Passion for helping others pays off for student who put studies on hold

Grab’s Emerald Circle University Scholarship recognised Ms Tina Chua’s determination and passion, enabling her to resume her studies while she continues to support her family and help children with special needs

Ms Tina Chua, 24, was one of 10 recipients of Grab’s Emerald Circle University Scholarship, which is available to the children of Grab’s driver-partners. Ms Chua was awarded for her academic and co-curricular achievements, as well as character traits such as humility, hunger and a willingness to work hard. Her father, Mr Steven Chua, 48, beams with pride speaking of her. PHOTO: GRAB

Ms Tina Chua recalls the Sunday night during Chinese New Year celebrations in 2019 which was cut short when her father was suddenly admitted to hospital. That weekend, she says, Mr Steven Chua had suffered from what he described as heartburn, except "this time it is different".

What happened next upturned life for the family of five.

At the insistence of his wife and three daughters, Mr Chua went to the National University Hospital, where he was told that three of his main arteries were blocked - between 75 per cent and 90 per cent - resulting in a heart attack.

He was immediately placed on blood thinners and, five days later, underwent heart bypass surgery.

Ms Chua remembers waiting from morning till evening - about nine hours - before her father was wheeled out of the operating theatre. He then spent two days in intensive care, and the next six months recovering.

Over that time, complications arose, forcing him back to the hospital four times - once, to treat his wound when it became infected and reopened. If antibiotics could not clear it, he would have required a second surgery.

He was 46 then. As a full-time Grab driver-partner, his single income supported his three young daughters and wife, who is a homemaker.

Suddenly unable to work, Mr Chua struggled. Physically, he grappled with the loss of strength - in a household of women, he had always done all the heavy lifting. Mentally, he had to adjust to being dependent on his family.

"At first, I really felt very down," he says. "I couldn't carry anything, I couldn't do anything very well. I really felt so handicapped."

Ms Chua says everyone chipped in: "We tried our best to support the family financially because previously, he was the sole breadwinner."

She was working at a childcare centre back then, which supplemented household expenses - including loan repayments on her father's car - out of her monthly salary. Her elder sister, who was 22 at the time, was working as a student care teacher, while her younger sister, then 19, was still in school.

Mr Chua remembers how he had told his daughter to check on his entitlement under the Prolonged Medical Leave Insurance scheme offered by Grab, which protects driver-partners' earnings if they are hospitalised or on long-term outpatient medical leave.

"Luckily, he had the Grab insurance," Ms Chua notes, adding that the payouts helped to tide them through the difficult period.

'If you cannot give money, then give your ability.'

When Ms Chua was working at the childcare centre, she noticed how some children struggled with learning difficulties. Without being an accredited social worker, however, she could not offer their caregivers any professional advice on how they could seek help. That was when she decided to pursue a degree in the discipline.

After her father's heart attack, she put aside plans to further her studies. While keeping an eye on her goals, she started working at Rainbow Centre. It would take another year before she finally enrolled for a part-time degree in Social Work at the Singapore University of Social Sciences in 2020.

"I didn't have the financial capacity to enrol myself into a university in 2019 because (my elder sister and I) were still supporting the family. So I told myself that I'd do it as soon as things had stabilised and my father could go back to driving."

Ms Chua is a second-year Social Work major at the Singapore University of Social Sciences. She delayed her undergraduate studies after her father underwent heart bypass surgery as she had to supplement household finances. But the programme executive at Rainbow Centre never wavered in wanting to help those with special needs. PHOTO: GRAB

Mr Chua, who had spotted a notification for Grab's Emerald Circle University Scholarship on his Grab driver's app, got his daughter to apply for it.

She was selected as one of 10 recipients from hundreds of hopefuls to receive a scholarship in 2021. The $10,000 she received under the scholarship covers more than half of the $15,000 fees for her part-time degree course over three years.

Since 2018, Grab has awarded 35 bond-free scholarships aimed at supporting its local communities and shaping the future of the next generation. Scholarship holders are selected after two rounds of assessments by a judging panel - first for academic and co-curricular achievements, then through interviews, for character traits such as humility, hunger and a willingness to work hard.

One of the judges, Mr Andrew Chan, managing director of transport at Grab Singapore, says: "Tina, in particular, embodies these traits - humble about the successes that she has achieved, and she's worked really hard to support her family through difficult times, while pursuing a degree at the same time."

He adds that Ms Chua stood out for her passion to continue giving back to society despite her own struggles.

In fact, she keeps a conscientious work schedule. Ms Chua starts her days early with an hour-long MRT ride to Rainbow Centre's Young Adult Activities! (YAA!) activity club, where she has been working as a programme executive for about two years.

She sets up the activity area, takes a quick lunch break, then welcomes YAA! members - youth aged 16 and up - who have graduated from special-education schools.

She then runs ability-appropriate activities that cater to the members' interests, which are designed to reduce social isolation and build their sense of community by interacting with friends and instructors. "They get to come out of their home and learn with their friends together," she says.

It is a vocation that requires her to be fully engaged. "They can sense it when your mind is somewhere else, and you won't get that kind of connection you need from them," she says. "You need them to be there with you, so you really need to interact with them. So when I'm working, I don't think about school."

At any given time, she is singularly focused on either her job or her coursework. This means her nights are devoted to studying. "It can get quite stressful sometimes, especially when there are a lot of assignments due. But I don't want to think about my schoolwork while I'm at my job."

For her, it gets more stressful at night because that is the only time when she can finish her assignments, she confesses with a smile. "I don't really have much of a social life.​"

Despite the challenges of time management, she feels the upside is that her studies reinforce her real-life understanding of her work, while her job offers practical insights into her coursework. "I get the experience of being able to relate directly to a real-life situation."

She acknowledges with a chuckle that many of her peers are fortunate to have their parents fund their tertiary education and can afford to indulge in leisure activities such as cafe hopping.

"I have to save up for school and support my family, so in a sense I am missing out on certain things. But I also believe that I have to do this while I'm young. If I wait until I'm older, and if I have kids and I want to study, then it would be tougher."

Instead of fixating on the upheavals of her own life, she is focused on helping others who are even less fortunate than herself.

"It's about perspective. It's about realising that you are already in a better place than others, and looking at how you can help others, so that everyone, at least, can be at a more comfortable level," she reflects. "We are not wealthy, so we cannot donate money. But at least we are able to contribute in another way, or help empower them. That keeps me going."

Her work ethic is not the only thing she inherited from her father.

Growing up, Ms Chua remembers him helping those in need, going so far as to give money that he himself needed. Where he could not, his oft-repeated philosophy, in Mandarin, was this: "If you cannot give money, then give your ability.

"Ever since I was young, I've looked up to my parents. They've inculcated in me that (it's important) to help other people. It also gives me the passion to want to help persons with special needs."

That his daughter remains steadfast in wanting to help others brings tears to Mr Chua's eyes. In Mandarin, he says: "I am so proud of her."

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.