My Life | My Terms
Before I begin with my story, I’ll like to say that this story isn’t focused on my successes, and me getting to a supposed higher tier of education but it’s about the deeper issues, the drive to work to fix these issues. What I do is only a small part of all of this, there is so much more that requires help to be done. So after reading this read up on the other issues in the world we should be focusing on.
The Journey of Discovery
Since young, I had a different perception of the education system and felt there were flaws in it. It all started in my transition from primary one to primary two. I was a good student in primary one, I did well and honestly, it felt good to excel and to be capable. It was something that I kinda held onto and was proud of. But when I transitioned into primary two, I realised my grades in primary one didn’t mean anything, they didn’t even carry over into primary two. It just felt empty, like what was the point of all of that, I felt done with school. Something just clicked in my head that school was meaningless, and I started to formulate how to get out of it. I formulated this battle plan, to cover all areas and to skip school without anyone knowing what was going on. I thought through every detail. I used my parents’ phone to contact the teachers saying I was sick, and that was taken as truth to the teachers. To keep my parents from finding out what was going on, it started with lies about the school renovating or some other reason that I was unable to go to school. But that wasn’t where I stopped, I went on to create fake email accounts to send emails to my parents to support these lies I told, and for a while, it worked. It was only after these two weeks of truancy that my teacher called my parents directly to find out what was going on, and there I was, found out and exposed for the lies, I tried to carry this lie on, but when I saw how serious this was to my parents, I finally relented.
‘It just didn’t make sense or look worth it’
This hate for school carried on, it just didn’t make sense or look worth it, and when I entered secondary school, the tactics to play truant continued. And this mindset guided my academic decisions as well. I ended up choosing to go into the secondary school nearest to my home, so I could wake up late, but somehow, I still ended up late at school.
‘There was one thing I knew I wanted to do, and that was to help people.’
So I didn’t like school, and I didn’t want to be there. What do I want then? There was one thing I knew I wanted to do, and that was to help people. And in secondary school, the avenue I thought I had was St. John’s, after all, it’s like being a medic right, serving in healthcare. What a shock it was when I felt little of that in the CCA. We did do some of the medic stuff, but there was much more emphasis on marching and drills, what was the point of all of this, how would this help me help more people. I ended up quitting after a few months, it was just pointless.
‘I saw value in learning the trade of being a nurse, to build that relatability with my future colleagues and understand what they go through each day.’
This led me to a continuation of discovering how to achieve my dream, and what I could tap on to get there. The obvious pathway was to enter into the medical field, where I would be in a position to help, to impact more people, but I didn’t have avenues to expand on these ideas. The people around me were not from the healthcare sector and didn’t have any background in it. Luckily enough I managed to come across some nurses in my neighbourhood, and through talking with them and hearing their stories, I knew this was my avenue, my pathway to find out how to get to where I wanted. They told me that going to ITE for nursing was the best place to learn the technical skills of nursing. The type of on-the-ground work that they talked about was something I was very interested in, the direct interaction with patients for a prolonged period would be a great way to help and impact others. In the back of my head, I did want to be a doctor eventually, but I saw value in learning the trade of being a nurse, to build that relatability with my future colleagues and understand what they go through each day.
At this point, my mind was set and I knew how to get to where I wanted. Schooling wasn’t the most important thing at that point in time, there was little point in learning things that weren’t even applicable to where I was headed. I didn’t need to complete secondary school to get into nursing in ITE. I wanted to drop out of school, for there was little reason to stay anymore. There was major push-back from my parents, after all, it was as if I was taking a step into the unknown, which did not seem as attractive to them, but to me, I knew exactly what I was doing. I convinced my parents even if they forced me to go into school I would end up escaping anyway. It was inevitable that I would drop out. After much debate, they just had one condition for me, to at least sit for O levels, to get into nursing the conventional way.
The Grind Ahead
Taking O levels as a private candidate was on a whole different level. To get into nursing I didn’t need many subjects, so at least that decreased my workload. There were so many barriers. I didn’t have the money to support so many subjects and find tutors who could commit long term. As a private candidate, I had to go through so many things on my own and to figure out everything that was going in the 2 years of sec 3 and 4 to prepare myself adequately for the syllabus and the structure of the exams. But I knew that despite all of this, I didn’t need to score that well for O’s as the cut off wasn’t even that high. And given the other things that were going on in my life, in the instability, it was difficult to stay focused completely on my studies. Luckily enough, I managed to hit the target for nursing, getting one grade higher on each subject than I needed. I got where I wanted to go.
Now I was on this path I set out for myself, the path I wanted to take and was fully committed to seeing it through.
For the first time in my life, I cared about what I was studying. I bought every textbook that was recommended for my course and I hit the books. I was all in. I told myself I’m here to study, so that's all I should be focused on. I skipped orientation to study and I did everything I could to prepare myself for everything up ahead. Honestly, this did rub certain people the wrong way. I was shunned and judged for that, why was I so studious, what was I doing. Despite all the setbacks I faced in my journey I knew what I wanted and worked towards it.
I told myself, if it is meant to be, it will happen. If not I would still be content.
My path forward was always as such, to go from ITE into poly nursing and afterwards to go into medical school to train to become a doctor. And so I began my search on how this process would work, looking for seniors who have taken this path. Each person who knew someone all seemed to point me in random and different directions. Somehow, everyone I asked forgot who these seniors were, had no contacts or a proper direction to go in. I had to rely on a lot of self-research to find out the proper process to get through with my plan. And luckily enough, the process was straightforward enough after everything else fell into place.
In poly was where I gained the most nursing experience, and the most exposure to the medical field thus far. After the standard starting point of learning some of the skills that would be applied, we entered into a clinical phase where we had postings each term where we applied the skills we had learned until we were certified safe. I also used my free time to work part-time at jobs that would bring me more exposure such as as an ambulance medic and a pharmacy assistant. This period shaped my foundation in the medical field to prepare me for what was up ahead for me.
During this time at poly, I knew there was a transition I needed to make post-grad to get to my dream. The challenge there was figuring out the transition from nursing in poly into medical school. On the website, it does say that there is a path, but from my research, there was never a nursing student who was able to enter into medical school in the years that this process had existed. There were students from other courses who did make the jump, but for nursing there was none. There was nobody I could look to as an example, I was close to accepting the fact that this just doesn’t happen and may not even be possible.
I knew what this meant, I had to go above and beyond, to do what no other senior had done, something that none would have considered, something that didn’t come so easily to mind.
Then it hit me, ‘A’ levels. It would show that I could cope with the academic rigour that came with JC and handle the hands-on, on-the-ground work in poly. This would give me that edge to propel myself toward my dream. Things were real, the weight of it was real and it wasn’t going to be easy. I had to take the full range of subjects, to absorb all the syllabuses and the content and structure of each paper, all during my final year of poly. Up to that point, I kept up with my grades in poly, maintaining a top GPA in the first two years. This added that confidence that this could work after all. It was all in my hands and I wasn’t going to let anyone mess it up. I made sure that everything that needed to be done was done early. I took charge of group projects, taking it upon myself to settle them to ensure they were of sufficient standard so I could just leave it and not worry about it. By this stage in my life, my friends who had done A levels were way past that stage and I managed to get my material and notes from them at a pretty substantial amount. I found tutors to guide me through the subjects and formats of the papers. Although they could only commit sporadically, they were solid whenever I had sessions with them. This was like my O level experience but on steroids. The content was more and deeper, adding to the fact that I had not experienced this type of academic work ever since secondary school and getting back into the groove was an uphill battle. On top of all of this, I had to juggle my studies in poly with my part-time job that was funding the tuition I needed.
The final year of poly is also the most packed of all. And my final poly posting coincided with my A level period which just added something extra for me to juggle. This was something that I couldn’t just shift around but had to fit into my schedule no matter what. This posting could have honestly made or broke me. I was taking up night shifts, talking to a lot of patients and spending most of my time there. It took up so much of my time that when it came to sitting down and studying, it was already so close to my exams. I wouldn’t have been able to study properly or in a conventional way. I relied mostly on the notes people had made from different schools, different tuition centres and things along those lines. What I focused on was content, which I felt was the priority given the limited time I had. It was just studying and absorbing. This manifested during A’s when I took each paper. I realised I knew little of the format, the context and the types of questions that would be tested. But I didn’t have a choice, I was already there, I had to figure out on the spot what I needed to do for each question, what the examiner expected of me from each question. It was a lot of contemplation and analysis on the spot as I covered the papers.
There was so much going on in my life at that time but I didn’t feel anything. I was riding on my adrenaline rush and that was carrying me through all the way, and the drop only hit after the final paper. When I left the hall my body began to shut down. I had cramps everywhere and I felt my muscles contracting as if they were begging to rest after being overworked so much. I couldn’t even stand and had to lie down, to let my body rest. Worse still I had to go to the hospital for my shift that night… which I eventually recovered for. That whole journey was fuelled by my adrenaline and stress and I was fortunate that the crash didn’t come sooner than it did.
My grades for A’s weren’t exactly the best, with a range of grades for my subjects, from As to Cs. What could I expect from that short hyper-speed studying session right? But the end goal was still med school and this began the process of application. In the first-year application, I missed out on one of the required documents without knowing. This whole process was new to me and I was pretty blur about what I needed to provide and all the stuff like that. It wasn’t only till my second year of applying that I realised everything I had missed out on. This was like one of my last chances to get in and I knew I had to do everything in my power to push through. During this time I had already enlisted and to make it for my interview, I had to take leave. So I resolved to do this, to spend my whole 2 weeks leave for the year to prepare myself for the interview. Looking back this was a ballsy move, I had no more leave for the rest of the year and if this didn’t work out, it would have sucked so much harder. But as I am sharing this story already, I’m sure you know that it all worked out in the end.
It had been such a long journey leading up to this, and there was so much that I had to go through, even put myself through just to make it out the other side. If I had a choice would I have taken a more direct path, to go in a more conventional path that would be of less resistance and challenge for my journey forward? I have no regrets, but knowing what I know now, I would have taken a more conventional route. Singapore's system works well for people who are willing to grind through it. Going against the grain is romantic, but a person shouldn't do that needlessly and risk becoming too tired to do other more important things with his life. The nursing experience made me understand the more on-the-ground work, the long interaction with patients and the closer and prolonged contact, and also the understanding of how the nurses feel in their jobs. I’m a strong believer that if we are placed in a position to make decisions for an organisation or a community, we need to relate to and understand how those who would be affected by these decisions would feel, as they are the ones who will gain or suffer based on those changes. There is so much importance in the ground staff, in every organisation, but it always seems as though that they are underappreciated when there are more ‘attractive’ positions held in the organisation. To me, to do things well, we need to understand the driving force and relate and support them, and in this case, the driving force is the people on the ground. These values and thinking that I picked up and guided me are invaluable and I wouldn’t have it another way.
‘There is so much importance in the ground staff, in every organisation, but it always seems as though that they are underappreciated when there are more ‘attractive’ positions held in the organisation.’
This story may seem like it’s just a typical success story, about how a secondary school dropout, an ITE student made it to med school through hard work and determination, but I would like to use this platform and this story to touch on deeper issues that are prevalent in our society. From quite early on I already knew what I wanted to do and what path I wanted to take to get there. I chose to go to ITE, where most did not, because I knew of the skills I could pick up there and how valuable it would be to me. And I did learn a lot that has shaped me into who I am today and has given me that edge even in med school. But the world does not always share my sentiments, it may not be serious but the fact that ITE has a spoof nickname as ‘It’s the End’ already creates that stereotype of the institution and the people within it. ITE and poly were places where I met the most genuine people. There, grades are secondary or even less, the humanistic side is what is valued there. They are a community, they look out for one another. It is quite unlike the supposed better paths of JC and uni where students are so competitive that more often than not you see people stepping over one another rather than helping each other excel. We understood each other and shared in each other’s struggles. They are rewarded for their values in their communities, where the education valued grades, they learnt to see values as something more important and is more valued. Even the teachers are the most committed I have seen. They care for each of their students, no matter how many they have on their own plates. They check up on us and walk through life with us. Now in university, these values are pretty rare, but I stick with the mindset that if me putting myself ahead locks others out, I rather share than focus on myself, and this can be pretty automatic.
I rather we succeed together than me succeeding at the expense of someone else.
‘This stereotyping already makes them think that this is all they can do because sometimes they aren’t told that there can be so much more’
We should never look at the different institutions of ITE, Poly and JC as superior or inferior to one another, as they are different in the teaching content and style, it’s just that their cut off points create a perceived value of importance. ITE then becomes a fallback, a place where people go to when they have nowhere else to - and this makes it such that the people taking these courses may not have chosen to go there but it was their only choice and it further adds to the stereotype about the people in ITE not being interested. From the outside, they are just looked at as outcasts, that they have a bad background and this is all they can do. There isn’t enough done to sit them down to address these issues. This stereotyping already makes them think that this is all they can do because sometimes they aren’t told that there can be so much more. They just ended up there due to their unfortunate circumstances.
‘A simple way of explaining it is that ITE and Poly produce the builders while JC(and Uni) produces the managers of the builders, both are important and proficient at their job’
These three institutions train different things to prepare students for different situations and different environments. A simple way of explaining it is that ITE and Poly produce the builders while JC(and Uni) produces the managers of the builders, both are important and proficient at their jobs, but due to the perceived value of each job, the value of these people is diminished which is wrong as both are crucial for the job. If you were to place one in the other’s position, they would surely fail or not do as well. In the same way, ITE and poly focus more on real-world skills and less on the abstract that JC covers, so of course if you ask someone from poly or ITE to do an abstract JC question they would falter. Does that mean that they are not smart? It doesn’t, it just means they are trained differently and are smart in that way. It’s all about the debate of which is more important, the practical or theoretical. If there’s a mixture of both that is definitely best but if it’s one or the other it’s not necessarily bad as well. This is just the perverse view of labour that we possess sometimes.
Am I saying that for practicality ITE is the best way to go, not exactly. I feel in the end it comes down to you as a person, what do you want? Or even, do you know what it is you want? Choices are often guided by their parents, friends or the system and when they get there and when times are tough, they don’t know what to do, because it becomes clear that it wasn’t fully their choice. Young people need the time to explore, to find out what they want to do in the future.
And another thing is how grades can block youth from achieving their goals. They can so easily be blocked out from a course or a subject just because their grades don’t make the cut. Take the example of streaming or subject combination. Students are forced to take all these different subjects, some of which they are surely not interested in, and them doing badly in those subjects can affect them wanting to take another subject. It just seems that there is something flawed about that. And I’m a great advocate of this, that there is too much pressure placed on grades that I even had a book(titled My Life: My Terms, it is no longer in circulation but can be found in libraries. It is not very heavily edited and was written by a 15-year-old boy, just FYI) published on it when I was in secondary three after my senior passed away through suicide, which was suspected to be due to grades pressure. And this wasn’t something rare to see in my school.
To me, whichever path you take, the most important thing is to know what you want, to make sure it is your path you are going down and not a path made by someone else.
You need to know why you choose to do something and use that as a motivator when things get tough, a reminder of why you even started on this journey and to propel you when you feel like giving up, and not having to rely on others to do that.
What I love about my story is that I have lived all of it. My life hasn’t always been easy, in fact, there were several challenges but in the end, I’m thankful for the experience. I know what it feels like to be in ITE, to be in poly and take major exams like A levels. This relatability will carry me in my future, and guide me when I have to make decisions for the masses.
It is only when we can place ourselves in the shoes of the people we are impacting, and truly see what they will go through as a result of the changes we exact, that we can help them and improve their lives.
So I leave you with this. What is it that you want to do? There are so many issues that this world faces and there are many things that we can be called to tackle, so what is that for you, and will you be willing to put in the effort to work towards that? Being a doctor isn’t the only way to help others, there are so many other ways and in the end, that’s all up to you.
So think about it, and reflect on it. And I hope this brings you new insights and new conclusions and that you understand the multiple facets of the world and push on from there in your own respective journeys:)