16 October 2018: ‘Insights Into Identity’ Speaker Series

By Mathias Ooi

Talk  at Yale-NUS College featuring Maeve Coburn L’Oréal North America’s Senior Vice President and Head of Learning & Organization Development. Photo by Regina Vanda. 

Five distinguished leaders from various fields across the globe visited Yale-NUS College last month to share their personal journeys of self-identity and the work that they do.

Their talks were part of the inaugural ‘Insights Into Identity’ Speaker Series hosted by the Yale-NUS Social Emotional Leadership (SEL) Club from 10 to 21 September.

“Our main motivation for hosting the series was to show people that self-work is meaningful and important in any context where we’re dealing with other people,” said club president Wong Zhi Ying (Class of 2019).

Treasurer Nyang Bing Pei (Class of 2021) also explained that the series sought to help students understand “the intersection between leadership practice and personal identity, concepts that tend to be explored in isolation here at Yale-NUS”. Executive committee member Pang Wei Han (Class of 2019) added that it was a rare opportunity to bring such a diverse line-up of speakers together, and that the club decided to open this speaker series to the public because they believed that the talks would empower many Singaporeans in different fields.

Spearheading the series was Tong Yee, co-founder of The Thought Collective, a group of social enterprises in Singapore. He spoke about the importance of self-awareness and “consciously moving into [one’s] area of resistance” in order to build the emotional range, or “porosity”, to interact and empathise with different people and circumstances beyond one’s comfort zone.

Talk at Yale-NUS College Black Box Theatre featuring Mr Tong Yee, co-founder of The Thought Collective. Photo by Regina Vanda.

Drawing from anonymous anecdotes of his clients and from his own struggles, Mr Tong divulged how the need for self-awareness increases as a person moves up the leadership hierarchy and the impact of their decisions increases. While he acknowledged that empathy takes a long time to develop, Mr Tong nonetheless emphasised that “only by living in the life of the other and understanding the value that they will bring to you” can one begin to find inclusive solutions to interpersonal tensions. He closed his session with this powerful statement: “Polarities are not problems to solve, [but] they are tensions to manage.”

On the second night of the series, American humanitarian aid worker Holly Hughson shared stories of how she dealt with fear and uncertainty on the frontlines of 21st century conflicts in countries like Afghanistan and Russia. She revealed that as an unarmed aid worker living amidst violence and potential danger, she quickly learnt that building relationships with the people she came into contact with were crucial to her survival. Ms Hughson left her audience with her personal security strategy of understanding the nuances of human systems, embracing functional fear and being adaptable to disruptions.

The other visiting speakers were Lindiwe Ndlela, Acting Head of the South African Government Technical Advisory Centre; Maeve Coburn, L’Oréal North America’s Senior Vice President and Head of Learning & Organization Development; and Sukari Pinnock-Fitts, an organisation development consultant, leadership coach and professor at Georgetown University. Much like Mr Tong and Ms Hughson, each covered different aspects of social emotional leadership and identity, and spoke on topics such as how feedback is necessary for leaders to grow, the value of personal work in helping one to heal and serve, and the role that individuals can play in larger systems.

Bing Pei said that the SEL team was deeply humbled by the success of ‘Insights into Identity’, with students and members of the public filling the venues at every session. Attendees appreciated how grounded the speakers were, as well as the intimacy and vulnerability that they brought to the table.

“I was impressed by the diversity of the speakers and all of them both shed light on pertinent issues and shared valuable lessons they’ve learnt from their respective fields,” said Betina Choa (Class of 2021), who attended four of the five sessions. “I was really inspired to work on finding my true North and getting in touch with the people and things around me now, so that I may be as equipped as I can be in the future.”

Zhi Ying, the president, said the student-run SEL was set up in 2016 to provide individuals with a means to become clearer on their values, their identity and what they can offer in this world. She also said that the club seeks to focus on “designing experiences for students to use SEL skills to tackle and explore real issues, their beliefs, values, identity, underlying emotions and assumptions” so that they can be their most authentic selves.

In the past year, Zhi Ying and her team have organised self-work activities on campus like the Procrastination Workshop, the Gratitude Project and the Conversation Project. The club also collaborated with the Singapore Management University (SMU) on two projects. The team was first invited to hold ‘Listening: a journey deep within’, a workshop on becoming good listeners, as part of SMU’s social impact festival in 2017. The second project was ‘Leadership for the Greater Good’, a panel that focused on value-driven leadership in Singapore.

‘Insights into Identity’ has also helped to generate external interest in the Yale-NUS SEL club. Several local social enterprises like Brave Spaces and Castles Can Fly, the National University of Singapore Yong Yoo Lin School of Medicine and the Singapore University of Social Science, have approached Zhi Ying and her team.

“We’re excited and hopeful for the possibilities of future collaborations,” Zhi Ying said, adding that anyone trained in the area of experience design who is looking to work together on projects that align with SEL’s mission should reach out to the club.