Rethinking Careers and Scholarships

by Md Khairillah (16A01B)

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What looks like a lecture is actually a talk about your future.
Source: Raffles Photographic Society

“Being a teacher requires intensive commitment, working a full and rigorous day, sleeping at two or three at night, waking up early sometimes to plan your work … ” goes the teacher speaking at the MOE scholarship sharing. She pauses with a curious look on her face and stares at us as she continues: “…that is, if you [RI people] aren’t already accustomed to such a schedule!” Her comment elicited knowing laughter. But to me, it  left a pretty striking imprint onto my brain because of what she had implied: that the connection between JC and working life was linear and seamless – they both involve commitment, hard work, the lack of sleep, and achieving success.

Perhaps that could be why a Career and Scholarship Day sounds like standard school fare. A career (with a scholarship) is after all just the next link in the chain forged since primary school. At each stage, this process endows its own coveted prize – in primary school: a place in an elite secondary school; in secondary school: entrance to a top JC; in JC: a career and of course a scholarship.

As we acquire these prizes one by one, we are increasingly guided towards something more narrow and specialised. In the JC stage, we’ve been made into narrowing our scope to either the Arts or Sciences, with the implicit understanding that our future careers will be perfectly aligned with our subject choices. Take the jest about the potential lawyers in the Humanities Programme or the future A*STAR Scholars that fill up the Raffles Academy Class. This seems to be the view we have of how things go and where we will go.

The very words Career and Scholarship melded together already helpfully forges the link between the two – that for an RI student they are one and the same. Contained within it is the certainty of success. Or rather a presumption of certainty that when delved deeper into, appears rather presumptuous and to a certain level, entitled.

This presumption of certainty that seem to predominate our thought processes and to a certain extent, the way our education works seems uncomfortably narrow. Some of us have been audience to people lecturing about the ‘RI bubble’ we live in, the assertion that our lives in RI are sheltered and vastly different from the outside world. Amongst other things, I think what makes up the ‘RI bubble’ is the chain of linearity I alluded to previously. It traps us in a bubble because it is uncomfortably narrow when juxtaposed with the external world outside of RI which is far more fickle, open and in no way linear.

The ostensible future neatly packaged in a couple of brochures

The ostensible future neatly packaged in a couple of brochures

But ironically enough, what actually led me to ponder about this linear process and how it makes up the RI zeitgeist were the scholarship talks held last Wednesday. What the scholarship talks seem to endorse is the viewpoint that more than anything else, the transition from JC to university should be seen and treated as a break from the linear chain.

Take for instance how the scholarship talks had foci refreshingly removed from the academics. While admittedly I did for instance hear some grumbles about how some of the talks did not exactly cover the exact details of how to get a scholarship, it’s interesting to note how the speakers in no way put any emphasis or afford any significant mention to academic qualifications. The presenter at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) talk qualifies that even if “candidates are falling short of academic [criterion]”, if  “[the MFA] assesses them to be extremely competent we just give the scholarship to them.” This sounds pretty surprising, especially coming from a ministry like an MFA whose employees interact with foreign delegations and which I thus presumed would greatly desire its scholarship holders to be the most academically competent.

This shift away from the academics seems to be the first break away from the linear process; the separation of academic competency from ability. Of course, both are intimately and necessarily connected, but it’s important to note how academics work to enrich and develop your ability, rather than ability itself being used solely to further the process of achieving academic merit, as seen to so pervasively happen with RI students. .

The second break away comes to the fore as the focus on actual personal and real motivations, which oftentimes seems to elude us when studying, surfaces in the personal sharings during the talks. One of the MOE sharers, an RJ alumnus shared her experience transitioning from an RI education to teaching in other schools, and how that was an experience that broadened her outlook on teaching. Notably, she situated teaching as her way of ‘accessing the life stories of her students’, life stories which otherwise would never have even occurred to her simply because she had not lived the lives that they did. This of course also brings up the very pertinent personal dimension to education: the same presenter regaled us on how she saw education as much a ‘national narrative’ as it was a personal narrative, sustaining her interest in teaching. This, juxtaposed with the horror stories I often hear of people taking conventional subjects under pressure from society and promptly regretting it, reinforces the importance of choosing something which you’re genuinely interested in; something you can imagine doing for the rest of your life without harbouring a sense of abject sorrow and regret at the end.

While this is true to varying degrees for different people, it seems that the process that carries us through life since our entrance into the education system sometimes causes us to direct our aim at the future with an apparently clear focus while not actually taking heed of what that actually connotes.

For instance, the science stream is the natural and default option for many a student because it ostensibly confers a future to you, but when queried about what that future could be aside from that of a doctor or engineer, they draw a blank. In that is also the common jest about the arts stream; we harbour some level of belief that an arts stream education cannot confer a future which is as successful, without actually noting the career options that come with an arts education.

The link between Career and Scholarship is, when scrutinised again, not as simplistic because of the multiple factors that can be taken into account when transitioning from an education to a job. Aside from disposition and experience, there is also  how knowledge itself is interdisciplinary and how some courses nurture skills in students that are transferable to other disciplines and to work life in general. It’s a plausible explanation for why organizations offer scholarships without delineating rigidly what subjects you must take to qualify for the scholarship; the understanding that what you study in a supposedly disparate subject can be useful in an apparently unrelated line of work.

It so happens also that the future works in mysterious unpredictable ways. It turns out, that students who specialise in certain subjects can enter career paths which appear ostensibly unrelated to their area of specialisation. When I hear tales of the Drama major student who ends up becoming the Public Relations officer in a major MNC or the Biology PhD holder who decides to pursue his real passion of teaching Physical Education, I can’t help but feel amazed (not of course without a tinge of fear) at how fickle and arbitrary the future is, and also hence how important it is to take a reflective and critical look on what hopes and desires which I actually and genuinely desire in my future.

After the scholarship talks, a friend of mine recounted a conversation she had with another friend. It went like this:

‘Ugh, this is frustrating, why do the stakes now have to be so high?’

‘Well, they’re not really stakes as much as they are mere options right?’

Options imply choice, and I think it’s important to recognize and reflection on scholarships and career decisions as choices that must be mulled over as opposed to the alternative of fixing one’s attention solely on one scholarship or career option. A chain of linearity may seem a comforting option, but we should also take into account how chains too can very well restrict. An awareness of the vicissitudes of the erratic world also helps in that regard.  Not only does it prevent us from viewing our decisions in a vacuum, it also encourages us to consider our personal take on our choices so we can make one which we can be comfortable with. Isn’t that after all, the entire rationale behind attending a Career and Scholarship Day?

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