If you are starting tertiary education here or abroad, this letter is for you. EMCC Counsellor Sanny Chen writes from her own experience and those of youth she meets in counselling sessions. If you know someone else embarking on this new experience soon, we hope you can share this with them too.
Firstly, I would like to say Congratulations! You made it this far. There was a time you didn’t think you would be studying for a diploma or degree that would prepare you for work life. Some of you may even be taking your first steps into further studies in a place far away from home. Please credit yourself for your efforts with a self-hug, a pat on the shoulder, a word of thanks to yourself. Go ahead, you earned it.
In this season of change, you might find yourself feeling a mix of emotions – expectant, joyful, sentimental, confused, uncertain, lost, anxious.
Let me share with you some mental and emotional challenges that you might encounter as you embark on a new phase of life, and possibly in a new place that you will soon call home. May this letter be a source of support for you as you prepare for your new journey.
Fear and Anxiety in making choices
You’ve probably heard this saying, ‘With great freedom comes great responsibility.’
Your new-found freedom will mean that you have many more choices than before. These choices can range from whether you want to attend lectures or not, which modules to pick, which group mates to work with for a project, how to spend your free time and money, which friends to hang out with, how often to wash your laundry…you get it, the list of choices is endless!
While having more choices can be exciting and new, the irony is that it can become overwhelming, and we may find ourselves becoming anxious about making a choice. Decision-making anxiety can cause us to freeze or feel depressed because the fear of making the wrong decision shuts us down and makes it almost impossible to make a move.
If you encounter this “paralysis”, please don’t run away immediately. Lean into this discomfort, notice it’s there, but also recognise it won’t be there forever. Think of the last time something was hard for you and how you overcame it with time and practice. It’s the same here, be patient, be kind and encourage yourself. Adaptation will come and when it does, you know you have grown to be wiser at making good choices.
Self-doubt usually stems from the act of comparison. It may be comparing ourselves to others we think are better than us, or comparing ourselves to our past which brings up questions of our self-worth. Perhaps you used to be really good at managing your time. But now you seem to have lost the knack of it because you’re finding it impossible to finish your readings in time for tutorials and meeting deadlines for term assignments. Comparisons like this often lead us to think we need to be more like someone else to be successful.
I want to remind you that you are uniquely you. The opposite of self-doubt is confidence and the antidote is self-affirmation. Start by writing or saying aloud one thing you are proud of or love about yourself. When we do this, we can shift our thinking away from comparison, reject the negative belief and replace the negative thought with a positive thought about ourselves. Every time we complete these steps and break the cycle of comparison, we are building muscle memory – making it easier to go through the steps the next time self-doubt threatens our confidence.
If you’re moving out into a hostel on campus or pursuing studies overseas, be prepared for moments of homesickness. They are normal and expected when adapting to a new environment.
Humans are creatures of habit, and we form patterns and routines with familiarity. A change in environment, albeit exciting, may cause discomfort. There will be a period of adjustment as you get used to new ways of doing things.
Homesickness may come in the form of missing the familiar neighbourhood NTUC, the hawker centre that your family frequents, or conversing in Singlish. Our loved ones are so far away and a video call just doesn’t quite cut it.
I encourage you to seek out people and spaces that bring you comfort in your new home. Maybe it’s the park bench along a university campus path that reminds you of the Park Connector near your home, or the grocery store that has an Asian section. Is there a Singaporean or ASEAN Students Club you could join? The more comfortable your environment feels, the more at ease you will become.
It may feel lonely and frightening for a while, but I want to assure you that it will gradually start to feel like home.
Final words of encouragement
These mental and emotional challenges are expected and normal with adjustment to change but it will not always be this hard.
One tip, don’t do this alone. You won’t be the only one adapting from classrooms into lecture halls or missing your old classmates. Thousands of others are probably experiencing the same adjustment phase as you. Meet them, talk about it, cry about it together. Make new friends. Join one of the many clubs available at the polytechnic or university.
The small tutorial group to which you arrive every week quivering at the thought of having to speak up? The cranky washing machine that is harder to solve than your A Level Physics question? Eventually you will figure it all out and might even find yourself mastering the washing machine like a pro, much to the marvel of new housemates and perhaps your parents when they visit!
I was once you, and I will confidently assure you that as long as you persevere, you are growing, each day a better version of yourself than the last.
In the words of the famous writer, Mark Twain,
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbour, and catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
All the best to you!