Giving students the support they need

The student-centric faculty at the Singapore campus of James Cook University made Ms Leong Li Zi’s return to tertiary education a breeze, even after her two-year hiatus

After a two-year hiatus from academia, Ms Leong Li Zi was initially daunted about returning to university, but found overwhelming support from the staff and faculty at the Singapore campus of James Cook University. PHOTO: TED CHEN

When Ms Leong Li Zi hears her male friends reminisce about how difficult it was to go back to studying after completing their national service, she understands better than most other girls.

Unlike most of her peers, she has the experience of dealing with returning to university after an extended period away.

During her pursuit of a Bachelor of Arts in Linguistics and Psychology from the University of Western Australia (UWA), insufficient finances meant she could not stay in Australia to pursue her honours degree.

So after getting her pass degree after three years, she returned to Singapore to work in 2014, all the while looking for opportunities to return to Australia to complete her honours or a graduate diploma (both Level 8 qualifications under the Australian Qualifications Framework).

But as she searched for employment opportunities as a research assistant, she found that the minimum qualifications required were an honours degree or graduate diploma in psychology - the very qualification she hoped to return to university to earn.

The irony was not lost on her. Undeterred, she started work as an executive officer at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information in Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

It was there that she met some colleagues who had studied honours at the Singapore campus of JCU.

"Before that, I hadn't even considered JCU as an option," she says. "But after talking to them, I realised how much easier it would be for me - I wouldn't have to shoulder the costs of living overseas, like housing or getting a visa."

Plus, some research of her own revealed that it was a simple matter to transfer credits from her UWA degree. If she wanted to further her studies at the Singapore campus of JCU, she could commence her studies from year three onwards.

Conversely, if she wanted to continue her studies at an autonomous university, she would have to start from scratch.

The choice was obvious to her. In 2016, Ms Leong enrolled into JCU's Bachelor of Psychological Science programme before progressing to Graduate Diploma of Psychology.

Overcoming roadblocks

Ms Leong's research at the Singapore campus of James Cook University did not just give her invaluable experience in the field, but also helped clarify her post-graduation plans. PHOTO: TED CHEN

But even with these concessions, going back to university proved to be more of a challenge than she had anticipated.

Compared to her peers, who had come straight from their second year, Ms Leong found herself not just struggling to go from administrative work to writing academic essays, but also battling uncertainty when choosing the right classes to fit her career path.

As a third-year transfer student who had spent a significant amount of time removed from academia, Ms Leong knew that it was not easy for her classmates to relate to her situation.

So she did something that would have been unthinkable in most other universities: she went to the faculty.

In her previous university, class sizes often numbered in the hundreds, making it difficult to approach lecturers for help, let alone a dean.

But at the Singapore campus, it was none other than the then-Associate Dean of Psychology, Dr Denise Dillon, who took it upon herself to personally advise Ms Leong.

"I kept reassuring her that email would be fine, because I didn't want to take up too much of her time - she was the Associate Dean of Psychology, after all," recalls Ms Leong.

But at Dr Dillon's insistence, the two met face to face for advising sessions, which surprised Ms Leong to no small degree.

"She was so open in setting time aside not just for me, but other students too," she says. "It made me realise how much she and the other faculty cared for their students."

Noticing her difficulties with assignments, many lecturers also began advising her, especially once it became known to them that Ms Leong had returned to academia after a two-year hiatus.

"They made it very clear - not just to me, but to everyone - that we could approach them for help," she says. "It was this atmosphere that made it easier for me to speak up in class, and to ask questions whenever I needed to."

This gave her the confidence to volunteer for a research assistant position under Dr Bridget McConnell, who was conducting meta-analysis for her research on animal-assisted medical interventions at the time.

Again, this was an opportunity that had eluded her at UWA, due to its larger cohort. A significantly larger student body to vie against meant that research assistant positions were hotly contested.

In the Singapore campus, however, class sizes ranged between 10 to 30 students in Ms Leong's final year, meaning that research assistant positions were far more accessible.

So when the opportunity to work closely with Dr McConnell presented itself, Ms Leong jumped at the chance - an experience that she credits with building her interest and passion for research.

"My time with Dr Bridget and the other staff really helped me not just with my research, but it also taught me about life as a researcher and helped me clarify my plans after graduation," she says. "This not only came in useful when I was doing my fourth-year thesis, but also at my current position in NTU."

Her research background is instrumental to performing her duties as a research assistant at the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine - particularly her experience in structured literature reviews, which are part of her research on female healthcare professionals in the workforce.

And while she may have graduated, she still keeps in touch with Dr McConnell, who continues to advise her, not just on her research endeavours, but on other aspects of her life as well.

"Even though I only meet her in person from time to time, she's someone I still talk to about studying and working in academia," says Ms Leong. "There's a lot less pressure than in a typical work relationship."

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