Undergraduate's group gives less fortunate students a leg-up

Volunteer team helps provide access to office tours, career workshops, work attachments

Northbrooks Secondary School principal Nick Chan (left) doing a mock interview with Secondary 3 student Ding Zhao Yang in a workshop organised by Access. The group's pilot run in June involved 19 students.
Northbrooks Secondary School principal Nick Chan (left) doing a mock interview with Secondary 3 student Ding Zhao Yang in a workshop organised by Access. The group's pilot run in June involved 19 students. PHOTO: ACCESS

Mr Clarence Ching was thousands of kilometres away in Britain last year studying political studies at Durham University when a debate on inequality and social mobility erupted across Singapore.

The former Normal (Academic) student, 24, found himself drawn to the discussions in Singapore.

"All the policymakers and academics were talking about inequality, but no one from the lower academic streams was talking or coming up with solutions," he said.

After some thought and research, and based on his own experience as a student, he decided while he was overseas to start Access to "bridge the gap", by building a team of 20 core volunteers and flying back to Singapore every few months.

Access, which will be registered as a non-profit organisation by October, gives secondary school students from disadvantaged backgrounds access to office tours, career workshops and short attachments with companies. It is working on providing a pool of mentors for these students.

Mr Ching, who holds a diploma in business and social enterprise from Ngee Ann Polytechnic, said he had taken an interest in issues surrounding inequality and the less fortunate during his volunteer work in the Kreta Ayer-Kim Seng area for close to a decade.

"The youth get stuck in a vicious circle of poverty. While their parents go out to earn what they can, the children end up with the same education level as their parents, and end up in the same jobs," he said.

Part of giving these underprivileged young people a chance to succeed is to equip them with resources and social capital, he said. "And the community has to play a role in uplifting them."

Disadvantaged students face a "social capital gap", or a lack of access to networks and opportunities that arise from being better off, said the former Fairfield Methodist School (Secondary) student, whose father is an adjunct university lecturer and mother is a secondary school teacher.

Access' pilot run in June involved a group of 19 students - mostly in Secondary 3 - from Northbrooks Secondary School and Sembawang Secondary School. About half of them were on financial assistance.

In the first week, they attended workshops on interview skills conducted by human resource executives, spoke to working professionals and visited several offices, including those of social media company SGAG and creative agency DDB Group Singapore.

They spent the second week on a company attachment, where they were given some exposure to work, mainly in the creative media sector.

Mr Ching said nearly 20 companies - from the media, technology and healthcare sectors - have expressed interest to host students, and he is looking for more. "A lot of corporations want to do good but don't know how, and teachers are usually focused on the classroom curriculum, and may not have the networks," he said.

Mr Ching is planning a second pilot session at the end of the year and hopes to reach out to students from less well-known junior colleges. He is also in the midst of applying for the National Youth Council's National Youth Fund, which supports ground-up initiatives.

He will be back in Singapore for good after graduating next July and plans to carry on his work with Access with a full-time team.

Mr Nick Chan, principal of Northbrooks Secondary, said it chose 10 students - most of whom were from the Normal stream - for the stint with Access in June, based on their potential to do well.

"We deliberately wanted to expose students who would not have this sort of opportunities to the industry. For all of them, it was their first time stepping into an office."

Secondary 3 student Javier Tan, 15, who was attached to DDB Group Singapore, said it was an eye-opening experience to see how the advertising industry works. He was tasked with checking competitors' advertisements for a client and suggesting improvements.

His schoolmate, Muhammad Ariff Mohammed, also 15, who joined social media start-up Successpedia Asia, said he learnt a bit more about video editing, one of his hobbies. "I also learnt how to overcome my fear of being in front of the camera and being interviewed," he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 13, 2019, with the headline Undergraduate's group gives less fortunate students a leg-up. Subscribe