SINGAPORE - He was in a gang by the time he was 14, smoking, drinking, and staying out late at night with friends who gave him a sense of belonging. His father lived in Malaysia, and his cashier mother and sister were his only company at home.
At 15, he stopped going to school and took on various odd jobs, working at a drink shop and as an ice cream seller, unsure of his future.
His mother's unfailing support, however, motivated him to go back to school after a year of absence. With 14 points for his N levels, he went on to study accounting at the Institute of Technical Education College East, graduating as a silver medallist.
Now 23, Mr Sim Rong Xing mentors troubled youths at the Singapore Boys' Home, and is graduating from Temasek Polytechnic (TP) with a Diploma in Accounting & Finance, a 3.93 grade point average (GPA), a perfect performance appraisal score for his internship at Deloitte Singapore, the Tay Eng Soon Gold Medal for outstanding students formerly from ITE, and with ambitions of becoming a teacher in ITE or a polytechnic.
This dream, he says, was inspired by a secondary school teacher, Ms Elaine Lui, who encouraged him throughout and is still in contact with him today. "She had a huge impact on my life, because she didn't give up on me. I can see the joy in her, so I think being a teacher is a special career."
"For me it's not just about transferring the knowledge, it's being genuinely interested in people's lives, and I want to have an impact on their lives, and to help them if I can."
He has secured a place to read accounting at Singapore Management University after his national service. He hopes to join a Big Four accounting firm before pursuing his teaching dream.
Meanwhile, Mr Solomon Tan Teng Shue similarly found his passion in the way his education impacted his life. When he was diagnosed with mild dyslexia in kindergarten, he managed to overcome reading difficulties by playing educational computer games. In primary school, he and his friends would play their own Dungeons and Dragons-style role-playing game, in which he preferred to be the creator rather than the player.
A diploma in Game Design & Development was therefore a natural choice for the quiet, determined 20-year-old storyteller.
Programming games came naturally to him. "When I first started programming it felt kind of like a game, and I found it easier to learn because I construct sentences with the need to put certain words in a certain order to make it understandable, and it's kind of like connecting blocks together, like programming."
He graduates with a 3.97 GPA and the Lee Kuan Yew Award for excellence in Mathematics and Science. After NS, he will study Computer Science and Game Design at DigiPen Singapore, and hopes to later return to Daylight Studios, where he previously interned.
Mr Sim and Mr Tan were two of the nine award recipients at TP's graduation opening ceremony on Thursday morning (May 3). The graduates enter an "exciting career landscape infused with rapid technological changes", said principal and CEO Peter Lam.
"Change is rampant, and it's important to constantly update yourselves with knowledge not only of your domain, but also across other fields."
The opening ceremony, officiated by Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee, saw 270 students from the School of Design get Diplomas in Apparel Design & Merchandising, Digital Film & Television, Environment Design, Interior Architecture & Design, and Product & Industrial Design.
In reference to the Third Enabling Masterplan, which aims to empower persons with disabilities, Mr Lee appealed to the fresh graduates to use their designs to make Singapore a better place for people from all walks of life. "Think out of the box and push the boundaries in inclusive design," he encouraged. "You have the power to improve lives and shape the way people interact with their surroundings."
Over the next week, TP will hold graduation services for 5,645 students from 53 full-time courses and 28 part-time courses, including two pioneer cohorts of full-time courses and six pioneer cohorts of part-time courses. Among them will be Mr Sim, who is graduating on Friday (May 4), and Mr Tan, graduating on Monday (May 7).