Non-grad parents, but they made it to top schools

February 7, 2011 at 5:51 pm Leave a comment

Non-grad parents, but they made it to top schools
By Rachel Chang

THE first glimpse 12-year-olds get of their secondary schools, their homes for the next four years, is on Reporting Day every December.

What Isdiyanah Dulkifli, now 15, saw then were big, shiny cars parked on every spare inch in the Raffles Girls’ School (RGS) campus on Anderson Road – which her future classmates had arrived in. ‘I was taken aback,’ the Secondary 4 student recalled.

‘These people are so rich,’ she thought to herself, and wondered if she had made the right choice of school.

Students like Isdiyanah who hail from humble backgrounds are now the minority in several of Singapore’s top secondary schools, statistics released by Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew two weeks ago showed.

In RGS, 72.3 per cent of students have fathers who are university graduates, putting them in the uppermost socio-economic bracket.

The figures for other top schools like Hwa Chong Institution and Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) are similar – all above 50 per cent.

In contrast, in neighbourhood schools like Jurong West Secondary and Bukit Merah Secondary, the share of students with graduate parents hovers at around 10 per cent.

The Straits Times interviewed ten students who have bucked the trend, to find out how they did it.

Of the ten from five brand-name schools, four are minorities and two have a parent who died.

Some are the exception in their families, with siblings in polytechnics or the Institute of Technical Education.

But when they are the oldest child, they seem to have pulled along their younger siblings, who also do well academically.

While it is not easy being different, these teenagers believe that as long as they work hard and shut out impulses to be envious, the sky is still the limit.

The culture shock many of these students felt upon entering the hallowed halls of their brand-name schools was not limited to the iPods and iPads on display.

Hwa Chong student Wong Kang Ming, 16, was surprised that his classmates would buy all the recommended assessment books, but not do the exercises in them.

‘They spend money without thinking,’ he said. When he buys an assessment book, he uses it from cover to cover.

Kang Ming’s father passed away when he was six years old. His China-born mother is a cleaner.

He said that he copes with his relative lack of spare cash by planning ahead.

If there was a last-minute need for a book, he could not just pop down to the bookstore to get it like his classmates do. He must first ask for extra money at home and buy it the next day.

‘But all this is minor stuff,’ he insisted. ‘As long as I have enough money for the basics, it’s enough.’

Like many of the other students interviewed whose parents are not university-educated, he was an academic self-starter from young.

These kids cornered teachers after lessons for extra help, went to libraries on their own, and gathered their siblings for joint study sessions every night.

Their parents believed that education would better their lot and encouraged them to work hard – even if they did not always have the financial resources or expertise to help directly.

Although Kang Ming’s mother helps him with his Chinese classes, he is used to relying on himself, even researching the type of financial assistance Hwa Chong could give him before settling on the school.

‘I just feel motivated, as I’m already from this type of situation,’ he said, referring to the hardships of a single-parent family. ‘I feel that the least I can do is cope by myself.’

Time and again, this self-motivating fervour emerged from the students interviewed.

Never having enjoyed luxuries such as tuition, they simply managed without.

Ms Dina Ee, 20, a former Nanyang Girls’ High student now studying medicine at the National University of Singapore, said: ‘There comes a point when you realise that you can’t rely too much on others. That probably came earlier for me.’

For a student like Raffles Institution’s Ahmad Musthofa, whose father passed away when he was 12, what drives him is his desire to provide for his family.

‘I want to work hard, support my family and lift the burden off my mother,’ he said.

RGS student Isdiyanah still feels out of place at times.

When she goes out with her friends, she takes along a packed lunch rather than spend more money. Her friends accommodate her by eating at an open-air area in town, instead of in a restaurant.

‘My classmates’ parents are all doctors and professors,’ she mused. ‘I do feel embarrassed sometimes. Here I am, always at the Accounts department asking for money.’

Isdiyanah’s parents are divorced – and for a while in primary school, she lived in a rental flat in Redhill with her mother and siblings.

‘But I know this embarrassment cannot last for very long,’ she said.

‘Even those professors and doctors, they may not have come from a very educated family. They had to work very hard to get to where they are now.’

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Diary of a reformed elitist Tuition and Socioeconomic status

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