Jia Min, 22 and Miao Yu, 23 are studying psychology and social work at the Singapore Management University and the National University of Singapore respectively, and they have just finished a 2-month internship with us today. Both had wanted the experience of community work and when they first got here, they received the brief to better understand how we may support youth aged 18 to 25 with their employment. The task was daunting as they imagined reaching out to people often described as ‘youth-at-risk’ whom they pictured to be boisterous at best and if not, downright rude and aggressive. However, now that they have spoken with 50 youth, it is a very different picture they take away.
Maintaining strong family relationships, acquiring new skills and a successful career were 3 main life goals of those they met. While 50% have care-giving responsibilities at home, they go about them dutifully and with much grace. A 24-year old shared that his parents always believed in him even though he dropped out of school at 15. He was not failing but did not find the experience fulfilling. So, he started helping his mother in the kitchen and developed a passion for Cantonese cuisine. Now, as a chef, he is the main breadwinner and proud that he can provide for his parents. Having lived in the same neighbourhood all his life, he realises that his father has a good relationship with many neighbours and he would be happy to conduct a cooking lesson for those interested.
A 21-year-old who had just graduated with a diploma in fashion design is looking to take on the next retail job that comes by so that she can start saving for a decent sewing machine that will help her build a portfolio for the fashion industry. She also dreams of working with an online business to access markets outside Singapore because she has observed that Singaporeans mainly like their clothes in black and white. Having a sewing machine would also be ideal for her family in the sense that she can do the artistic stuff while mom sews.
Jia Min and Miao Yu tell us that they view neighbourhoods very differently now. When they see housing blocks they wonder who lives there because this experience has brought them into contact with youth whose life experiences and situations seem to have given them priorities and perspective well beyond their age. While they were initially apprehensive about visiting the youth at home, they started looking forward to knocking on the next door after their first day. They realised that behind every door is someone with an interesting life story and talents waiting to be shared. The value of a neighbourhood is not just in the price of the property but the aspirations of its residents and the lives they endeavour to build for themselves and each other.
My colleagues and I are deeply gratefully for the many interns that work alongside us all year round. Their presence makes work lighter and challenges us to be encouraging mentors who know our subject well. I must admit that we don’t always remember what we say to them, so we were much cheered when Miao Yu said, “There is one thing I must tell you. It was scary but one of the first things you guys said was, ‘You will be thrown in the deep-end but don’t worry because the community will not let you drown.’ I hung on to that and it turned out to be true.”
Enjoy your weekend.
Empathy is the most mysterious transaction that the human soul can have, and it’s accessible to all of us, but we have to give ourselves the opportunity to identify, to plunge ourselves in a story where we see the world from the bottom up or through another’s eyes or heart. – Sue Monk Kidd