As City College turns 13 this year, City News Weekly talks to some of its graduates about what this most unusual school has done for them.
One incident that left a permanent impact on Matthew Chua’s life was “the day [my teacher] Ms Selena See tore up my cigarettes and told me to stop wasting my life away. She told me I could do better.”
Today, 10 years since he graduated from private school City College, Chua has done better. From being a boy who failed his GCE ‘O’ Levels, Chua, now a public servant, learned to focus and maintain a positive attitude, two attributes that have helped him succeed in life.
Chua’s story is an inspiring one, but it is by no means the only such story to come out of City College. Set up in 2002, City College has built a solid reputation as a school of second chances for ‘O’ Level students who wish to retake the examinations as private candidates. Year after year, the mainstream media feature the school’s successes—graduates with five ‘O’ Levels distinctions and former Normal Technical students who enter Law School, among them. City College routinely outperforms other private schools in its students’ results.
The distinctive difference City College seems to possess is its unique environment built by its teaching staff, who believe that each student has the desire to excel in life, and that the school must not only impart academic knowledge, but build up life and leadership skills by emphasizing on excellence, ingenuity, integrity and service.
This “formula” has worked for generations of City College graduates, including Gloria Wong Yi Shan, 28, a production coordinator for Chinese dramas at MediaCorp Studios. Wong, who graduated in 2004, came to City College after scoring a total of 30 points for L1R4. “I could not even make it to some of the courses in ITE (Institutes of Technical Education), much less Polytechnic. That was when reality really hit. I was lost and completely clueless at that point,” she recalls. Despite financial difficulties at home and her own lack of knowledge.
She credits her teachers’ unwavering attention, patience and encouragement that built her confidence up slowly. “Their creativity in teaching helped to capture my attention and also made subjects easier for me to absorb and learn. And having our teachers sending us individually to our exams hall during our ‘O’ Level period was one of the sweetest and most encouraging things they did!”
Andy Tay, 26, is currently a second year Electrical Engineering major at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), which was set up in collaboration with the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has a small, handpicked student population. Today’s reality would have seemed an impossible dream when he entered City College in 2007 after his fourth ‘N’ Levels year at a mainstream school. “At that point in time I wanted to leave secondary school so badly because of the negative environment I was facing that I enrolled for ITE. After four days I was so disheartened, I decided to withdraw from ITE to pursue music as a career but was told I needed three ‘O’ Level credits.”
Like Wong, Tay experienced the transforming care of the City College teachers. “The teachers had paramount significance in laying the foundation for my academic success and nurturing me into who I am today,” he says. “City College gave me opportunities to grow my creativity and thinking skills. I believe it was my experience with the Luoyang Youth Expedition Program that made a real impact on me. It reminded me of how fortunate I was and triggered my thought process on how I can help those needy children.”
The greatest lesson he learned at the school, says Tay, was to “see people not as who they are, but as who they can become … I finally understood why the teachers are so passionate and caring: they believe that every student in City College has the potential to grow and touch many lives.”
An aircrew member with Scoot, Jacqueline Lim graduated from City College in 2010. A self-professed rebel who nearly wound up in a reformative institute for girls for “block-shopping” (“stealing anything that was placed outside the homes of those living in HDB flats”), Lim neglected her studies and failed her ‘O’ Levels.
“I remember once I didn’t do very well in one of the test and ‘O’ Levels were just two to three weeks away. Instead of stressing me about how badly I did for the test, Ms Selena, our chemistry teacher, stayed back with me and the others till almost 11pm to make sure we understood every single question on the test. She’d been teaching since morning. I was so touched by her love for her students. I wondered why would she even do this for us?’”
Chen Jianwei, 32, was one of City College’s first students.He had come from a school where he was labelled incorrigible by his teachers, and even his father had low expectations of him. Suffering self-doubt and a fear of failure, Chen nevertheless took up the chance to try again. “I had to unlearn my mainstream way of studying,” he said. “I had to embrace new methods, which were to understand what I was studying.” From a single digit score for Principles of Accounting, Chen scored over 80 marks at ‘O’ Levels. Today, Chen is the founder of SaberMach, a company that specialises in making movie precision props such as illuminated lightsabers.
Oon Sok Hoon, 29, a bank teller with MayBank, struggled with her studies but obtained her ‘O’ Level certificate after three years at City College, enabling her to fulfill her dream of pursuing a diploma in Chinese education. “I was about to give up but the teachers were very encouraging and supportive. Mathematics was my worst subject and Mr Koh and Ms Jasmine guided us along very well and provided us with after-class tuition. City College has a very different teaching environment and caring teachers.”
Chen has referred six friends to City College and “none of them have regretted the decision to go. I told them this is not like other private schools—the teachers are amazing and the learning environment is unmatched. If you do your part and come to class, you will do well for your ‘O’ levels. The life skills and attitudes imparted alone are worth your time and fees.”
“Society taught me that second chances don’t come easy,” says Lim, “but City College is truly a place for people who are seeking a second chance. It’s okay to be different, it’s okay to be ordinary. Rough diamonds may sometimes be mistaken for worthless pebbles. But at City College, the teachers don’t look at you that way. They see you as a gem that is waiting to be discovered.”
City College offers a nine-month intensive preparatory course for GCE ‘O’ Levels. To find out more, go to www.citycollege.edu.sg