It shocked my friends and family then, but looking back, it was the best decision I could have made. By Neo Wen Tong
It was 2004. I had my O-levels results in my hands and my mind was racing… With an L1R5 of 11 points, which Junior College (JC) should I go to?
Going to a polytechnic did not cross my mind at all. There were a few factors in play.
- Family pride: JC was the more “prestigious” choice.
- School pride: In my peer group, a double-digit L1R5 was considered “below average”. In our secondary 4 year, multiple JCs were invited to give talks to us. No poly was invited.
- Peer pressure: My schoolmates were all going to JCs. I had to, too.
- It was easier to enter university via the JC route… Right?
So, I applied for a JC and got a place.
I did not expect to struggle in JC, but…
The jump in subject difficulty was huge. The A-levels is an intense course that is packed into less than two years. In secondary school, I was barely scraping through my math and science, but managed to do well enough with intensive extra help in the last few months before the O-levels.
It gave me a false sense of confidence that I could handle math and science in JC as well, and I opted for the popular Physics, Chemistry, Math and Economics combination.
Self-discipline was essential, and I lacked it. The pace of teaching is quick, and self-discipline is a must in order to stay on top of things. Within a couple of months, I could no longer keep up with the pace of lessons.
If I had had the self-discipline to schedule regular consultations with teachers and study regularly, perhaps I could have caught up. But I was too distracted by my CCA and having fun.
CCA involvement in JC can be high. I took part in Sports Club, non-competitive CCA that focussed on trying new sports. It was my first time trying a CCA outside of the performing arts and I threw myself into it, enthusiastically volunteering to help plan and run the weekly sessions. I was appointed as an EXCO member soon after.
We were mostly student-run and the CCA took up a lot of time, with meetings often stretching into late dinners or suppers. I made fast friends, and I thought that if my friends could still handle CCA and studies, I could too.
After an entire year of S and U grades (in other words, really poor grades), I did not clear my promo exams, but was conditionally promoted to JC2. The condition? Pass Block Test 1 in JC2 or you are out. It meant I had about three months to catch up on all my subjects before that set of tests came round.
I was in a real dilemma over the December holidays: Should I throw myself into my studies and hope to pass Block Test 1 in March? If I managed to pass and continue in JC2, was I going to continue struggling?
Should I resign from my CCA’s EXCO or stop CCA completely to give myself more time to study? But CCA was the one thing I enjoyed most in JC… What if I did so badly for the A-levels that I could not enter university? Should I leave JC now and go to a poly instead?
There were countless questions and I had no solid answers. I was leaning towards switching to a poly but I did not know anyone who had done so and there was no one I could talk to about it.
So I decided to leave it partially to fate. Nanyang Technological University’s (NTU’s) Communication Studies course was something I long had my eye on. I enjoyed reading the newspapers and wondered what it was like to be a journalist.
But if I didn’t complete my JC course, I would have to take a different route. When the poly application window opened in January, I applied for one course – Ngee Ann Poly’s Mass Communication – the only one that I was keen on.
If I do not get offered a place, I told myself, I will continue my studies in JC and take my A-levels.
The day the poly posting results were released, I remember sitting in the school library, nervously refreshing the application page on the computer (those were the days before smart phones and data plans).
I had received an offer.
It was my best decision
I made the decision to leave JC and accept the poly place mostly on my own. I barely consulted my parents or my teachers. Perhaps, at 17, I was still riding out the tail-end of my rebellious-teen phase.
Maybe, I felt that they were not giving me the support I needed when I raised the topic. My parents were busy handling other issues on their plates, and a teacher simply told me that I needed to study harder.
Regardless, buoyed by the fact that I had a spot in the poly course I wanted and a stubborn streak I had yet to grow out of, I walked to the school’s admin office, asked for the school leaving forms twice (I was given a form to drop a subject instead the first time round), filled them in, and submitted them. That was it; the biggest decision I had made in my life thus far.
Only a couple of close friends knew that I was going to poly. Everyone else – classmates, teachers, relatives – were surprised after they found out that I made the switch. My parents eventually came to terms with my decision too.
Poly suited me far better. I was interested in the modules taught. The graded assignments and projects throughout the semester kept me on my toes and gave me no chance to slack off since our GPA was cumulative. Group mates kept me accountable and we all depended on and supported each other.
But I have to credit my year in JC for my poly path, too. I was a year older than many of my course mates. I had already failed once (by dropping out of JC) and it made me more self-aware. It made me push myself a little harder.
In poly, I was not failing all the time. I did well in my first semester and realised that, hey, I can be good at what I am studying. It motivated me to keep going.
I graduated well from poly, went on to NTU’s Communication Studies, and graduated from that, too.
Now, at 31, I still occasionally look back and thank my 17-year-old self for taking that leap to switch paths. At that point, it felt like a huge deal to take a different path from my friends. But I am glad I learnt that a different path does not mean it is inferior in any way.