Talking to the team behind Awkward Transitions

(This exclusive interview first appeared here on Domain of Singapore Tutoring Experts on 22 January 2014.)

Plagued by issues concerning whether to enroll in a Junior College or Polytechnic? Which consideration should come first, amount of daily traveling time incurred on the roads or quality of the school program offered? Interest versus practicality, which should take a back seat? These are commonplace questions every 'O' level graduate with a decent set of grades would inevitably face when choosing an institution to further their studies. A group of friends decided to create a one-stop online advice site which specifically consolidates answers and experiences relevant to the above mentioned dilemmas, hence the birth of Awkward Transitions. These busy youngsters have generously agreed to be interviewed about this non-profit project of theirs, so let's find out what's on their minds.

QN: Firstly, we would like to thank you guys for being here with us. How about getting started with a proper round of introductions? Who does what for the website?

ANS: Currently we are still building on our team to manage our website and operations. We are split into 2 teams currently, one being our core group of active volunteers and our ad-hoc group of volunteers (mentors/support).

Core team wise, Gao Xian (used to be from ACJC) would be the one starting the website from scratch and currently he's the one doing all the work for the website for the poly & JC part of the website. We are working with a few other individuals, currently Anita Chan from NAFA, Dong Jian Heng (Ah dong) from ITE to work on our website.

We have Hans Christian Leonardi (TP Aviation Management) working on the marketing committee and also as a polytechnic speaker for Awkward Transitions. We have Tan Jun Rui (SP IT )as a events support volunteer and polytechnic speaker. We have Pacy Tan (NP Film & Media Studies) and Ng Jing Li (NTU Art & Design) as the main graphic designers for our promotional efforts. Woo Qi Yun (SJI (I) ) is currently working with us on public relations and volunteer management(unconfirmed).

Our ad-hoc volunteering team consists of about 10 volunteers as of now, being support volunteers on our public outreach events or volunteers who are interested in providing online mentoring to students who may have difficulties choosing their course/subject/school.

QN: How did the conceptualization of such an initiative come about? Do we have any individual in particular to thank for?

ANS: A large majority of our volunteers are alumni from Jurongville Secondary School Class of 2010. We remain in contact with each other and Gao Xian realised that through his fellow classmates in secondary school, friends in JC and National Service, he came into contact with many people who made the wrong decisions after their secondary school education.

They generally fall into the various categories of choosing the wrong JC( due to different cultures), choosing the wrong subjects/subject combination (4H2s, decisions on whether to take up H3s), choosing JC and failing the A levels then moving on to poly, poly students who believe that they could do significantly better in JC( not used to the new system of grading on presentations instead of being graded mainly based on examinations), poly students who chose the wrong course(may it be school-wise/course-specific specialisations).

The initiative came about as Gao Xian recalled his transition to JC where his cousin, Kee Heng guided him along the process of choosing subjects and subject combinations and found it a great help. It was tough since he couldn't find any other source of information. (limited sources online & teachers and parents can't give much advice as it is usually outdated). He then approached his friends to start up a youth initiative to help our juniors to make sure that people don't fall into the trap of making wrong decisions, may it be school-wise, subject-wise, course-wise or lifestyle-wise(slacking too much in year 1, having a hard time to improve on a poor GPA).

QN: Is there any discernible difference between the information offered on your site and that on various online youth/academic-related discussion platforms/forums? How would you guys strive to make Awkward Transitions stand out from the crowd?

ANS: The clear difference would be that we believe that you need to have some general information on the institutions and how to make your decision in order to form a good foundation to ask questions about their future. While online youth/academic-related discussion platforms/forums answer questions and serve as somewhat a helpline for the students, they do not provide such information to let the students first have some idea of their future for them to form questions.

We strive to make ourselves different by providing a personal touch towards guiding others. We mentor students not just to make decisions between the educational institutions but throughout the whole process, till subject-specific/course-specific questions. We provide suitable alumni of the various courses to guide them through the path in that institution and would get back in touch with our clients after a few months of school(JC/Poly/Others) to make sure that they are doing fine in their various pathways.

We strongly encourage our clients to contribute back to Awkward Transitions by sharing with us their experiences in the future and how they managed to bridge that transition after their secondary school education. We hope to move on in the future to work with professional career counselors, life coaches and educational experts to improve our advice from informal to professional. Ultimately, we hope to make a difference to our community and hope to inspire others to do so too.

QN: Were things smooth-going whilst implementing Awkward Transitions? Any memorable challenges encountered during the publication process?

ANS: Definitely not the case.

We have met numerous obstacles along the way and thankfully surpassed them smoothly. Firstly, it was tough to get committed volunteers to support our project. We had to source our list of friends( thanks to Facebook) for support and information for us to fill them in our website. We had to build a core team of volunteers to work on Awkward Transitions for the project to move on to its next milestone(1st public outreach event etc.) While it wasn't easy finding volunteers and we are still sourcing for more volunteers along the way currently, we are pleased to have a basic team of efficient and committed volunteers working on publicity and our operations.

Secondly, we had a tough time sourcing for schools to run our programs. Given our young age and a complete lack of track record for Awkward Transitions, we had a hard time convincing schools that our talks and website would be useful to their students. We would like to thank our alma mater Jurongville Secondary School for providing us the opportunity to run talks and booths in the school and Bartley Secondary School for our first public outreach booth on the date of the release of the O level results. We hope that as we continue running our operations for different schools, we would be able to refine our talks and materials to make it more engaging and useful for our clients which would make it much easier to gain support from the various schools in Singapore.

QN: This is going to sound harsh, but readers would probably want to know: yes no doubt you guys have been through the system, however all of you are still rather young and some might therefore say unworldly since your experiences are probably confined to only personal ones. So what gives you guys the right to play "counselors" ?

ANS: We may not be professional conselors or career coaches, but having undergone the system, we would definitely be able to provide some useful details about our paths taken and highlight the various cases of students making the wrong decisions. To quote George Santayana, "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it." We hope that students could learn from the various "bad" and good examples and experiences that we provide so that they can avoid making wrong decisions.

We serve as a source of informal advice and information and we definitely cannot guarantee that our clients would definitely be able to find their most suitable and preferred pathway after secondary school through us. Just like how tuition centres cannot guarantee that their students can get straight As we try our best to help our clients find the pathway that they are most suitable for.

Though we may not be that professional, we believe that it is better to have a source of advice as guidance rather than having nothing at all. Being lost and unsure of what to do after secondary school is a horrible feeling and we have gone through that and we hope that we can help these students out during this stressful and transitioning period of their lives. We try our best to remove misguiding information but we cannot guarantee that our advice would be suitable for all students. We tell them what we know and wish the best for them. We hope to move on to giving more professional advice and hope that it would then be more accurate advice for the students in the future.

After all, we have to start from a point and we decided to make a difference. If the students can't find help(online sources,teachers, relatives,parents, friends are all not that helpful), they can always give Awkward Transitions a shot. Some useful advice from an alumni of that particular course definitely beats personal uninformed guesses. In economics, we live in a world of imperfect information, where the market fails as consumers do not have complete information on the product or service. This causes over/under- consumption in the various educational institutions such as JCs/Polys/Other institutions. What we hope to do is to improve on this situation and provide some information for the students to make INFORMED decisions for their future.

QN: We feel comparing Junior Colleges with Polytechnics is like comparing apples with oranges, however some students out there still never fail to bitch about which is "superior" -what is your take on this hotly debated issue? Is there even any plausible basis for comparison to begin with?

ANS: Both routes are feasible pathways to an "end" being entering an university. Our stand is very clear that although it would be technically "harder" to get into university through the poly route as there are much more university places reserved for JC students, both routes exist to cater to students who prefer different learning styles and methods. Polytechnics are also established mainly for the purpose of providing high-quality education to students for our workforce. We do not think any path is more "superior" than the other, since it brings you to the same spot(university course) at the end of the day and it is very competitive for students to enter local universities may the student be in the polytechnic or the JC route.

There are some ways to compare both ways, as shown on our website by comparing the costs and benefits and similarities and differences of the different pathways students can take after their secondary school education.

QN: The Singapore government is seeking to expand the number of students accepted into local universities annually with the refinement of the uniSIM model, as well as the opening of the relatively new Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) and Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD). Do you think such a move is strategically sensible, or will it instead dilute the worth of degrees attained down the road?

ANS: There is a very thin line between local and private universities. The technical difference would be that local universities receive some funding from the government and students get government subsidies to study in these institutions while private universities exist for profit and students may not be able to get any subsidy to study in these institutions.

The actual difference between the 2 would be the perception of the public about the quality of graduates from the local and private universities. Given that local university courses are much more competitive and have a stricter admissions criteria(since students get substantial subsidies), it is perceived that a large majority of local university graduates are of a higher calibre than private university graduates.

We take a stand that a graduate's worth is not just by the degree but more of a person's achievement and skills. It is strategically sensible to encourage more students to go for further learning if that improves the productivity of the person and contributes to the economy more efficiently. The new universities such as SUTD exist in a complementary manner rather than being competitive. SUTD provides a unique combination of engineering and design as compared to the other universities in Singapore and they are targeting a specific group of students in Singapore. Similarly, SIT caters to polytechnic graduates who may not be able to get to other local universities.

Students pursue degrees for many different reasons may it be for the economical benefits or to gain more knowledge on the subject. We don't think that it would dilute the worth of degrees since the universities such as SUTD are targeting a completely different group of students as compared to the other universities. SIT-wise, it would largely depend on the individual. As mentioned, if a private university graduate can convince his or her employer that he or she is on par with or better than a local university graduate, he or she would do much better than the local university graduate given our meritocratic system.

However, we admit that there is a strong stigma and prejudice against private university graduates and our society has a strong stereotype that private university graduates are mostly of low calibre and wouldn't not be able to contribute well towards their company/organisation unlike local university graduates. What we need would be more private university graduates stepping up and showing society what they are made of, given that they could possibly be late bloomers in life.

QN: Your future intentions for Awkward Transitions? Any grand plans already set in motion?

ANS: We hope to guide students and provide advice on other topics such as scholarship applications, appeal processes, direct admission or special admission exercises. We hope to add in career-building skills such as resume writing, interview skills, workplace skills etc. to help our students in managing their future. We hope to work with professional career and life coaches and counselors to provide professional advice to our clients.

Currently, we are working with a few schools to develop talks and materials for their students to help students in their decision-making process and to excel in the various pathways they have chosen through the guidance of a mentor. We hope to "charge" schools and ask for donations from students in the future to cover our marketing costs and hope to donate the rest of our funds to the Straits Times Pocket Money Fund (still deciding on which charity) to be able to make a tangible contribution towards the needy and disadvantaged students in our community.

QN: How about some final words from you guys?

ANS: We would like to thank Domain of Singapore Tutoring Experts for featuring us and taking time to have this interview with us. We hope that we would get more support from schools and if you are interested in volunteering with Awkward Transitions and make the world a better place by helping students have less regrets and make informed decisions, contact us at

It was definitely fun chatting with you guys; at this point we sincerely wish each and every one of you the best in your future personal endeavors. Also, may Awkward Transitions continue to thrive, so that fewer students will find themselves in awkward territory as they embark upon an entirely new phase of their academic lives. Good luck!