Young at heart, but old school?

By Grace Yaw

Graphic: Eugene Tham

Graphic: Eugene Tham

As a freshman in university, I felt stranded between two generations.

At orientation camp, I played games involving newspapers and plastic balls, danced to silly songs and screamed along to cheers with lyrics proclaiming one’s superiority over other orientation groups.

In stark contrast, other friends of my age were tying the knot and toasting to marital bliss with cheers of “yam seng”.

At 26, I was probably one of the oldest first-year students at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences. I dreaded questions about my age, and the awkward silences that inevitably would come after my response.

Although in my second year now, the dissonance of being an older undergraduate has scarcely faded. School has turned into a familiar routine, but I am still unsettled by the thought of being considered a peer by classmates much younger than me.

Although the act of learning is truly timeless, the physical environment where learning is conducted involves cultural navigation, especially if the majority of individuals consider you an exception to the norm.

After all, while I played hopscotch and kuti kuti in primary school, my peers had not even been born.

What delayed my university admission? Mine, unfortunately, is not an inspiring tale of beating the odds within our education system to enter university through the road less travelled.

Rather, my story reads like a cautionary tale. Six years ago, I enrolled in economics at the National University of Singapore, plunging into the world of econometrics, graphs, and irritatingly complex mathematical formulae.

It was a struggle to maintain my grades while balancing co-curricular activities and leisure. My Cumulative Average Point plunged below the dreaded 3.0 mark, and after repeated failures over the span of my final two years in NUS, I dropped out to work.

After which, I realized how important education was — the salary of a student with merely a GCE ‘A’ Levels qualification can be abysmally low. I saved up in the hopes of getting a shot at a better future. Being accepted into NTU gave me a second chance.

But nothing prepared me for the cultural differences between me and my peers.

For a start, many of my peers, fresh out of junior colleges and polytechnics, were eager to start dating. I found myself the unexpected mentor of several friends, since I was older and supposedly more experienced. Here I was, trying to get my life back together, and there were people looking up to me?

It was also extremely frustrating to try to explain my age difference whenever I met someone new. There were moments where I loathed the need for constant introductions and cheery smiles in the never-ending series of group interactions.

I tried different methods of confronting the issue — playing it cool through the awkwardness, meandering through an explanation of my past in NUS, or sometimes even playing the cautionary aspect of my tale up a little in a vain attempt to appear wiser.

Things that seem to be inconsequential take on new importance when you’re looking for similar interests to talk about, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the current fashion trends or music scene.

At times, the topics my peers discuss seem so juvenile and insignificant, especially since I am working on the side, handling bills and thinking about my future career right from the get-go.

There have been moments where I considered avoiding people just to prevent these uncomfortable situations. I can recall several instances where I felt more at ease with the tutors and lecturers, as compared to my peers.

However, something resonated with me when I got to know my peers outside the classroom. I found that despite the age difference, I found that I could help them avoid the mistakes I made in NUS.

Having run the gauntlet of unceasing failures, I realised that my experience could help them make better decisions while in school — such as choosing which course to minor or take a second major in, preparing for exams effectively, and above all else, knowing when to abandon something that they could not handle.

It is easy to give encouragement to peers who feel despair, since I once shared their predicament. I can easily draw upon my wealth of failures and small successes when asked for advice.

I have realised that age truly is but a number, and learning never ceases, even if everyone else around you is from a different generation.

Sometimes, you can become the educator, especially when you least expect it.