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Crimson Education General Manager shares how they help students figure out what’s next in life

When it comes to deciding what to do next after high school, every student is familiar with that sense of uncertainty and anxiety. You’re on the precipice to the rest of your life and the decision of which university to apply for is a momentous one.

Fortunately, there are plenty of professionals and education experts who are ready to lend a helping and guiding hand to students to help them figure out not only how to apply to various universities around the world but also how to figure out what it is that they really want to do with their lives. Crimson Education is a personalised education and mentoring company that operates across 23 offices around the world and they have helped countless Singaporean students get into a number of prestigious universities around the world.

We caught up with the General Manager of Crimson Singapore, Ms Quek Xin Er, to talk about students in Singapore and how Crimson can help.

You had the opportunity of studying in Yale, getting that freedom to really explore yourself to find what you were truly passionate about. How has that shaped your view of education overall?

Studying at Yale meant going away to another country and meeting people from all over the world and all walks of life. Being out of your comfort zone, you’re faced with many experiences that force you to examine yourself from the outside. You realise that so much of who you are and how you think is the sum product of your upbringing, a lot of which you didn’t have control over because you were born into it and/or weren’t consciously aware of - your family, the education system you were in, the cultural norms and values of your society.

Being in a place like that is scary at first but over time, becomes empowering because you start defining your own personhood by making conscious choices with the awareness and knowledge you now have. To me, that is the essence of education and its biggest personal implication, which then affects society at large.

Being at Yale has also inspired me to view learning as a lifelong pursuit. The people I met there were all interested in different academic domains but deeply curious to learn about the world from others. I see their common thirst to understand and better the world manifested in various forms through what they chose to study and how they spent their free time. Some pursued science research, some learned new languages and traveled widely, others started companies or advocated for causes. Amid everyone’s achievements you realise that the main success factor is their own attitude to learn and willingness to take action. It’s at times intimidating but mostly, I find it humbling and inspiring.

You said, "To me, education is a process of helping you decide what to accept or reject about your heritage. It helps you examine your state of being and informs your decision on which mental and emotional barriers you ought to break for your own personal development.” How does Crimson go about helping students to do that?

The fundamental thing we do at Crimson is counselling - advising students on their education pathways with a view towards the future. We do that by asking a lot of questions - “why do you want to study that?”, “how do you know that’s something you like?”, “what does the day-to-day job entail?”, “how do you learn best?”. It’s surprising how powerful these questions are because few people stop to help students reflect on these simple questions that have far-reaching implications for their futures. Some people in their lives will help them prepare for it but very few will help them set the right direction in the first place. Our consultants guide students on their self-discovery journey and support them in building a portfolio that prepares them for their preferred future(s).

Another key thing we do is connecting each student with a team of global mentors who can share their own experiences and help students build the skills and knowledge they need for their goals. These mentors are based in the US, UK, or other countries where the student’s dream schools or target programmes are and they have walked the path that their students are aspiring towards. These mentors are older role models to our students and adds a dimension of global exposure to the best in the world, which helps students prepare to be their most competitive selves.

In your opinion, do you think studying abroad will afford young Singaporeans a better environment in terms of shaping a fulfilling and wholesome life? I’m referring specifically to the difference between the Asian approach to education (rote learning, heavily exam-based) versus the Western approach (self-driven learning, holistic, project and assessment based).

Generally speaking, each of the two education systems (“Asian” vs “Western”) has its own pros and cons. The “Asian” approach creates a really strong foundation in Math, Science, and academic writing. I was surprised when I moved to the US to find that many there struggle with writing an expository essay - communicating their arguments in a structured way.

On the other hand, the “Western” approach is more conducive to breeding creative, out-of-the-box thinking and students are verbally expressive (think “show and tell” in school or pitching your business idea to various stakeholders who might support your endeavour).

However, the cons of the Asian approach is that it tends to produce uniformly book-smart people who are averse to taking risks - the kinds of risk and out-of-the-box thinking that creates great companies, humanity’s best art, and a vibrant economy. The cons of the Western approach is that students may lack the crucial, analytical tools to examine and solve problems. If you have a weak foundation in statistics for example, you are limited in your ability to turn data into information, and information into solution-giving insights. These analytical skills are what companies, governments, and science need.

To be a fully educated and competitively productive person, you cannot lack either set of skills - the creativity and imaginative skills of a “Western” education, and the analytical and technical skills of an “Asian” education. However, it’s not a necessary condition to study overseas for Singaporeans to build both sets of skills. I have friends who studied locally who are very well-versed in both types of competencies and they usually tend to be more globally-minded, have people they learn from in other parts of the world and are keenly interested in world affairs.

However, my observation is that studying overseas helps create the experiential exposure that accelerates the acquisition of, for Singaporeans, the imaginative and communication skills in a less heavily exam-focused culture. That’s certainly been the experience of those I know who studied overseas.

What’s one of your favourite stories since you started working with Crimson?

I love working with young students to be a mentor they trust, learn from, and discuss decisions with. My favourite story is about a 14-year-old student I’ve worked with for over a year. We set goals for her pursuing higher level academic courses, foreign languages, computer programming, and student leadership. I’ve enjoyed planning with her and watching her make progress on all those goals and grow in confidence. She gave me feedback that she has learned to be more open to new opportunities and enjoys talking with me about them. She is then able to set her own direction and plan to achieve her next goal. Discussing her schedule also helps keep her on track and focused. Having a mentor look out for her, she also feels more encouraged to reach greater heights.

Student-mentor relationships like this is Crimson’s founding philosophy and is what I find the most rewarding in my day-to-day work.

What do you wish Singaporean students knew about university or just life in general when they’re trying to make a decision about what to study and where?

I really wish students and families in Singapore wouldn’t have tunnel vision about exams and relatedly, understand that lifelong learning is a crucial attitude for success. Students are much better served if just a couple hours each week is devoted to exploration and self-discovery, and building a portfolio around one’s interests.

As advisors, our favourite question to ask students is “why?” - we want to help them realise their assumptions about careers and course programmes and guide them to see deep within themselves. Helping students reflect gives them a greater sense of direction and confidence and also minimises the chance that down the road, they’ll feel lost and/or regret their decisions.

It is really important for students to understand that the most valuable tool in the workplace of the future is the willingness to constantly learn new things, upskill, and reinvent your competitive advantage. Against rapid automation and digitalisation of the economy, human workers need to be highly adaptable, knowledgeable across various disciplines, and skilled in multiple functional areas.