By Austin Zheng (14A01B)
At first glance, the variety of programmes the Raffles Leadership Institute (RLI) manages seems both astounding and somewhat bewildering. Aside from more obvious examples like the Leaders for a Better Age (LBA) and Adventure Leadership Programmes (ALPs), what do art and music camps, the Ecological Literacy (EcoLit) enrichment programme, the International Service Learning Elective (ISLE), class camps and Community Advocates have to do with leadership development?
As it turns out, the RLI is something of a misnomer. It is not in fact limited to leadership development, as it also encompasses citizenship, community and character education. In other words, what the RLI really focuses on is comprehensive student development through experiential learning, serving as the institutional engine of growth for RI’s Character & Leadership and Community & Citizenship domains. Ms Melissa Lim, Dean of Student Development explains, ‘You cannot just focus on yourself—you need to know the environment and how to engage with the community. You need to have a greater understanding of issues in this new era.’ In a sense, the two domains cannot be split as they are inherently interrelated.
THE RLI STAFF
Indeed, broader community and character education establishes the foundations of leadership development, and gives the process greater relevance and meaning. After all, the ultimate purpose of leadership development is to equip students to contribute effectively to society. As clichéd as it might sound, everyone is their own leader. This aphorism has particular significance in the RLI’s approach to leadership development. While certain RLI programmes, such as EcoLit and class camps, may not directly teach students how to lead a team effectively, they do give the opportunity for students to reflect on their character, community and environment. Regarding EcoLit, for instance, Head of RLI Mr Kuak Nam Jin explains, ‘Nature affects our economic output, availability of living space, quality of living and health.
In the near future, more and more global leaders will be confronted with delicate and pressing matters related to the environment. Ecological Literacy hopes to prepare our students for this day’. The programmes thereby aid students in their personal growth, encouraging and empowering them to contribute more actively to society.
Nevertheless, the impact of RLI programmes should not be overstated. Ms Vivian Wong (Senior Experiential Education Officer, RLI) is quick to point out that experiential learning is a long process and may not necessarily have an immediate impact. Taking leadership as an example—one’s understanding of leadership is constantly evolving, and the nature of leadership cannot be defined by just one programme. The RLI thus endorses the concept of slow pedagogy and gradual, continuous learning.
The greater expansion in the RLI’s role and its deeper integration within the larger school system is reflected by the change in name from the Raffles Institute of Experiential Learning (RIEL) this year. Accordingly, the RLI has rolled out several new initiatives. Its flagship project, Leaders for a Better Age (LBA), made its debut this year to offer a focused course on leadership development to Year 5 students. During the application phase for the LBA, the RLI quoted Sir Ernest Shackleton’s recruitment advertisement for his 1914 Antarctic expedition: ‘Men wanted for a hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success’. The quote is apt as signing up for LBA entails undertaking a 4-month community project, enduring weeks of training for a 16- day outdoor expedition and completing mandatory personal reflection through journaling, on top of weekly programme sessions.
Student responses to the RLI programmes have been overwhelmingly positive, with many reflecting that their experiences in those programmes have altered their worldview in palpable, lasting ways. Chu Shao Min (13S06R), an ISLE leader in charge of Team Laos, vividly recounts his community service in Laos, where he helped to teach village children English, set up a library system and aided in construction work. The Laotians’ hospitality, curiosity and contentment with their difficult lifestyle struck him, especially since they contrasted so starkly with Singaporean society.
As a leader, Shao Min was tasked with significant responsibilities, in particular the difficult task of maintaining group enthusiasm. The gruelling timetable and inevitable conflicts that arose taught him the importance of maintaining a sense of purpose, expressing firm beliefs, and constantly being on task and thinking ahead. Shao Min’s experiences of Laotian society clearly left a lasting impression: ‘The care and concern Laotians showed made me reflect on Singapore culture. Even if two Laotian villages compete, they still help each other. For instance, they loan rice from a collective rice bank to farmers without interest during bad harvests. It makes you wonder how much more you can do for your peers…I was inspired to go out and help whoever I could in the best way I could.’
Muhammad Huzaifi (13S06K) and Claudia Koh (13S03I), ALPs team leaders, also expressed similar sentiments. In the experiential portion of ALPs, a 14-day student-planned trip in Australia’s Alpine National Park, students are rigorously challenged, having to camp and cook for each other on top of enduring a 9-day hike and fickle weather conditions. Unfortunately, half of Claudia’s group fell sick due to food poisoning midway through. Claudia reflected that ‘the end goal, reaching the peak of the mountain, didn’t matter. The process was more important. There was the option for half the team to continue, but we refused. The team was united by mutual concern for each other.’ Huzaifi concurs: ‘I became more self-aware and learnt to care about my teammates. It really is the process that matters. A good leader has to look out for his friends.’ Mr Kuak provides a succinct summary of the programme: ‘Taking care of oneself in such conditions is hard enough, let alone looking out for others, but this is precisely what ALPs is about. It is not just about our own good, but that of the greater community as well.’
The RLI and its various programmes have apparently been considerably successful in helping students become more mature, not just as leaders but also as people. That being said, the RLI still has room for improvement, and it seems that its staff are eager to close the gaps. Ms Lim Leng Er (Senior Experiential Education Officer, RLI) opines that leadership programmes could have a greater focus on life-long leadership qualities. An overemphasis on administrative management, she notes, might create the misconception that it is the hallmark of a leader.
Ms Sim Yi Hui (Senior Experiential Education Officer, RLI) further suggested that a leadership needs assessment be carried out to identify the skills that students need to learn in order to prepare them to be leaders in future. On the part of the students, a common piece of feedback was that the pre-experiential stage preparation in the enrichment programmes was inadequate, insufficiently dynamic, or, in terms of theoretical background, only evidently relevant during the experiential stage. Nevertheless, all reflected that the pre-trip preparation had conditioned them for the experiential stage, helped them understand the environment, people and culture of the place, and reinforced the meaning and importance of the trip itself. With such an evidently constructive impact on students’ lives thus far, the continued expansion and development of the RLI will certainly groom more effective and civic-minded leaders for future generations.
1. Sir Ernest Shackleton was a polar explorer who led three British expeditions to the Antarctic: the Discovery Expedition (1901-1903), the Nimrod Expedition (1907-1909), and the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914-1917).