SMU alumna Ivy Wong's take on school, happiness and beyond

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

Who is Ivy Wong? Well, put it simply, she is a bubbly, beautiful and extremely intelligent young lady who recently graduated from the Singapore Management University (SMU). We first came to know about her through the blog she started last year to share about her personal experiences in school and dispensing advice regarding various affairs ranging from the academic (bidding for modules) to the gastronomic (foodie reviews of eating places on campus). Understandably, she is rather swarmed with various responsibilities as a fresh full- time working adult, however she was still game for a chat (plus a little yakking) with us.

QN: Hi there Ivy, congratulations on your newly minted status as a bona fide university graduate. As we know, you recently also completed an internship program at your alma mater as part of the requirements stipulated by a study award given to you, and are now employed in the public service. How does working life compare to studying in school?

ANS: I’m not going to lie, I miss University life immensely! Personally, the biggest difference between working (as an employee) and studying is that I no longer have the luxury of planning my own time. For better or for worse, I have to spend my 9 to 5 (or rather, 9 to 6.30+) in the office, regardless of whether I am productive or not. Nevertheless, I cannot be a student forever, so I am trying to embrace the routine and plan my social life around it.

QN: What exactly is your current job scope? Were the skills/knowledge acquired in university relevant to what you are doing st the moment?

ANS: I’m in the Corporate Communication department for one of the Ministries. In brief, we communicate government-related information and find the best ways to engage with the public.

Were the skills I learned in University relevant? Well, they are supposed to be, but my Public Relations Professor is going to be so pissed at me, because I appear to have a hard time recalling most of it. The classroom is a very sheltered environment, and it is very different to make an error in class versus an error at work. In the former, you affect only your GPA (which probably seems like a big deal to current students), but making errors at work would have real consequences on the reputation of your company (definitely more stressful). I am grateful that my bosses are willing to be patient with me as I am learning on-the-job.

QN: You majored in Corporate Communications and Operations.Sounds really hip yet sophisticated at the same time-what exactly do you learn about in school? What type of student in your opinion would be most suited to pursue such a degree?

ANS: I took Operations for fun because I enjoyed learning about what makes an organization work. Do you know there were mathematical formulae that could help me determine the optimum time to produce something? I knew I was not going to work full-time in Operations though- there were much better people for the job.

I loved Communications because it is fundamentally about relationships. How you build and maintain positive relationships through effective communications and various platforms. I personally feel that extroverts have a natural edge with delivering the messages, so at least in school, outspoken people tend to excel at Corp Comm modules. That said, introverts have an advantage in listening carefully and pick out what the audience is saying, and that has a real impact in actual practice.

QN: Let's wind the clock back all the way. 4 years ago, I am pretty certain most capable fresh 'A' Level students like yourself would have received offers from various universities such as NUS and NTU to join them. What made you choose SMU in the end?

ANS: SMU was my first choice since I was 16, when I heard about this local university with its now-famous pedagogy. I learned the most from class participation and not from lectures, and I enjoyed giving presentations. In other words, I knew it was a fit from the start.

QN: Obviously you never regretted making that decision, as evidenced from the largely happy, positive reflections you have placed in this blog of yours about breathing and living SMU. If there was one thing that truly made you feel blessed having studied there, what would it be?

ANS: That I was given space, opportunities and encouragement to grow into my fullest potential. Although there were opportunities in my previous schools, I was too far behind to deserve any of them. SMU was a new start and a brilliant fit. Would I have been able to achieve my fullest potential at NUS or NTU? Maybe, but it’s hard to say, as the campus, people, and learning experience would have been entirely different. It was a combination of all these factors that allowed me to thrive, but I would admit it’s not for everyone.

QN: We have heard scary tales of how Kiasu SMU students really are, from turning up ridiculously early in the morning to secure the best seats in the lecture theatres* to spending days on a project in school without returning home, not forgetting the overnights spent in the library by the feverishly mugger types. Is there any truth to these stereotypes portrayed? Are you also guilty as charged?

ANS:(*There are no lecture theatres, so I think you meant the library.) They are true to some extent, but it’s always a matter of choice. The library has limited space, so if someone desires their favourite spot they have to turn up early to secure them. As for overnight projects, as far as I know they are usually for Information Systems modules, which I have limited experience with.

It is true that as an SMU student, we would witness a lot of our peers working very hard and putting in long hours at the library and in projects. Sometimes, we might even hear of people who spoil the market and set up tents in the library. But we should also question ourselves- what are these people studying so hard for, and do I want to join in? Is staying overnight really the best way for me to learn? Just because the library is open for 24/7, do I need to be there 24/7?

For me, I had worked from 8am to 10pm before, with frequent breaks. But that is my choice, because I took pride in excelling in academics. It was never because my peers were doing the same. But I have had juniors telling me they feel stressed out because everyone seemed so competitive. My advice to them is- run your own race. Put in your best at work. If you find yourself in a group project with members who have very high expectations, voice out your concerns at the start. It’s good to push yourself, but not at the risk of your health, your sanity and your learning.

QN: A fellow SMU graduate wrote this rant in 2012: Truth about Singapore Management University: Elitist, muggerish and overcompetitive . How would you respond to his declared set of "unpleasant experiences" ?

ANS: The writer sounds very self-defeating, and the article is ridden with over-generalisations and several untruths. Several of the comments pointed out that the writer appears to have a victim mentality, and I agree with that. The only sentence I agree with is that SMU is not a school for everyone- just like how other universities, local or overseas, is not for everyone. Nevertheless, I hope anyone who is also going through a tough time in SMU can be mature enough to give a more balanced testimony of the school than this article. I mean, come on, he/she’s not 14 years old anymore…

QN: Regardless, at the end of the day, it seems that SMU has been very successful in producing graduates who are more marketable and socially savvy than their peers from other varsities, which is probably why almost all of every graduating SMU batch till date have secured viable employment by the time they leave school. How strongly would you attest to that?

ANS: It’s probably true that our confidence gets us through the interviews with a higher success rate. However, once we are on the job, we are still expected to deliver, and from then on it really depends whether you fit the organization. If I may make a generalization, our tendency to ask a lot of questions may be valued in some organizations, but not appreciated in others. So don’t get too cocky about securing a job, observe the work environment and find out which is the best way to contribute.

QN: You cried buckets during your Student Exchange program in Switzerland. You also talked about how you felt guilty spending your mum's money to travel to places which she have never been to, and will probably never see in her lifetime. Hopefully you have recovered and grown stronger since? What are some of the finer points taken away from this trip you would like to articulate to juniors looking forward to spending a semester in Europe or some other far flung continent?

ANS: What an unflattering description of that episode, haha! But yes, I have survived it and I am happy to tell my story. My advice to juniors is still: Go for exchange if you can afford it. There is no other experience like it (unless you get posted overseas for work). However, be prepared for unpleasant experiences. Your peers would only post about the good stuff on social media, and any evidence of homesickness, if posted at all, would be filtered by VSCOcam and an inspiring quote. Hopefully, you would be like the majority who enjoyed all of exchange. But if you find yourself in fact feeling terrible in a foreign place, don’t worry that there is something wrong. It happens, it’s normal, and you can overcome it.

QN: Many are about to embark on a new phase of their life as they matriculate into university. Before getting all settled down properly with never-ending lectures, tutorials and projects, its about knowing new faces, fun and games during this period of initiation. What do you recall about your days as a freshman this time 4 years ago? What is your opinion of the recent news reported about the alleged lewdness of NUS orientation camp activities?

ANS: I recalled signing up for 4 camps because somebody advised me that it was where to make friends. While it was useful to know a few faces before joining school, eventually most of my close friends came from my CCA. 4 camps was a little too much and I was burnt out; so to juniors, it would be good to just join 2 camps.

I don’t get the lewdness of NUS and NTU camps, and for that matter some of the close contact activities for SMU camps as well. To a certain extent, it is entertaining for juniors to challenge their comfort zones. But after a certain point, it just becomes perverted.

QN: A school is never truly a whole without good food. Where within or in the vicinity of SMU's premises would you suggest undergraduates to check out for some real awesome fare?

ANS: There’s the usual places like Waterloo Street, Kopitiam and Koufu for daily fare… The Bak Chor Mee at Bras Basah Complex food court is not bad too! But I’m not the best person to ask, students should check out for their recommendations! I hope they would bring back student-run cafes as well.

QN: A very personal question which is asked only because you are quite the babe. Guys out there are dying to know: are you still available on the market? Or your heart now belongs to some lucky chap?

ANS: Lol, sorry boys, I’m happily attached.

QN: You mentioned you would be penning thoughts to your blog on an extremely infrequent basis from now onwards given you have graduated; what would you plan to write about in future updates ?

ANS: Most probably the occasional Q&As, and about life after graduation. Seems a bit silly to blog about the past, isn’t it? I would probably blog from the perspective of an alumnus.

QN: What do you envision yourself doing a decade from now? Any lofty personal dreams you hope to fulfil?

ANS: Yes, I’d like to come back and work for SMU. It’d be nice to be known as Prof Ivy, but I would see where is the best area to contribute when the time comes.

QN: As we wrap up this interview, any parting words of advice to our readers, especially the teens preparing for their 'O' and 'A' Levels?

ANS: That post-'O' or 'A' Levels is going to be easier, only because you’ve gotten stronger. Believe in yourself and try to be grateful for every day.

Thank you for being such a doll all this while and providing such lovely answers; we have absolute confidence you will go far in life with that infectious optimism and humility within yourself. Wishing you and your family the best of health and good fortune for many years to come! :)

Thank you guys, you’ve been the most patient bunch while I’ve dealt with adjusting to work!