Monday, January 19, 2015

On scholarships and the school of life

Now that Lesley-Anne is in her final JC year, it's time to think about university education. I sometimes get asked: will she be studying overseas?

The answer is simple: only if she can get a scholarship.

There are two reasons for this. The main one is obviously financial. Have you seen overseas university fees these days? They're astronomical and I'm not about to take a second mortgage on my home just to pay for a fancy qualification. (Incidentally, I'm also one of those who don't believe in moving house to be close to my kid's school, so what do I know.)

Secondly, unlike many people, I'm not convinced that an overseas education is necessary to do well in life. I often hear people tell me their overseas experience was invaluable. I don't doubt that. However, when I see the people around me, including my peers, I honestly don't see a difference among those who studied locally and those who studied overseas, whether in intelligence, world view or even career success. There are wide variants in both camps. Which leads me to conclude that it's really what you make of your education that's important, and an overseas education is a nice-to-have, not a necessity. Meaning, we'll pay for our kids' university education locally but if they want to go overseas, they'll have to make it happen themselves.

Inevitably, the next question when I mention scholarship is: but scholarship usually means bond! I'm sure everyone would have read about Eng Kai Er's case, which caused a ruckus late last year when she protested against her six-year scholarship bond with A*STAR, citing disinterest in her work. Like many others, I thought her attitude smacked of entitlement. No interest then don't take up the scholarship lah! In this case, she didn't just accept one but TWO. I can believe she wasn't sure what she wanted at age 18 but you can't convince me that four years later, after completing a undergraduate degree, she still didn't know science isn't her cup of tea to not apply for a second scholarship.

The thing is, her case is not unique, just that it made headlines. I've heard cases where scholarship holders want to change course, want to change job when serving their bond, want to break bond, etc, without facing the penalties. These stories bug me even more when the individuals are from well-heeled families who accept scholarships purely for the prestige and then expect the sponsoring company to bend over backwards for them.

Look, I'm not saying only poor families deserve scholarships. I'm saying, a scholarship is a privilege...for you, not the company. And as a scholarship holder, you should at least have the grace to acknowledge and accept this. If the company is going to invest tens of thousands of dollars into you, they would naturally expect returns. What, you thought it was a free ride?

But what if you're serving out your bond and like Eng Kai Er, you hate your job? I think underlying this mentality is the growing attitude that 1) being happy is your right 2) it's your company's responsibility to make you happy. The problem arises when kids have been brought up to believe that their happiness is their sole purpose in life and that the companies "owe" them somehow. I've read forums where even interns complain they're paid too little and are being "ripped off" for their work. Really? If even as an intern, you have such grandiose ideas about yourself, then your starting point is already wrong. That's not how the world works. If your mentality is as such, then don't take on a scholarship. Get a father-mother loan.

I'm probably starting to sound like an ogre now but no, I'm not actually advocating that people need to work in misery. The thing is, a fresh graduate is different from a seasoned employee. For the latter, I hope people try to look for jobs where they can find fulfilment. For most fresh graduates, I'll go out on a limb and say that no matter how much you think you know, no matter whether you've done work internships etc, there are probably lots of things in the corporate world that you haven't the faintest clue about. And the first job is there for you to learn (even if it's to learn what you DON'T like doing!) and garner some work experience. The company that hires you is taking more of a chance than you.  

I'm not saying, do something you know you're going to hate. If you dislike teaching, for heaven's sake, don't take on a teaching scholarship! If you hate figures and business, don't accept a bank scholarship no matter how prestigious. Common sense. But chances are, there are many jobs out there that you won't know whether you'll enjoy.

So if you treat your first job as a testbed and learning platform of sorts, then what's the problem with a bond? Hearing the way some people talk, you would think a bond is a lifetime of slavery. It's not. Three or four years is the NOT the rest of your life. Really. Take it from someone who's been working for more than 20 years. Even if it turns out not to be your ideal job, or you don't like your boss or your colleagues, taking a few years to learn stuff is not a waste of your time (unless there's verbal abuse or something). Make the most of it. Trust me, you will learn something.

I was a scholarship student. I was bonded for three years to a statutory board upon graduation from NUS. What did I know about the work they did before I signed on the dotted line? Next to nothing. But it sounded interesting enough and I was extremely grateful to them - for paying for my education and for giving me a job. I worked hard and I learned lots. Till today, I practise certain skills and remember nuggets of wisdom that I learned from my first job.

Quite a while back, Lesley-Anne had expressed possibility that she might want to work with me in my writing business in the future. I told her, whoever said I would hire you? I only take on experienced writers. Work a few years in the corporate world, show me what you can do, then we talk.

Ok, maybe I exaggerate a little (just a wee bit!) If she's really keen to join me, I'll consider it for sure. But what's certain is that I won't take her on until I know she can cut it, and that definitely means having attained some work experience. Basically the message I want to send to my kids is: don't expect any handouts when it comes to work. Even from your mother.

Work hard, learn something, then you can talk about rewards. Show your mettle and after that, you'll have the cards to ask for what you want. Not before.


Anonymous said...

I agree with everything you wrote. In this day and age where everyone is concerned with their own happiness and what society owes them, people should start to take responsibility for their own actions.

Thank you for being the voice of sensibility!


monlim said...

PL: Thanks for your comments!

mm said...

Try to get a scholarship from overseas, no bond.

Anonymous said...

A timely reminder. We need more parents like you to be role models for our youths. Great post!

monlim said...

mm: Of course that's what everyone strives for but those are hard to come by.

Anon: Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Dear Monica, great post! Long time no write!
But what if your kid makes it to an Ivy League college overseas but can't get a scholarship (as you said, those are hard to come by) - will you help pay?


monlim said...

Hi Grace, long time no hear!

It depends on each family's circumstances, of course. For us, we probably won't as it would mean taking up a massive loan. Financially, it doesn't make sense. I know of peers who were accepted into top overseas unis like Cambridge but went to NUS instead for various reasons. They're doing very well today despite not having that big name qualification. Similar to people vying to get into branded secondary schools in SG, I do believe a large part of it is simply the lure of the brand. As mentioned in the post, I don't believe in going so deep into debt just to pay for the name.

But that's just me :)

Unknown said...


Anonymous said...

Great post Monica! Agree with your point that scholarship is a privilege, not an entitlement and the recipient will gain so much more with the right attitude to that first job, albeit under a bond.
I also believe that it's what you make out of your education that's important, whether in local unis or overseas.
Scholarships aside, there are many who go to overseas unis because their grades do not meet the criteria of local unis, or courses of their choice. In this instance, would you send your child overseas, despite the heavy financial commitment?


monlim said...

Irene: That's definitely a consideration - if your child can't make it to local unis. But even in this instance, I think there are more choices in SG than in our time. SIM, for instance, has many programmes in tie-ups with v credible overseas unis. People can pursue these without having to pay the hefty cost of going overseas.

Of course some people think these are less prestigious so they'll need to consider their financial situation. Personally, I wouldn't go to those smaller private education providers as I would worry about accreditation etc, but I have faith in SIM. They're pretty established and their programmes have standing in the workplace.

Anonymous said...

Hear, hear, Monica!

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