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Gen Y Speaks: I finally graduated from university at 33, having found motivation and purpose

“Better late than never” is an adage that I am most familiar with.

The author with his mother at his convocation in Oct 2021.

The author with his mother at his convocation in Oct 2021.

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“Better late than never” is an adage that I am most familiar with.

I got my diploma in 2011, six years after I first entered polytechnic, and it was another six years before I even began my university studies in 2017.

I finally graduated last month with a Bachelor of Communication with Business from the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) at the age of 33.

With most men in Singapore graduating at the age of 25 on average, I am therefore behind most of my peers, and certainly a laggard in comparison with the esteemed scholars of our country.

In a nation famed for its hyper competitiveness and a society that has long embraced meritocracy and academic proficiency, I have often felt that I was a failure.

I recall the immense sense of relief that washed over me when I managed to scrape into the Express stream in secondary school, with a meagre 189 points in my Primary School Leaving Examination.

This meant that I was not at the bottom of the school’s pecking order.

Yet, I was keenly aware that I was far below the nation’s best.

My opportunities as a student of the second lowest Express class were limited, and the option to study literature, chemistry, physics or biology was closed to me.

Those were subjects which I had more aptitude for than the principles of accounting which I eventually took.

Perhaps my lack of academic success could be explained by my attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which I was diagnosed with when I was eight years old.

It did not impact my intellect but it certainly curtailed my ability to focus.

I was easily distracted during classes and was often restless.

A psychologist told my parents that they should be satisfied if I managed to pass my O-Levels. Fortunately, my parents never lost faith in me and continued to push me to realise my full potential.

With my family’s unwavering support, I went on to pursue a Diploma in Communications and Information Design at Republic Polytechnic.

But I had a disappointing first year there. I had spent many nights playing computer games at a friend’s house, returning home only in the mornings.

After Year 1, my parents decided to defer my studies and enlist me for National Service early, in the hope that military discipline would help me mature.

In some ways, it did.

I was assigned to the SAFTI Military Institute, which houses the Officers Cadet School, as a clerk.

The author (second row, fourth from the left) with his classmates at Republic Polytechnic in 2011. Photo courtesy of Sean Benedict Guttensohn

My lowly position within the ranks reminded me that without good qualifications, I would be deprived of opportunities such as becoming an officer.

It ignited my desire to complete my higher education.

I returned to Republic Polytechnic and resumed my diploma course from Year 2, with a dream of going on to study history at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

Alas, despite my best efforts, I could only muster a grade point average of 3.1, when I required at least 3.5 to qualify for university.

I wrote an impassioned plea to both NUS and the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in my applications to read the one subject I loved, but I was roundly rejected by both institutions.

Embittered and disheartened, I gave up on my university dreams and entered the workforce.

I found employment at a library and later the ArtScience Museum, determined to make a career in the area I was most passionate about. I soon realised that my lack of university qualifications meant that my career growth would be stunted.

I watched a childhood friend secure a position as an assistant curator, right after her graduation from studying art history at NTU.

I knew then that not furthering my education was no longer an option, yet it seemed an impossible task.

Financial realities would not allow me to go abroad or afford a private degree, and history was not available at any of the private universities.

My quandary was serendipitously addressed when SUSS was established in 2017. I saw my path to pursuing Master of Arts in Museum Studies and Curatorial Practices at NTU open before me.

I applied to SUSS to pursue a Bachelor of Communication with Business, as a practical compromise between my talents and interests. I was elated to receive my admissions letter.

The author (extreme right) with his father, sister and mother. He says they were extremely supportive in his educational journey. Photo courtesy of Sean Benedict Guttensohn

With newfound resolve, I vowed to graduate with outstanding grades and to be among the top students of my cohort.

I believed this would help me in my future application for the master’s programme at NTU.

It was not easy, as I continued working full-time at the museum while studying part-time at SUSS.

Three-and-a-half years on, I not only graduated, but was selected to give the convocation speech for my School of Humanities and Behavioural Sciences.

Through my goal of doing well in university, I had found purpose, and in purpose I found motivation.

I heeded my father’s advice to apply the knowledge I gained into my daily practice and to find its links to the real world.

In learning about media law during my undergraduate course, I discovered an area that greatly intrigued me.

I could see the applications of intellectual property law in the cultural and heritage sector, and how I could develop expertise in a much-needed skill in the increasingly digitised museums.

Therefore, I have recently begun my master’s programme not in curatorial practices, but in Intellectual Property and Innovation Management at SUSS.

I hope to graduate by 2023, and to utilise my knowledge and skills to the benefit of our cultural and heritage institutions.

It has been a long and arduous educational journey, one filled with disappointment and rejections. But I have learnt so much, which is why I am sharing my experiences with others who are feeling lost and dejected.

For I, too, have been in the doldrums and have faced despair.

It is never too late to reinvent yourself, and there is always hope. Do not give up on yourself, and the battle is never over until you forfeit it.

Do not allow systems and circumstances to pigeonhole you or to dictate your fate, but to take your life in your hands and make it your own.

I will be cheering you on.



Sean Benedict Guttensohn, 33, is a senior common operational space assistant at the Heritage Conservation Centre. He graduated with a Bachelor of Communications with Business from the Singapore University of Social Sciences, where he is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Intellectual Property and Innovation Management.

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