Education Beyond Good Grades

I have had many occasions to interview fresh graduates for entry-level administrative or managerial jobs. These were not always a pleasant experience; especially since I derive no pleasure seeing young people squirm in their seats, fumble around, and struggle to find the right word like they were on judgment day. Indeed, they troubled me a great deal in part because it felt like I was putting my own children, who are of the same age group as the interviewees, on the block. I hate imagining my children having to go through such a rite of passage.

After all, haven’t such young people gone through three years of pre-school and another 15 or 16 years of formal education involving three major national examinations, followed by six to eight semesters of university examinations? And I have not mentioned their longsuffering, anxiety-filled parents who journeyed with them through their kindergarten years, bringing them to tuition or enrichment classes while they are in their primary or secondary school, and serving them herbal soups when they pulled all-nighters in lieu of consistent work, amidst the distractions of young adulthood.

In some cases, the journey can be rather costly as well, if the children have, for whatever reasons, had to be sent for overseas university education. I was told that the financial outlays range from four times the median household income in Singapore, if the child goes to Australia, and eight times if he or she goes to the US.

Joining the Middle Class?
Undoubtedly, the journey can be somewhat long and perilous for the young person, besides requiring some sacrifice in terms of time, money and energy on the part of parents. Forgoing through all the trouble, the young person is rewarded with a degree, a passport to a potential career involved in mental (as opposed to manual) work, having a certain degree of autonomy and authority, and experiencing progressions in terms of promotions and increments.

On crossing the threshold from university to work, the young person sees himself or herself joining the middle class. For some, this spells upward social mobility for themselves and their families; for others, it means retaining their birthrights with the expectation of going much further.

What We Need for the Long-Haul
Whatever the perceptions may be, we know that such an expectation is not always realistic or sustainable, though possible and attainable. I am certainly not here to dash young people’s high hopes for a good life. I believe things are still bright for those who can run the distance, armed with a sound body and a sound mind, and blessed with strong support from the people who really care about them. This calls for protecting your mind against negative thoughts, giving your body enough rest to regenerate, and investing in positive relationships with people who could cheer you on as you make the journey in an increasingly turbulent world.

It isn’t my intention to deal with marriage here, but I should add, not as an afterthought, that finding and becoming a life-partner who could bring out the best in one another would produce a positive-sum union, a win-win arrangement in which the outcome of the relationship is far greater than the sum of the individual contributions. I shall avoid all the clichés about marriage in this short detour, but to suggest that a couple formed by two persons who are an asset to each other, possesses the ingredients for good mental, physical and social health essential for the long-haul.

Preparations for the New World of Work
Anyway, I have gone pretty far ahead of myself. My main objective in this article is to encourage undergraduates to go beyond just getting a degree with good grades. Obviously, these are still important, but to get pass and journey beyond the threshold from university to work call for superb preparations. Although I speak of a threshold here, it is perhaps more appropriate to think of it as a boundary between
university and work which has been increasingly blurred.

Nowadays, universities are offering or facilitating opportunities for internships, exchanges and other attachment programmes. Apart from helping one to become more ‘street smart’ in the new world of work, they can enable one to acquire broad general knowledge, develop new intellectual and social skills, and inculcate self-confidence, independence, adaptability, and cross-cultural understanding. These are capabilities which an education-focused solely on getting good grades cannot produce.

I am not suggesting that all good ‘total education’ programmes entail going overseas. There are always great opportunities locally, eg, co-curricular and community activities. I would urge undergraduates to be involved in these activities not for CCA points, but for the varied opportunities to develop leadership, managerial, and organisational skills while having a life and learning to relate to peers and people in authority. Maybe an added incentive for CCA involvements is that it helps to strengthen one’s CV, provides testimonials, and may well put one over the top of the shortlist of new job-seekers.

Besides the above, I would encourage undergraduates to begin preparing for their future careers from day one at the university. NUS, for instance, has its own career centres established to guide and train undergraduates in relevant skills, such as resume writing, preparing for and handling job interviews, dressing for success, observing dining etiquettes, and public speaking. I believe undergraduates who take these skills seriously can make a solid impression on interviewers and employers. To Undergraduates Let me recap: Do avail yourselves to opportunities to gain more exposure to the world out there. Get to work with people in an organisational context to learn and develop career skills. In short, have a total education that prepares you adequately for the transition from university to work and has the fire power to launch you on a stellar career trajectory.

❋ Dr Tan Ern Ser teaches Sociology. He has won numerous teaching awards and is Vice- Dean of Students at NUS. He received his PhD from Cornell University. He is author of Does Class Matter? (2004) and has served as survey consultant to various government ministries and agencies.