SINGAPORE: She’d just come out of what she calls the lowest point in her life – her upper secondary school years, when she was bullied and isolated to the point that she had to drag herself out of bed in the mornings.
In her first year at the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), Ng Pei Ying wanted a change for the better.
She even did a web search on “how do you find a purpose”. “If you don’t have a purpose, you wake up not knowing what to do for the day,” said the 17-year-old digital animation student.
“Desperate” to get out of her rut, she attended an introductory talk on a pilot programme called ELEVATE – a service-learning project for ITE students to give back to the community – and decided to give it a try “because all my friends were in it”.
It turned out to be the thing that might well have transformed her life.
The once-withdrawn, insecure teenager who sought solace in her art, is today looking to spend her life helping others – all because of an opportunity that showed her the difference she could make in the lives of the disadvantaged.
A LONELY, SHY GIRL
Pei Ying grew up a solitary, shy girl. Drawing was her avenue to express herself. And it was to art she turned, when she became a victim of bullying in secondary school.
“They wrote some nasty things on a wall, and it went around the school,” she shared. The scribbles were erased – but then were rewritten by the unknown culprits. The harassment left the Normal (Technical) student “emotionally tired”.
I just wanted to stay in bed.
But home was not a refuge either. “My home life … could be quite rowdy at times,” she said of the clashes that took place.
Drawing centred her somewhat. But eventually, she was driven to distraction. She started skipping her track and field training and was kicked out of the co-curricular activity.
She also began hanging out with an older group outside school. “Most of the time, we just met and went to abandoned buildings,” she said. “I wasn’t focusing on my studies. All I wanted to do was go out.”
Some of her friends would drink, some would buy her things, and it was easy to be lulled into thinking that she finally belonged. But one day, she realised this was a lifestyle she couldn’t afford – and a path she didn’t want to go down.
“Money was one of the obstacles. Secondly, I knew that I didn’t want to do this in the future. I’m pretty sure my friends aren’t going to pay my bills then.”
‘NEW YEAR, NEW ME’
Pei Ying’s desire for “something different” came as she settled into life at ITE College Central in 2018, where her love of drawing drew her to the digital animation course. She tried to convince herself to “be more cheerful”.
“People don’t know about your past and everything, so why not?” she reasoned. “New year, new me.”
And new opportunities came by way of ELEVATE. It is a project by the National Council of Social Service (NCSS) for ITE students to use the vocational skills they learn in class to meet the community’s needs.
In Pei Ying’s case, she and six friends were assigned to teach drawing and animation to children at Care Corner Student Care Centre, which provides after-school support for children aged seven to 14 who are mostly from low-income families.
“These children might (otherwise) not have the opportunity to go for digital animation courses or even high-level drawing workshops,” said social work associate Lim Hui Ying from AWWA, the organisation coordinating with the ITE and the student care centre.
But first, Pei Ying had her own hurdle – a lack of self-assurance – to overcome.
“When I first saw her in the programme, she was very quiet,” recalled student care officer Jonathan Toh, who provides counselling services for ITE students. “She didn’t have that much confidence to complete certain tasks that were given.”
She also didn’t make the best first impression on Ms Lim at the orientation briefing for the ELEVATE students. “She came with coloured hair, and she had coloured contact lenses on, so it wasn’t really following the school rules,” recounted Ms Lim.
I was thinking to myself, ‘Hmm, is she one of the more difficult students?’
STEPPING UP TO LEAD
One thing Pei Ying had going for her, however, was her desire to learn and give of her best.
She studiously brushed up on the animation she’d been taught. “I didn’t want to go there and teach them something I didn’t understand myself,” she said of the four students under her direct charge.
The once-introverted, impatient teenager was shaping up to be a caring and encouraging mentor under ELEVATE. “She’d also really look out for her friends,” said Ms Lim.
If she felt that they were being left out, she’d try again and again to interact with and engage (them).
“She wasn’t what you’d think of a 17-year-old student. She was very mature, very responsible.”
In fact, added Mr Toh, “during the whole process, she rose to become the group leader”.
WATCH: How Pei Ying's life changed (6:48)
Then, there were the excitable children to test Pei Ying’s mettle. “They were very active and kept roaming around,” the teenager recounted.
“They forced me to be patient because I couldn’t flare up at them no matter what … I had to accommodate them because they wanted to learn.”
The children got to draw and animate Pac-Man, Spiderman and other things they liked. Aleeya Humairah Thong described Pei Ying’s instructions as “very clear”. Inspired, the 12-year-old declared: “I want to become a drawing and animation artist.”
One achievement Pei Ying remembers, was getting one particularly shy girl to open up to her. The girl didn’t know what to draw, and “I just kept asking her questions”, said Pei Ying.
“In the end, she drew a hospital – because she wanted to be a nurse – and little cats at the bottom.”
‘IT REACHES DEEP INTO YOUR HEART’
For Pei Ying, the experience may well have altered the course of her life. She has now set her sights on becoming a social worker.
That fire was lit when the ITE students got to do community service as part of an ELEVATE camp – in her case, singing for the elderly, which she “genuinely enjoyed”. “It just felt right,” she said.
Having a goal to work towards has made her a better student – one who now sits in front of the teacher, instead of at the back of the class as she used to.
Her friend Erman Tan says she’s more vocal as well. “In Year One, she was very lost in (her) studies. When she didn’t know how to do stuff, she wouldn’t ask questions. Now, she opens up to ask.”
Indeed, Pei Ying overcame one of her biggest fears – public speaking – when she had to share her ELEVATE story at the programme’s graduation ceremony after its June-to-November run. She delivered it in front of some 180 students across the three ITE colleges, as well as VIPs, beneficiaries, and the programme’s funders – Temasek Foundation Cares, Lorinet Foundation, Quantedge Foundation and Trafigura Foundation.
Though her stint in ELEVATE is over, Pei Ying continues to do volunteer work through balloon sculpting, one of ITE College Central's co-curricular activities. She recently visited a kidney dialysis centre and an old folks’ home, sparking smiles and laughter from beneficiaries with her balloon creations.
“I’d describe (charity work) in one word: Fulfilling,” she said.
It reaches deep inside your heart.
A PLATFORM TO SHINE
To Mr Toh, the change in the quiet girl he first saw has been impressive. “She might have had the potential, but it’s just that she hadn’t had the platform to shine,” he said.
“I always tell students, ‘What you learn in the ITE, you can bring out and showcase to the community.
It isn’t just something for earning a living, but something (with which) you can make an impact.
That is the idea behind ELEVATE, which started in 2017 and was conceived to “nurture compassion in students to serve the community”, said NCSS director (Service Planning and Standards) Chan Whee Peng.
For example, ITE College West worked with YMCA, and ITE College East with Touch Community Services, to have students volunteer their skills to the elderly – such as by repairing and servicing wheelchairs, or doing simple home-fixes for them. The students were paired with groups such as the Lions Befrienders and Kampong Senang.
Ricky Saputra Ng, a student in mechanical technology, said that meeting old folks who kept a positive attitude despite living alone inspired him. “Usually, I view life negatively. I’ve been failing academically, and ever since my grandma passed away, I’ve felt even more depressed,” he said.
He now tries to be more responsible by showing up on time for class. “Last time I wouldn’t even show up,” he chuckled.
A FUTURE WITH MORE CHOICES
Mr Chan added that if the programme’s “good progress” continues, “we hope to see ELEVATE replicated as an established model in the ITE colleges and made available to more students”.
Its impact may well extend beyond the ITE students. Care Corner senior teacher Quaraisha Roslan shared that her charges were “fascinated” and “impressed” by the ITE College Central campus and the classes they attended.
“They even told me, ‘When I grow up, and I can go to the ITE, I’d want to go, and I’d want to join this digital animation course,’” said the ITE alumna.
That was quite satisfying for Pei Ying to hear. “Other than skills, I think we’re passing them hope. It’s like we’re giving them more choices for what they want to do in future.”
There is every reason for them – and her – to aim high, believes Mr Toh, who graduated from ITE with a certificate in office skills nearly two decades ago.
“Maybe 10 years down the road, she could be my colleague (or) fellow practitioner in the field,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised.”
This story by CNA Insider was done in partnership with Gov.sg.