While coaching three 15-year-olds from a boys’ home for the N-Levels, Mr Cho Ming Xiu found his life calling. In this last of a 3-part series, Zesiree Kok, a Secondary 3 student at Edgefield Secondary, asks Mr Cho, founder of mental health organisation Campus PSY, what it takes to stay steady and find purpose amidst the twists and turns of life.
By Lee Qing Ping
Zesiree Kok, age 15
Sec 3 student at Edgefield Secondary School
Doodles on textbooks and dreams of being an illustrator one day
Cho Ming Xiu, age 36
Founder, Campus PSY, non-profit mental health organisation for youths
Withdrew from school twice, found life purpose in helping kids to find their way
Making Decisions in a Changing World
Q: Could you share what you do?
Cho Ming Xiu: I'm the founder and executive director of Campus PSY. We're a mental health social service agency that serves young people who are struggling with mental health conditions.
Q: How did you choose this area of work?
It all started when I was in Junior College. One of my friends was quite a jovial person. He was an athlete and he did well in his studies. By all material measures, he looked like a successful student. But in JC2, he suddenly withdrew from school. That was quite shocking for us. Our tutor explained he was struggling with depression. Back then, not many people knew what depression was, or what any mental health condition was.
So, we did some research. We found out that for recovery, it helps to have support from your friends and family. So we visited him, accompanied him for walks, played basketball together, and slowly, he got better.
Because of all this, it really got me thinking: Is life, is success, more than the materialistic stuff? Even if you have good grades, career, and all that. As a young student, I always thought success was built on having good grades. Doing well in school meant you’ll get a good job, and then you’ll do well in life.
But the reality is, these things will fade. We live in a very uncertain world; things keep changing. But don’t let your goalpost keep changing along with it; you need to find a goal post for yourself that stays the same in all circumstances.
“It got me thinking: Is life, is success, more than the materialistic stuff?”
Q: How did you set up Campus PSY?
I started volunteering at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) in 2016 with other youths – who’d go on to be the team who founded Campus PSY with me. Every Saturday morning, we’d go down to IMH to serve the long-stay patients. Most of them were elderly, many had been abandoned by their families because they couldn’t handle their condition. We planned games and activities to engage them.
One lunch, we talked about how quite a lot of young people we knew were struggling with mental health conditions, but they were suffering in silence because of the stigma. So, we thought, is there anything we can do? There was this need to train and equip our youths with mental health literacy, so that they’re better able to support peers who are in distress.
So we thought to rally the youths and the different established mental health agencies like IMH, Samaritans of Singapore, and Singapore Association of Mental Health. I was already volunteering with the Youth Corp as a leader, and they provided us with funding and a venue to run our programmes.
Most adults wouldn’t think that a bunch of 20-year-olds could actually run a national movement. We're very thankful to Youth Corp for believing in us, and that's why now I'm giving back because I believe that if you're given much, you should also give back.
Q: Who inspired these values in you?
It was from my time in secondary school. In Maris Stella High, our school motto is qin mian zhong yong. Qin is diligence. Zhong is loyalty. Mian is perseverance, and Yong is courage. These values have helped me a lot.
After working with youths for coming to a decade now, I see how resilience, being able to bounce back from adversity, is so important.
I took a long and more unconventional educational route. I went to JC and then switched to Poly. After NS, I went to NTU to study Linguistics and Multilingual Studies. Then in Year 2, I realised: I wanted to work in the social service sector. So I dropped out and went to work for a while, and eventually went to study Social Work at SUSS.
It wasn’t easy, especially when I compared myself with peers who seemed to be ‘progressing’ faster than me. A lot of times, we want instant gratification, and it’s not just the youths. Because now, with social media, everyone looks so perfect. Everyone's doing well, in their career, in their studies. But you don't see the grind behind everything. And that causes a lot of mental health-related issues if you’re not grounded well. But resilience helps you realise it’s okay to take longer, to face setbacks, because you’re on your own path.
The other school value that’s really shaped me is yong: courage. To be bold. To chart your own path, be it in education or in your career. To dare to take the road less travelled if it’s right for you.
“Resilience helps you realise it’s okay to take longer, to face setbacks because you’re on your own path.”
Q: How did you know that this was the road for you?
I think by taking the longer route, it helped me realise what I'm good at, what are my strengths, and what the community needs. Ultimately, it’s about realising how all these intersect and how I can best contribute to society.
Through my volunteering experiences, I discovered what really made me tick; what gave me a deep sense of purpose. When I was studying in NTU, I was volunteering with this boys’ home. That really changed my life.
I mentored three boys. One of them asked me, “Sir, why do you want to waste your evenings and weekends to come here? We have no future already, you know.” I was like, wow, you're only 15 years old. And you say you have no future. What had they gone through to make them to feel this way?
I was supposed to prepare them for the private N-Level exam. So I told them that you have 18 months here and I'm here to journey with you. So why not we make the best out of this? You do well in your N-Levels, then maybe you can go to a course you want in ITE. Then if you do well enough in ITE, you could go to Poly after? You can choose what kind of job you want. You could go to university too.
But they couldn't fathom what I was saying. “Wah sir, what are you talking about? We just want to get through 18 months, then get out of this place.” I decided to just listen to them. Empathetic listening, like actively listening and trying to understand what they've gone through.
So, I tried to give them an alternative perspective, that there’s always another way, there’s always a choice. And through the 18 months, I saw them transform. Eventually they did well in their N-Levels, they got into the courses they wanted. When they shared with me their results, I felt like a proud father.
Q: How do I know if I'm making the right choice when the world keeps changing?
Oh, that's a very good question. When I was 15 years old, I wouldn’t have thought I’d be doing what I’m doing now. I changed my mind a lot between education and career pathways.
I'm just very thankful that in every stage of my educational journey, I had very good mentors and role models. These teachers didn't give up on me. They really believed in me when I couldn't see my potential; they saw something that I couldn't see. And that's very important for young people. Having someone believe in you when you yourself, don't.
When I was in the Temasek Junior College, I had a very good principal. She lived out the college’s values of Passion, Purpose, and Drive. I was very active in my CCA – Guitar Ensemble –, but I wasn't doing very well in my academics. I was studying the Sciences: Chemistry, Biology and Maths. She knew that I wasn't enjoying what I was doing. But she knew I had a passion in journalism, especially Chinese news broadcasting. At the time, she knew that Ngee Ann Polytechnic had just launched a new course in Chinese Media Studies. She referred me to Ngee Ann Poly. So I went for the open house, I loved it. And then I applied for it. And those three years were amazing.
In Ngee Ann Poly, I had very inspirational mentors in the School of Humanities and Social Science. One is Mrs Choo Cheh Hoon, the ex-director. The other one is Miss Lynn Fong, the current director. Both of them really believed in the students and that really shaped my thinking, to really build the next generation of youth leaders. And so that's why, you know, so many years after graduating from Ngee Ann Poly, I still believe that we really need to empower our youths and nurture them, so that they can be future leaders and give back to the community.
“These teachers didn't give up on me. They really believed in me, they saw something that I couldn't see. And that's very important for young people.
Q: What if what I learn now in school is outdated by the time I start working, how do my friends and I keep up?
I would say, values will really tide you through the waves of change You know who you are as a person, you know what you're good at, and you know your purpose in life.
Q: What would you say to 15-year-olds like me who are unsure about our future?
Your achievements, your grades, your career aspirations, all that will fade. But if you hold true to your purpose in life, and if you hold true to your values in life, your vision in life, these guiding principles will keep you grounded.
I'm not sure if you remember, you know, when I went to Edgefield Secondary School to give a talk to the student leaders like yourself, I shared this quote by this American anthropologist called Margaret Mead. “Never underestimate that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” And you guys are the future changemakers. So if not you, who… if not now, when? Go for it. And make the most out of your time in school.
Hear from the other two changemakers Zesiree spoke with:
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