Katherine Tay decided to study Sustainable Urban Design at Poly after her N-Levels. But when that didn’t seem like her ideal choice, she wasn’t afraid to go in another direction. Along the way, came useful insights and experiences.
Would you take the highway (i.e. fastest route) to get to a destination, or would you take a longer road that’s more scenic? Katherine Tay, a first-year student at National University of Singapore, chose the latter.
Katherine talks about her choices after N-Level exams and polytechnic -- how she fell in and out of love with architecture, took a gap year after graduating with a Diploma in Sustainable Urban Design and Engineering from Ngee Ann Polytechnic, and the lessons she learned along the way.
How did you decide on a pathway after your N-level examinations?
Before my N-Level exams, I was quite reluctant to go for polytechnic open houses. I wasn’t convinced PFP (Polytechnic Foundation Programme) would be a good route for me. I wasn’t sure my future would be safe without an O-Level certificate. But my teacher encouraged me to consider PFP. He allowed me and my friends to skip the last class in school one day and attend open houses.
At Ngee Ann Poly open house, I saw the projects by the architecture students – their models. I knew then, architecture was what I wanted to pursue. Math was one of my best subjects, and I love art even though I didn’t quite excel in it. Architecture combined both of these interests. When I spoke to the students, I could also see they were passionate about their course. I am more of a hands-on person, and building things makes me happy. So, I signed up for the Sustainable Urban Design and Engineering Diploma.
You’re now studying Arts at NUS. How did that switch happen?
While I had fun (working on my school projects at Poly), I didn’t sleep much and my health deteriorated. The industry expectations for architects – such as working hours – can be quite brutal.
Also, in school, you get to be the mastermind of your projects. You get to come up with a fancy concept. At work, in the first few years of your career, you may start out as a draftsman, which makes sense because you have to refine and practise your skills... but it was not as inspiring as I envisioned it to be. While I love the field, I realised I did not want to be an architect.
What did you do next?
I decided to take a gap year… it was intimidating. I was a few years behind my peers because I took the N-Level and polytechnic route. But I knew spending one year figuring out what I want in life, to get a clear picture of the different careers available, would be a worthy investment. I didn’t want to go to university just for the sake of getting a degree.
I had noticed that some of my friends would jump right into a university course immediately after junior college or poly – but they were actually not sure if they would pursue that field in future. I wanted to use this chance to pursue higher education wisely.
What are some lessons you learned from your gap year?
I read a lot in my gap year - books about writing, financial planning, local and global issues. I also talked to people who were in different fields.
I considered going into computer science, as I like engineering and math. With the rise in technology and artificial intelligence, that field is forecast to provide many careers. I spoke to a mutual friend who studied computer science, and she pointed out that the field is quite fast-moving. I’d constantly have to keep up with changing technology. Also, it may not be as lucrative in the future, as there would be many graduates with the same degree. It may not be something that suits me.
So, what did you decide?
One of my goals for my future is to be as mobile as possible. The idea of a career that constantly allows me to explore and learn new things attracts me. I don’t want to be tied down to a job where I’ve to work in an office all day. I want to be on my feet, questioning things and finding answers. This is something that struck me, as I reflected on what I want to do during my gap year.
Since I enjoy studying and learning new things, I decided to pursue a degree in arts, which can open up more pathways for me. I want to explore becoming a writer. I realise writing is similar to architecture – you put together words to build something, in this case a story or an image. My English is pretty good, and I think that’s a feasible path. I’m considering taking a major in communications or literature.
What did your parents say?
My parents were supportive of me changing paths. They trust I’ll be responsible for my own education. They had seen me work hard in architecture, and I guess they know I’ll put my heart and soul into whatever I choose to do next.
What advice would you give your juniors?
Find your own definition of success and work towards it.
My measure of success is whether I’m interested to learn about things around me. Do I go out of my way to cultivate a skill? Read a book? If I can maintain that curiosity, I consider myself successful. You can’t help it when people measure you based on their own definitions of success, but don’t let that affect you too much. You know yourself best. Figure out what your definition of success is.
If your grades don’t meet your goals – which often happens to me! – focus on how this setback can be a potential area for growth. If you don’t know what your interests are, pause and reflect. Focus on what you are good at. Everyone has a flair for something. If you cultivate what you’re good at, there’s a good chance you’ll end up loving it.