Monday, August 13, 2007

How I Managed to Fund Myself through University

University had never been a planned stop in my life. Mostly, I had already consigned myself to live the life of just another worker drone in Singapore just like everybody else, after finishing my military conscription. That would be the responsible thing to do, given that my mother had single-handedly supported me through my life till polytechnic for almost 20 years. It was my time to go out and start working for the household.

Comparatively, life wasn't as dire than the more distant past anymore, given that brother had worked for more than a couple of years already. He had also been saving up the remaining of his salary, so that he could fulfil his dream of going to university. Because his grades didn't permit him to enroll locally, he had set himself to go to Australia to pursue his degree.

During the course of his research in deciding which university to go, through sheer luck, he discovered that the university that I would ultimately end up attending had offered a full scholarship to top graduands from polytechnics and technical institutions in both Singapore and Malaysia.

I thought that it wouldn't have hurt to try, at least just for the 'vindication' of being considered to be 'an elite' if I was offered a scholarship. It was something for fun, given that I had a hell of no chance to study there even if I wanted to. I had no money to pay for my living expenses, had no extended family for help [which I'll write about why that's so in the future], and nothing as collateral to take a loan for, given that our apartment was just a 1-bedroom rental.

It was a surprise that I had qualified and was awarded with the scholarship. It would have been quite competitive, given that there were only so many scholarships that were spread between applicants across all the different institutions from Malaysia and Singapore. While it was a pleasant surprise, nonetheless, in itself had posed a real dilemma for me. Should I go, or not?

At least time was probably the one good thing I had when I was in the army: There were plenty to go around in deliberating on my options. Even so, it was still the reassurance from mom that had tipped my decision.

"Go", she said, "I had already supported you for so many years. Another few years of hardship will not have amounted to any much more in comparison. Besides, having brother to go with you will help defray the costs a bit."

That had left securing a loan as the last hurdle I had to cross. My 'uncle' (no blood relations, just a good friend of mum ever since when I was 10) had heard the good news and offered to seek a loan from his 'sister-in-law' (again, no blood relation to him, as it was his brother-in-law's wife from a re-marriage, when his own sister died of cancer sometime before), who were much better off relative to all those we knew, and might have a little more to offer in terms of financial assistance.

So the day came when my uncle made the arrangement for all of us to meet. I still remember vividly that evening where uncle had offered to drive us there in his taxi to meet his 'sister-in-law', which was at their nicely furnished condominium in a district around town. I was rather apprehensive about the meeting, and my head was filled with thoughts on being on my best behaviour, and on how best to convey my situation to them. But my initial fears were quickly dissolved when they turned out to be such great, wonderful people.

Uncle had already briefed them about my financial situation and our family past, and they had only wanted to meet us and chat up in person before writing out the cheque. It was almost surreal to encounter such generosity in my life, been so used to none at all, given that I had lived all my life in a country where 'welfare' is a dirty word.

That night, Auntie Linette and Uncle Riccardo wrote me a cheque for $20,000 (split between my brother and me), without an IOU, with an indefinite period for repayment and without any interest to repay. It had been one of the most touching moments of my life, for that was first time someone had showed such generosity, faith and trust in us, especially so when it came from total strangers I had only met just minutes ago.

With that $10,000 dollars in loan, a week after my disruption from army, I was on a plane to Sydney, travelling for my first time in life to a far-away land. While the next few years though university wasn't easy, and I had to constantly find ways and means to supplement living costs ($10,000 would not even have covered for the first year of expenses for most people) but it was probably the best years that I ever had.

In a number of other fortuitous turns I had during my time in university, I was able to secure a well paying job prior to completing my studies, and to earn enough money to repay them the loan within 6 months after graduation, at a 25% return on interest. However, they declined to take that excess money and opted for a simple meal at a family restaurant instead.

It is remarkable that life can sometimes turn in weird and unexpected ways, where luck can fall on you when you are least expecting it, against whatever odds that may have felt insurmountable. This is probably not the most typical story of finding success in life, but I do wish my story can give hope to those who wants to try, to take heart in believing, and that it can be yours if you work hard for it.


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