Students get up close and personal with Straits Times writers

Students got personal at the second of six campus talks leading up to the inaugural Straits Times-Ministry of Education National Current Affairs Quiz.

Discussing their future in education with Straits Times veterans, they went beyond the topic of whether university degrees would lead to a better life, and addressed topics such as values learning, meritocracy, even dealing with parental pressures.

The exclusive 90-minute session at Nanyang Junior College (NYJC) on Wednesday began with a presentation by ST senior writer Sandra Davie.

She spoke about the importance of a degree, whether more or less university places are needed for Singapore, and what local universities have done to differentiate themselves from the rest.

When she asked the audience who wanted to go to university, almost the whole hall of 850 first-year students raised their hands.

The Straits Times' Schools programme editor Serene Goh then spoke about the globalisation of the local university, and how universities now offer not just a degree, but a lifestyle, a brand, and networks needed for life after graduation.

The question-and-answer session that followed veered into topics close to the hearts of the audience. And while students posed questions regarding changes that should be made to the junior college system, and whether a cash reward for practising good values was the way forward, among others, Ms Davie and Ms Goh had some hard questions for them too.

Ms Davie asked the audience: 'What sort of a person do you want to be when you complete your junior college education? What skills and knowledge do you need to prepare for university?'

In response to a question from Jamen Tan, 17, on whether values should be taught in schools or at home, Ms Goh asked him: 'How resilient would you be if you took a very important exam and failed it miserably?'

His candid response: 'I have. The first time I took my O level Chinese exam, I didn't do well, but I picked myself up and recovered from my trauma,' to laughter from his schoolmates.

Ms Goh noted: 'This is the difference between you and typical students in the United States - if they failed a subject, it wouldn't be traumatic for them ... You can shape your own response to setbacks, not just your teachers.'

Later during the session, Low Wei Yang, 16, quipped: 'We are unfortunate as this education system drives us down a certain fixed pathway.' When Ms Davie queried him on why he could not break out of it, he replied: 'There's not many opportunities for me to do so. If I wanted to set up a business of my own, my parents would be totally against it.'

Ms Davie noted afterward: 'Many students have to live up to their parents' expectations, instead of being allowed to discover where their interests and passion lie. They are also concerned with a narrow definition of success.'

Wednesday's talk was part of The Straits Times' efforts to engage pre-university institutions in discussion on their burning questions. At the same time, the broadsheet is running a series of primers on current affairs topics every Friday.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education is providing teaching resources on these topics that General Paper (GP) teachers can use in classroom discussions.

The talks, articles and lessons address current events issues - including sports, education, politics and science - and will culminate in the Straits Times-MOE National Current Affairs Quiz - or The Big Quiz - in July and August. Competing teams will face off in a general knowledge showdown. Teams from 23 pre-university institutions - including junior colleges, the Millennia Institute, and the School of the Arts - are expected to participate.

For now, though, a General Paper exam next week is first and foremost on NYJC students' minds. The talks are good ammunition for the exam, said Wei Yang and schoolmate Ker Wei Xiang, 16. Said the latter: 'The speakers covered a lot of things not normally covered in GP lessons.'

Additional reporting by Linette Lai