I stepped into the Student Support Services Department office. After getting all the necessary signatures and stamps, the last step to complete the whole procedure was to submit the form, together with the endorsed testimony, to the office, and I would have officially ended my days as an undergraduate student.
I walked back to my room (to pack all my belongings and leave the university); I recalled the years spent in the university that I would have never thought of ending up in. All those years that eventually lead up to the day I would submit the “Completion of Studies” form had been bittersweet.
It was never my intention to become a civil engineer anyway. If there had been anything that I could have done well, it had always been music. I had scored distinctions for every graded piano exam but one; my Grade 8 exam results were the best, with 143 out of 150 for my practical examination. I even succeeded in my Diploma in Music a year after I did my Grade 8. I had been performing in various programmes and I loved doing it. If there was an ideal job for me, it was to become a professional musician.
“No, you will not do music. It brings you no future,” said one.
“That’s right. You’re better off studying medicine, becoming a doctor, just like your uncle and your cousins! It’s a stable source of income, and it’s good money!” said another.
“But I have absolutely no interest in medicine,” came the protest.
“Enough! Anything but music.”
I was crushed. But what could a fifteen-year-old (yes, quite early to be talking about career opportunities, right?) do at that time?
So, I got into Form 4 and tried to find out more about accountancy; I could see myself as an accountant as I was good at mathematics. I was also interested in everything about genetics, so I tried looking up for information about geneticists. None of them posed a long-term passion that I could hope to cultivate.
At the same time, I was still very much absorbed in my world of music. I would continue to sharpen my performing skills, and would often be showered with remarks like, “Don’t spend too much time on the piano,” “Focus on your studies. The piano is just a hobby,” etc. I have never been discouraged by such remarks. In fact, I was all the more determined to better myself in my performance technique.
Form 5 came, and I knew that I had little time to consider my future career options. I made up my mind not to take up medicine, even if it meant putting myself at a risk of being disowned (a little too rebellious, on hindsight). Without any support for my desire to go into the field of arts, and without an extensive amount of knowledge of the other careers that might interest me, I fell into despair and disbelief.
And then, one day, “You’re good at mathematics and physics. You should consider becoming a civil engineer,” my teacher said.
Become a civil engineer? I had hardly any idea what civil engineers did, except that they built houses and roads (serious misconception, really). Here was something that I could perhaps relate to in terms of the things that I have learnt. If my parents could not agree to me becoming a musician, surely they would not object to coming to a point of compromise: me becoming an engineer in the future. In any case, that was better than having myself end up in a medical school.
I did not know that my university had a civil engineering degree programme until I was asked by the senior assistant of the school to apply for a sponsorship offered by the country’s national oil company. Eager to seal off my parents’ hopes of seeing me in a medical school, I applied for the sponsorship, knowing perfectly well that I would also be sealing off my stage days. I was fully determined to show that I would decide my career path and how I want to lead my life in the future.
My application was successful and upon completion of my SPM studies, I started a new phase of life in a university just 35 kilometres away from my home in Ipoh. My Foundation year was a breeze–a walkthrough of what I had done in secondary school. Then came my first undergraduate year, which turned into hell almost immediately.
I was lost in the subjects teaching about fundamental civil engineering concepts. I was told to remember the procedures for “Method of Joints” and “Method of Sections”, but I could not connect them to real-life situations in the civil engineering industry. Why do I have to learn all this? Why is this member in tension when the other is in compression? Why do I have to learn about rocks and minerals? What is all this long mathematical formula that I have to use and for what purpose I have to use it?
Although I scored a CGPA of 3.90 out of 4.00 in my Foundation studies, I scored a miserable 3.49 and 3.21 GPA for my first and second semesters respectively. I was dejected–a poor start to your academic programme can spell disaster in the following years! I carried on with my studies, and found myself dealing with bitumen, concrete, soil mechanics, etc. Again, I was no good at those subjects, but then I found a saviour.
Although I was no good with structures, soil mechanics and highway engineering, I excelled in subjects related to environmental engineering (water and wastewater engineering). I thought, perhaps I could consider going into the field of environmental engineering in the future. However, the idea of seeing myself dealing with water treatment and waste management was a prospect that was not very much to my liking. I desired challenge. Although structures were not areas of my strength, I decided that I wanted to do something about it. I wanted to take up the challenge of untying the knots which I had always found to be difficult. I wanted to persist as though my life depended on untying those knots.
So, I went to the national oil company to do my industrial training there. I was placed in the Civil and Structural Engineering section, so I knew I was in the right place. The engineers there showed me how the theories in my first and second-year studies applied. Finally, I understood what was taught to me and I was delighted that I had managed to relate my studies with industrial practices. My site visits to fabrication yards with the engineers strengthened my understanding of structures, and there was so much more to learn–things that I had never seen before in my life.
After my 32-week mandatory industrial training, I returned to my university, feeling much happier and enlightened. In order to assess my own understanding of structures, I decided to take up a final-year project in the area of structures. For the two semesters of my final-year project, I got an A- (first semester) and an A (second semester) for the project. I wrote and presented a research paper for my project, and won two awards: Best Paper and Best Speaker. Those were perhaps the highlights of my student life. Although my project may have lacked novelty, as compared to my friends’ projects, I hold on to my work with pride, and I treasure the thesis that I have produced.
Now, although I still have a steaming passion for music, I have decided to pursue my postgraduate studies in civil engineering, even though it almost killed my interest. Working under a prolific lecturer whose character and knowledge inspire students, I am confident that I did not choose the wrong career path. I feel blessed that even in the darkest times, I took the onerous task of learning right from the beginning again (while others were already so far ahead of me). The initiative paid off, and hatred turned into love.
Even now as I tutor first year students in Engineering Mechanics (a subject which I scored a C+ back then), I cannot help but smile at the irony of things. Knowing what I had gone through in my early years, I am now determined to ensure that students today do not go through what I had experienced, keeping in mind that these students may not be pursuing their desired course, just like me. It is not so much about the theories, it is also about ensuring that students can see things from a practical point of view, and that they can understand the concepts perfectly well. If this is the path that they have chosen and are struggling to build a passion for it, I hope that I can play a part in developing that passion, rather than watching them spend years searching for it.
But, God willing, if I have children in the future, I vow that they should not go through the dilemma that I faced as a fifteen-year-old. If my son wants to be a professional chef, so be it!
Henry Yew is currently pursuing postgraduate studies in Texas Tech University. His Environmental Engineering professor (back in Malaysia) told him twice: “Do your Master’s and your PhD there, and then, if I am still working here, come back here. We need good lecturers.” He could only smile.