The Precious University Summer, or: 10 Better Things To Do Instead of Rag

I woke up this morning to this announcement in the Facebook group for my faculty:

“Hey what are you doing in summer?”

Have you been asked this question lately? Wondering what to do for summer? Why not join USP Rag 2016! Just come down and have fun this summer, working together with freshies as well in Design, Engine, Costumes and Dance (yes dance, seniors can dance too ^.^) No experience required! This year, the overall theme of RAG and Flag 2016 is “Go Beyond”; the theme for RAG is going to be “Big World, Bigger Dreams”. So go beyond your bed and join us in a big world to fulfill bigger dreams!

This message left me both bemused and exasperated. Talk about a misnomer for a theme; Rag is the epitome of living in the small sheltered world of NUS and settling for something else other than actual dreams. Perhaps I should first explain what Rag is for those who are unfamiliar with it.

In the National University of Singapore (NUS), we have a unique schoolwide tradition: come May, students from every faculty, of which a majority are freshmen, will begin preparing for Rag: a one-day event akin to a dance performance with a giant float as a backdrop that happens at the beginning of August, near National Day. The preparation encompasses dance practice, constructing set pieces from ‘recycled’ materials, and costume design. Before the preparation phase, people from the Rag committee will usually ask students to donate their trash such as used plastic bottles, cans, and cardboard for use in the float construction.

Since my freshman year, I have been ideologically opposed to Rag for environmental reasons. The long and exhausting float construction effort culminates in a one-day event after which the float is dismantled and trashed, and is effectively made unrecyclable as mixed materials are glued together. To the credit of NUS, they have been trying to make Rag more sustainable over the years.

Additional issues other than environmental were also examined in a 2011 documentary called ‘Rags to Riches’. The documentary found that inter-faculty competition and rivalry overshadowed its original intention of giving back to the community through fundraising. Some of these issues were discussed further in an article written by Kwan Jin Yao for The Ridge (NUS Student Union’s official publication). I’ve also heard first-hand from ex-raggers how Rag can take an emotional toll — a former rag director I’ve interviewed described his experience as ‘very, very depressing‘.

The primary focus of this article addresses the biggest issue I have with Rag: frankly, participating in Rag is a waste of time. Rag demands the commitment of a ‘ragger’ for most of the summer, for activities that are unlikely to be of either extrinsic value (for your CV) or intrinsic value (for your self-fulfillment). And as a soon-to-be-graduate with the privilege of retrospection, summers are not to be wasted. A typical 4-year university graduate has only 3 summers, and there are many potential activities one could embark on to improve oneself.

In typical millennial fashion, I will list the better alternative summer activities to Rag that a freshman or pre-university student should do, in the form of a listicle:

1. Do an Internship

It’s never too late to get some work experience. This is where the irony of the 2016 Rag theme comes in. What could be more fitting than learning how the ‘big world’ beyond NUS works by actually getting some working experience in the working world?

2. Start a Business

This isn’t for everyone, but for the more entrepreneurial among us, a start-up could be a good project to commit to in the summer months that can provide invaluable life lessons to being your own boss. Not that I would know; I’ve never done this. If anything, it’s definitely a ‘bigger dream’ than building a float that is meant to be taken down after show day.

3. Travel

Travelling is a huge eye-opener, especially if you go off the beaten track. You can learn about other cultures through their food, architecture, and locals, or enjoy nature if you decide to go hiking in the forest or up a mountain instead. If you don’t have a lot of money to go far, even Southeast Asia has plenty to see. The benefits of travel have been covered ad nauseum by others; I don’t really need to say any more.

4. Learn New Skills

As I’m about to graduate, I’ve learnt a lot, but there are still a lot of skills I wish I had acquired that would make me more employable and useful. I haven’t learnt MySQL, for database management. I can’t code to save my life (beyond a year 1 class in C which I’ve forgotten). I’ve only reached level 2 in Thai, barely enough to converse at a primary school level. I’m still not confident with my statistical analysis skills. I’m only a novice in R. I don’t know GIS.

As a young freshman, I didn’t even think about what skills I should be learning in order to prepare myself for the working world. I didn’t even know that some of these skills were even a thing. The tragedy is, some of these skills are things that you can easily self-learn, given enough motivation and time.

Talk to seniors or acquaintances in the industry you want to get into, and ask them what skills have become useful in their line of work that you should pick up early. Chances are, they’re not going to recommend that you take part in Rag.

5. Play Sports

There are many sports clubs in NUS, and specific ones for your faculty or hall, for all kinds of sports. Canoe polo, fencing, martial arts, floorball. IFG season starts in late August, so why not train in the representative sport you’re interested in and also make friends in the process? Alternatively, join a varsity sports club and aim for even loftier achievements. Rag crunch also often occurs around the time IFG trainings start, and could prevent you from being drafted for a team if you didn’t attend enough trainings.

6. Join Camps

Beyond faculties, many clubs in NUS also organise camps for freshmen, e.g. windsurfing, Qrientation, Sports Camp, among many others.

7. Read Books

Socialising not an important goal for you? Enrich your mind and soul in the comfort of your home!

8. Netflix*

Or watch Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Fargo, Game of Thrones…you’ll probably derive more enjoyment and excitement from the adventures of Jon Snow.

*Chilling optional.

9. Write

If you’re the literary type, pen out a script for a play. Write poetry daily for a month. Write a story. Blog.

10. Volunteer

How could I forget this one? Volunteer for a cause you care about: the environment, the disabled, the poor, the elderly…anything for the community. Rag & Flag is ostensibly about the community, but you could be doing so much more for society as a long-term volunteer in a local organisation.

If you really enjoy Rag, go ahead and do it. It’s your life. But if you’re uncertain about how to spend your summer, don’t let friends or seniors coerce you into doing something you’re not sure will be enjoyable for you or enrich your life. University summers are few and precious, and after graduation, it’s unlikely that such long blocks of time will continue to be available. Use them well.

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