Sunday, June 1, 2014

Three Things I Should Have Done At University (But Didn't)

It's easy to get by university. Study hard, pass exams, get decent grades - and you're awarded a certificate to unlock the gateway into employment. But university is more than learning about your vocation of choice; it's about learning about life. And it's more than ticking the right boxes; it's about finding out what makes your heart and mind ticks.

Looking back to my university years, I think I did many things right, to guide me to reach where I am now. Yet, there are still things I didn't do which I should have done, things I did that I should have done more. 

If I could turn back time, retain my memories, reset my life, I would definitely try again. But I can't. All I can do is to share my wisdom with... well, anyone who cares to listen - whether one is going through or about to go through university, or knows someone who is. 
  
1. I Should Have Started Working Earlier

A student's primary purpose at university is to learn.

Simple and truistic as it may be, the statement is misleading. Firstly, it implies that learning stops once we're out of school - which is untrue, since life is a constant learning process. Secondly, it implies that learning is the same thing as studying - which is also untrue, since we learn most through experience, rather than through studies.

When I was a student, I hardly did any internships and part-time work. Whilst I didn't spend my entire time buried in books, much of the free time I had was still spent on activities within campus, like debates and moots (a competition where law students argue their fictional cases before a fictional court manned by actual judges and lawyers), editorial, event organisation, student representation. This way, I reasoned, I could run through a myriad of simulated scenarios to prepare me for the working world ahead.

But you know what? Nothing beats real experience. Nothing beats entering into a real work environment, assisting an experienced hand working on a real assignment, with real money and livelihoods at stake. A rigorous month-long internship is more eye-opening and mind-blowing than a year-long term in a student association.

Start working early. After all, the early bird catches the worm.


Don't be like this loser, kids!

2. I Should Have Diversified My Learning

Most of my campus time was confined to my faculty. I chose to study law, I told myself, henceforth I should devote my time on legal-related activities. Haven't we, as law students and junior lawyers, always been drilled with the sagely mantra that "law is a jealous mistress and requires a long and constant courtship"?

For four years in law school, my passion for law burned strong. Even after graduation, as I toiled laboriously during the early testing years of legal practice, the fires stayed alight and bright. As time dragged on, however, the fire slowly flickered and wavered. And then I quit practice altogether.

Over the years, my passion for Mistress Law has dropped considerably. Not because she isn't lovely anymore - she still is. It's just that I've come to realise that there are a host of other lovely mistresses out there - science and technology, economics and finance. Today, I still wonder if I would have been better off giving my heart to a less strict and domineering mistress instead.

Which is why we should diversify our studies and experiences, at an early stage. So that we don't overlook opportunities. So that we can make informed choices in life. I should have taken up more meaningful external electives, instead of safe choices like real estate and public-speaking. I should have interned or worked part-time in the non-legal sector, such as in finance, marketing or even retail. I should have picked up a new musical instrument or new language.

Till today, I haven't found my true passion yet. But had I started exploring much earlier, I might have had, by now.


Wonder Boys' 'Nobody' 2010 Tour - Inner passions finally unleashed

3. I Should Have Studied Abroad

I didn't study abroad. I did try applying into a more established institution, and was called for an interview and test. But my results wasn't good enough, and fell short on impressing the assessors. I didn't come from a privileged background, I consoled myself, hence my handicap. It's undeniable that the educational playing field is never equal, all around the world. But with hard work and determination, anyone from the bottom rungs could climb to the top. Ultimately, I failed to get into a top international university because of one thing - I didn't want it bad enough.

Had I known how big a boost a top university can give, I would have tried harder. It's a holistic recipe for learning with the best ingredients - lecturers, syllabus and facilities. It's a fertile ground for competition and collaboration - one is constantly pressured to improve oneself to stay level with the other bright students, whilst being exposed to a cauldron of diverse cultures and personalities. Being in a top university doesn't guarantee you a top job, but it certainly gives you a head start in your career. For example, in the UK, research shows that Oxbridge graduates form 38% of trainees recruited by 'Magic Circle' firms in 2010 and 35% of pupil barristers between 2010 and 2011.

I've always toyed with the idea of doing a Masters abroad. After a few years of working, I would have had accumulated enough savings and experience to buffer any loss in time-cost away from work. Somehow, I never wrap my head around that dream. The same lame excuses went through my head: no time to apply, too much work commitments, blah blah blah. Now, I'm getting older. Time is running out. Another opportunity missed, perhaps.

Work hard to obtain a scholarship to study abroad. Work-and-study or take a loan, if you can't afford the fees. Or even if you study locally at a humble institution, join a student transfer program for a semester or two. Do all you can to swim - or at the very least, dip your feet - into the fountain of excellence. It'll get you ready to ride the waves in the open seas, later on.


The waters of Cambridge - alas, I could only see, not touch

Explore, Expand, Experiment

This piece of advice isn't just for aspiring lawyers. It's for everyone, no matter your vocation. Whether we're studying engineering, business or even performing arts - our philosophy to learning should be no different.

Explore the world while we're still young. Expand our horizons before the sun sets. Experiment the multifarious splendours of life without fear and restraint.

Explore, expand, experiment - that's how we learn in life.


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