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Gen Y Speaks: I was quite lost in my studies and in life. Taking a gap year changed that

I will always remember the day I received an email in 2019 informing me that I had been awarded a scholarship by Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS).

Gen Y Speaks: I was quite lost in my studies and in life. Taking a gap year changed that

The author took a gap year after finishing his national service in part because he couldn't get into university based on his polytechnic grades.

I will always remember the day I received an email in 2019 informing me that I had been awarded a scholarship by Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS).

Prior to that, I had never received any academic award. If you were to ask my friends from my secondary school or polytechnic, they wouldn’t believe that I could have secured a university scholarship.

I was an average student from a neighbourhood secondary school who always scored the bare minimum and scraped through my entire education.

My luck eventually ran out when I applied for a place at university while serving National Service after completing my polytechnic studies.

I had a grade point average of 3.1 in polytechnic and most of the university courses required at least 3.5.

So despite me applying for various courses — from hospitality to business analytics — at different autonomous universities here, I was unsuccessful.

Going to a private university was out of the question due to my family’s financial situation.

I live in a four-room Housing and Development Board flat with six other family members. My mum works at a petrol kiosk and my dad is a hawker assistant.

My sister was also enrolling into a university that year, so it was virtually impossible for my parents to afford a private university education for me.

Initially, I considered entering the workforce right after my NS. However, my parents insisted on me getting a degree.

They did not have access to higher education, and believe that having a degree will help me lead a better life than them.

On one hand, I wanted to fulfil my parents’ wish. On the other, I did not wish to add to my family’s already stressed financial condition.

This was when I figured that taking a gap year would be ideal. It could help me earn money for my future studies, gain some working experience and give me time to rediscover myself.

Throughout my education, I had been studying without a purpose, taking whatever subjects assigned to me. I had no idea what to do after completing secondary school, so I simply followed my peers and pursued a diploma in hotel management.

However, I quickly learnt that my passion and interest do not lie there. I dreaded going to school and was uninterested in classes. 

I did not wish to go through the same process for my university education.

The author (front row, extreme right) during his polytechnic days in 2015. Photo courtesy of Joven Chiam

When I finally mustered up the courage to tell my parents of my decision to take a gap year, they couldn’t understand.

I don’t blame them. We live in a society where individuals are judged based on their wealth, education level and job title.

Eventually, after much persuasion, my parents finally agreed to let me take a year off.

But I was still extremely lost. For the first few months, I spent most of my time playing video games and hanging out with my friends.

At one point, I started doubting my decision, especially as I saw most of my peers starting their university life. My parents were also worried that I was just wasting my time.

Facing immense pressure, I started planning how to maximise my time. 

I remembered that the banking and finance industry has always appealed to me as a career choice. Whenever I visited banks, I would admire how well-dressed and eloquent the bankers were. 

Sadly, numbers were never my forte and that held me back from pursuing my dream.

But since I had time to spare during my gap year, I decided to try for a job in the banking industry and managed to secure a one-year contractual role as a customer service officer.

The learning curve was steep and I struggled to learn the different financial terms and banking products. There were also the occasional unpleasant customer service encounters.

In one incident, a construction manager called on behalf of his foreign worker to resolve a banking issue.  

As the worker could speak only his native language, his inability to complete the identity verification caused the manager to get frustrated.

The manager presumed that the bank was making things difficult for them and started to raise his voice and use profanities.

While we eventually resolved the issue, such encounters made me wonder if I should work in this industry.

Fortunately, I met a caring and patient mentor at my workplace. He took the time and effort to impart financial knowledge and life skills which made me more confident at work.

He also shared his university experience with me. Like me, he was not strong in academics.

Before university, he was never the brightest student. But after he found his passion in finance, he started aceing examinations.

During his university days, he volunteered as a teaching assistant to his lecturers in conducting lessons. He also helped his peers lagging behind in their studies.

Listening to his story, I felt extremely inspired. Maybe it was due to our similar journeys, or maybe like him, I just wanted to prove others wrong.

Time spent with him positively impacted me and I started finding myself having a purpose and passion.

The author (back row, extreme left with face half covered) with his mentor (to the author's left) and other colleagues at their company induction programme in 2018. Photo courtesy of Joven Chiam

I enrolled in online courses like python programming and financial modules, which I believe would be beneficial in my line of work. I also stopped playing video games entirely.

Before I knew it, my one-year getaway pass was coming to an end. It was time for me to fully concentrate on furthering my education.

The gap year reaffirmed my aspiration to work in a bank. So, I looked up universities offering finance courses.

SUSS immediately stood out for me. I like how it views a student’s achievement in a more holistic manner, by taking account their work and volunteering experience, for example.

I managed to secure a place to pursue a finance degree, thanks in large part due to my stint working in a bank.

The financial knowledge I had gained also gave me a head start in class and in group projects. 

For the first time in my academic journey, I was aceing exams. The better I scored, the more determined and passionate I became.  

Based on my good results in Year One, SUSS granted me a scholarship which covers my school fees for the remaining three years of my studies. This has allowed me to focus fully on doing well in and outside class.

Academics aside, I followed in my mentor’s footsteps and took on multiple community engagement projects in school. Having experienced first-hand the positive impact of mentorship, I wanted to pay it forward and help others.

The author with fellow mentors and their mentees under a SUSS community engagement project during a hike at MacRitchie Reservoir in March 2021 Photo courtesy of Joven Chiam

Currently, I am interning as an investment advisor analyst at an international bank. My career and life are only just getting started and I cannot wait to achieve more milestones.

Looking back, it is amazing how 12 months of “free time” could change me from being lost in life to be clear about what I want to pursue.

If you are contemplating whether to take a gap year, just do it.

It is okay to take some time to figure yourself out. Don’t just blindly do what the society or your family wants you to do.

Having taken the uncharted path and transitioned from hospitality to the finance industry, I am glad that my journey thus far has been rewarding and enjoyable.

Sometimes in life, you have to take one step backwards, before you can start moving forward in the right direction.



Joven Chiam Wen Yong, 26, is a fourth-year finance student at the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS). He is a winner of the SUSS Spirit Award 2021 for his contributions to the community through various community engagement projects and volunteerism programmes.

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