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Class of 2020: Joel Phoon


by Sandra Leow, United World College Maastricht
19th May, 2020


Joel, hailing from Singapore, picks up the video call and we spend a solid minute mending the technical difficulties from our audio. He observes how this was a major transition, considering that he lived just one floor above mine in Ohana for the past two years, now we are 377 kilometers away and one border apart. 

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Joel has been spending most of his time ‘not doing much’ and trying his best not to leave the house. Although he has been spending the majority of his time trying to plan out his life moving forward, he has been finding difficulties due to the uncertainty and challenges of the pandemic. Sheltering at home for the past two months, he has resorted to the world of cooking and baking as his source of entertainment. He also stresses how ‘for people who knew him in the two-years, they would know that he has always had a close relationship with food.’

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His initial encounter with bread-making extended into a fiasco, now with over four kilograms of flour in his kitchen, and a big portion of his week resorted solely to kneading bread and cooking. “I think I’ve been having a typical quarantine, trying to read more books and exercise, trying to do things I wouldn’t normally have had time to do in school. I am currently in the middle of a few books, I bought a subscription package for The Economist and have been reading ‘Bad Science’ and halfway through ‘Sapiens’.” 

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“Looking back, I was apprehensive about the whole UWC experience during Intro week. Going into a whole new place was certainly quite a foreign experience. I wouldn’t say I was narrow-minded but I definitely learned a lot throughout my two-years – or shall I say one-and-a-half haha.” Joel also mentions how he was exposed to a new understanding of the world. “When you live in a region where you are sheltered, you are not exposed to many things. Ultimately, you don’t get to hear stories. Having these difficult yet refreshing conversations opened my understanding of the world.” Throughout the two-years, most people spend the majority of their time navigating. From when they step foot to the grey, bleak, yet hopeful building, to when they leave their UWC bubbles through the tunnel of love, we are all just trying to navigate. Although the experience was quite a challenging one, as Joel mentions, it was worthwhile and as cliche, as it sounds, “I would not change it for the people you know are the people you will know for life”. 

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Joel notes that he has had the fortune of having really good teachers throughout the two-years. A special shoutout to Parag and Kermeen (their relationship felt familial and it was hard seeing them move to Dilijan for a new experience), Ajay (he has been there since Day One, he is not only emotionally accessible but he did graduate from UWC and is able to relate to our experiences while pushing for personal growth and responsibility), Edward (had a chat with him the other day), Annemarie (for her cheerful and bubbly nature), Satya (his residence mentor in DP1, he misses Satya’s presence as the head of the residence as you never know what you miss until it’s gone) and Larissa (for navigating her students outside of the classroom) and other teachers that he had the fortune of having. 

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Now that he has been back for around two-months, away from campus, he reflects upon the last week of school. “Honestly, I wanted to prolong my stay when the school told us they were going to support us as the campus was home for most.” The narrative quickly shifted from being told we were allowed to stay on campus if we associated the campus to home, to being told we had to leave and only the ones who could not go home due to circumstances, could stay. As the Singaporean Foreign Affairs Ministry issued an advisory and him foreseeing the government quickly implementing border control, Joel, not wanting his parents to worry, decided to leave. “It was truly a newfound level of anxiety. The way that it was rapidly changing felt surreal. Mind you, there were about 200 anxious people on the campus, to begin with, with the way things were changing, you could not quite picture how the scene was in school.” Joel also stresses that being away from campus, being at his own pace, and being more comfortable in his own setting, he feels a sense of nostalgia that transports him back to the end of his DP1 experience – the sunny weather and when everyone was in a good mood. “There are certainly many loose ends we still have to tie up – especially with the fellow DP2s. 

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To my surprise, Joel mentions that he misses the weather in Maastricht. After a series of clarification, he stresses that he truly misses the dry, cold weather. “Here in Singapore, it’s 33 degrees celsius but with 70% humidity. The minute I step out of the shower, I feel like I am in the shower again.” He also misses living in such close quarters with his friends – not to mention, the non-illegal parties (chilling definitely before check-in). “I could have a problem or two, or feel like I want to cook a new dish, or I want to do a fun (or boring) activity, I could ask anyone from the campus. I could do it on the spot, have a conversation, and most importantly, have a good time. It really is the community that I miss.” However, he establishes that there should be a balance. With the close space that we share, there are some boundaries that we put in place to ensure that everyone is comfortable and well-supported.

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Despite the abrupt ending to our UWC experience – as much as we would not have liked for this particular ending, it does have a good side to it. It brought the whole community together and strengthened the relationship we had. “Yes, physical graduation would have been ideal. It would have been a physical manifestation that closed a chapter in our lives, moving forward to the next. However, it might also mean that people might be less committed to retaining these relationships. These hurdles can only bring us closer together. Although this period comes with great uncertainties, I genuinely wish to be able to see everyone soon.” 

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Special thanks to Joel Phoon for the interview. 

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