Taking the education path less travelled

PHOTO: MELANIE HENG

By Wee Rae

While most Singaporean males enter university at the age of 21, Balasaravana Nambiar only matriculated into NTU at age 27.

His road to university was less straightforward than most of his peers  Balasaravana sat for the GCE O-level examination twice and studied at the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) for the next two years.

After graduating from ITE, he went on to do his National Service (NS) before enrolling in Singapore Polytechnic. Balasaravana then worked as an assistant engineer for a year before he finally entered NTU in 2015.

It was during his one-year stint at Singapore Technologies Electronics in 2014 that Balasaravana realised a degree was essential for him to advance his career.

While working as an assistant engineer, Balasaravana often had to take instructions from his superiors and found himself doing menial tasks such as conducting background research for projects. He wanted to be the one planning and taking charge of projects instead. This spurred him on to get a university degree.

“I realised having a degree is very important,” said the third-year School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering student, who is now 29.

Balasaravana is not the only student who took a less conventional route to university.

After completing her GCE A-level examination in 2012, 23-year-old Melanie Heng did not perform well enough to enter her desired university course. Heng enrolled into Ngee Ann Polytechnic (NP) instead, where she graduated with a diploma in Mass Communication.

Following her graduation from NP, the first-year School of Humanities student decided to work as a Singapore Airlines (SQ) flight attendant for two years before coming to NTU.

“I just wanted to take a break from studying after five years of (post-secondary) education and earn some money before coming to university as well,” she said.

For Balasaravana and Heng, adapting to the learning environment in NTU was an initial challenge.

Said Balasaravana: “In ITE, the lecturers spoon-fed us a lot. In polytechnic, it was a bit more independent but the teachers were still largely there (for us) and willing to help. But in university, everything is left to us to handle on our own.”

Heng felt that her two-year break from studying caused her to fall behind her peers.

“For most girls, it’s a direct transition coming to university (from a junior college or polytechnic), but for me, it’s difficult because I have to gain the momentum to study again,” said Heng.

She added that it was harder for her to understand concepts during lessons as compared to her peers who did not take a break from schooling.

Having to break out of her routine of going for flights was also a difficulty that Heng faced.

“In SQ, it was like a routine because I mostly did the same things during flights, just that I faced different kinds of passengers each time. In school, I have to get used to doing different assignments and studying for different tests all the time,” she said.

To keep up with the pace of lessons in NTU, both Balasaravana and Heng relied on their friends for help.

“They (my friends) helped me revise concepts taught in class and always answered whatever questions I had,” said Balasaravana.

Another student who faced difficulties in adapting to university life is Vernon Goh, a third-year student from the School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

The 26-year-old signed on with the Air Force when he was serving NS in 2012 and spent five years working as an Air Force engineer.

Goh said his long hiatus from studying made it challenging for him to keep up with lessons during his first semester in NTU. He also had a hard time finding his motivation to study as he was so used to working in the army.

“Once you start working, you don’t really feel like studying anymore because you’ll realise that studying does not have much purpose,” he said.

“People who’ve only been studying their entire life want to get good grades because getting good grades means getting a good job. But when you start working, you’ll find out that skills like social skills, problem-solving skills and planning skills are more important, and you can’t learn these in class.”

Goh was eventually able to keep pace with his school work and even scored “A”s for modules he enjoyed taking. He cited “Manufacturing Processes” as an example, a module on the fundamentals of manufacturing.

Equipped with planning skills from his experience in the army, Goh also contributed to hall activities such as the Freshmen Orientation Camp (FOC). He is the current chairperson of Hall of Residence 16’s FOC programme.

“One of my biggest takeaways from NS was planning (skills). I learnt how to plan for a lot of failures so that if something bad happens, I’ll always have a backup plan,” said Goh.  “That’s why I join these (events) in university so that I can apply what I have learnt.”

On why he decided to enrol in university after five years of working, Goh said: “In Singapore, you can’t survive without a degree.”

“You just need to have that slip of paper so that people will give you a chance, and then you can present your other skills,” he added.