Gen Y Speaks: Caring teachers helped me find my footing after my parents died. I’ve now come full circle
Both my parents died when I was young. My father died when I was seven and I lost my mother when I was in the Normal (Technical) stream in secondary school.
Both my parents died when I was young.
My father was a construction worker. I was seven years old when he suddenly collapsed near a traffic light. He slipped into a coma and passed away.
After my father’s death, my mother, who had been a housewife, had to take a job as a roadside sweeper.
On weekends, she took an extra job, washing toilets at nightclubs to earn a bit more money. I was an only child and I wanted attention. But mum was always tired after work.
So, I went out a lot, hanging out with friends who gave me the affirmation and attention I’d wanted. But it also meant that my grades slipped.
I was 16 and in the Normal (Technical) stream in secondary school when my mum died.
She had not been in the best of health for a long time (I would find out later that it was liver cancer). But one day, she was coughing a lot.
I took her to the doctor, thinking it was a flu. She had to be rushed to the emergency department. She had pneumonia.
Eventually, her lungs failed and she went into a coma. I saw her heartbeat dropping, like five, four, three, two, one.
Then I saw her taking her last breath. I was devastated. My whole family was gone. I moved in with my guardians.
Somehow, I managed to scrape through my N-Levels in 2002 and went on to study office skills at the Institute of Technical Education (ITE).
I didn’t have a clue as to what I wanted to do. I was lost. I went through the motions of going through ITE (my grade point average was 1.8).
But things took a turn for the worse when I took on a part-time job.
It was a night shift at a local factory, doing administrative work and counting plastic mould pieces.
One evening, my supervisor asked me to use Microsoft Excel software. I was stumped and took a long time with it. My boss was so angry that he called me slow, lazy and uneducated — in front of everyone else in the office.
It shook me to the core. I remember thinking: What am I doing here? Is this what the rest of my life will look like? I was so angry that I resolved to be better educated.
I reapplied to do a design course at the ITE as I enjoyed drawing and creating designs. This time, I was very clear about what I wanted — to do well enough to get into a polytechnic.
I did well enough to get into Nanyang Polytechnic’s (NYP) School of Design (now School of Design & Media) in 2009, my dream design school.
What I really enjoyed was how hands-on it was, and how it gave me a lot of exposure to the industry.
We attended many talks by design companies and participated in many design competitions.
During my internship, I was working with companies to design and fabricate gifts and souvenirs, and they would manufacture the items immediately. I was like, “wow, my design is actually out there”. I felt very good.
This was something I treasured from my time at NYP — its strong industry connections allow its students to learn directly from the best in the trade, and to make a direct impact.
In one project, I designed a pen-like shaver that could trim beards. My idea was to make shavers portable enough for men to take with them easily.
I wanted to use design to help the world, and it was only in polytechnic that I truly gained confidence in making decisions and believed in my abilities.
I had the solid support of my lecturers to thank for that as they inspired me to do my best and encouraged me to think out of the box — to push the boundaries of design.
These lecturers kept me on their radar — as a mentor, advisor, and friend — making sure that I was doing okay.
I still remember when I was in year three, I had to go for surgery around the time of my final year project presentation.
It was one of the most important presentations of my polytechnic life and I was terrified of missing it.
I confided in my lecturer. He not only understood my situation but also went above and beyond to convince the panel to reschedule my presentation.
He even came to visit me in the hospital after my operation just to make sure I was doing fine and to comfort me.
It was with the support of my lecturers and loved ones that I made it to the top 15 per cent of my cohort in polytechnic, which got me placed in the director’s list — a big milestone for me.
My diploma course made me realise that when life throws curveballs at you, it is the people around you who can keep you going.
I eventually furthered my studies at National University of Singapore’s Industrial Design course.
NURTURING THE NEXT GENERATION
After graduation, I thought of being an educator because of the teachers and lecturers who made a difference in my life.
I came full circle to join NYP as a design lecturer in 2015 and haven’t looked back since. It’s funny because my then-lecturers are now my colleagues.
The respect is still there, and I still ask for their advice. And even today, they are so encouraging, always looking out for me and ever willing to guide me along.
Having gone through the entire route — from ITE, polytechnic to university — I can understand and empathise with what the students are going through.
Some know me as the funniest teacher, but others say I can be the fiercest lecturer. Maybe it’s because I know how to tackle the students who are more playful.
I take the time to get to know them, or have a chat with them at the canteen. I don’t have any preconceived judgements, because I need to understand where they are coming from.
And as my lecturers were once there for me, I am also here for them. When each new cohort comes in, I make it a point to share the life lessons I’ve gained.
Some of them are taken aback when they hear my story. I tell them that life is not always easy — first, you need to be competent, independent and able to deliver your work, and take pride in it.
Sometimes you may also meet people who make you feel small, but always rise above it and be true to who you are.
Secondly in life, you need to face failure. Failing doesn't mean the end of the world. You need to pick yourself up and believe in yourself. There’s nothing wrong with making mistakes, as that’s how you learn.
So, keep on trying and motivating yourself. Mum showed me that life is tough.
But I think she'd be very proud that I persevered. And this is the message I want my students to learn.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Vilvum Ramu is a lecturer at Nanyang Polytechnic’s School of Design and Media.