams in the next few weeks. (Good luck guys!)
The spread of food was glorious. There were strawberries, oranges, biscuits, chips, and candy. The OUMSSA Committee brought out their homemade peach salsa and guacamole on tortilla chips, and peanut and black sesame tangyuans (alas, the ready-made sort, but only following a colossal failure to make them from scratch in Liki's room).

There was also homemade barley water with winter melon candy, iced Rose Sangria, Pimm's cocktails and pints of beers all round. We also had special Singaporean snacks like Wang Wang, and bakkwa from good old Tag. 

Then came the highlight of the day - punting! For the uninitiated, punting is a quintessentially Oxford activity - you are armed only with a hollow metal pole and a small paddle, which you use to propel yourself and steer through the narrow rivers. Honestly, it is harder than it looks. There were two main groups of Singaporeans: those who could punt... and those who couldn't. No matter, the latter sat back while the more experienced navigated them around Christchurch Meadows, St. Hilda's College, and even into the Isis.

The more adventurous among us also tried the ultimate punting challenge: punting up to a bridge, climbing up onto it while the punt floats under the bridge, and hopping down onto the punt again when the punt floats out from the other side of the bridge. Sounds like fun? Not when you land in the water!
For those who were waiting their turn to punt, or simply felt like relaxing on land, there were tons of things to do. Some sat around in groups and jammed on the guitars (and even a ukelele) to popular tunes. Other tried shotgunning with cans of beer. The most entertaining activity, though, whether it be for participants, spectators, or bemused tourists, was the water-gun fight that ensued. Grown men, rediscovering their childhood, crouched down onto the grass and hollered tactical commands. (One would imagine this was counter-strike or DOTA in real life, only the author is a girl who has never played either, and hence would not know.) Such strategies were soon abandoned, as they resorted to pinning each other down and drenching each other with the water-guns.
Otherwise, what better way is there to catch up with a friend you haven't seen in a while, than to sit on the grass in the sun and chat over a glass of iced Pimm's and lemonade? Search us.
On the count of three...
For more photos, check out our Facebook album here.

THANKS FOR COMING! All our events would not have been possible without the support of everyone in OUMSSA (and our sponsors). It's amazing how the academic year is already coming to an end. Soon we'll be breaking for summer, where all of us will either tour the world, or go back to the lovely sunny island set in the sea. Eat more chicken rice and roti prata, drink more tehbing, and recharge for the next year. Please continue to support your OUMSSA Committee - look out for our orientation events, where we welcome the young padawans!

In the meantime, here's a song to celebrate the recent days of sunshine we've had! May it laaaaaast