Growing up in the Singapore education system, academic results were always the main priority. We took our first high-stakes national examination at the age of 12, with life after that seemingly just one examination after the other. It was hard not to feel constantly judged based on how smart we were.
As I grew older and was drafted into mandatory military service, the physical and mental demands took a further toll on my wellbeing. Caught in a space where gender stereotypes were at play, I was constantly told to “be a man” and “stay strong.” There were limited resources available to me on ways I could manage my emotional stress, especially towards notions that men are not allowed to express emotions or their feelings.
When it was time to plan for college, my desire to experience something different from the education life I’ve known so far made me look at options outside of Singapore. That’s when I learned about NYUAD and its liberal arts education. Don’t get me wrong — being an NYUAD undergraduate student is no walk in the park. I’m surrounded by a diverse and intelligent student body with impressive credentials, but the opportunity to grow holistically as a student beyond academia was a breath of fresh air to me.
I was pleasantly surprised to learn about various mental health resources available for students right from the start during Marhaba (orientation week). I was introduced to the student group “Raising Empowered Advocates for Community Health” more commonly known as REACH.
During my first semester, REACH planned several events including a workshop on supporting our friends by actively listening to them when they needed to rant. The group also offered a peer counselling service, called the Nook, designed to be a space between a trained staff counsellor and a friend.
Having benefited from the programming, I decided to join REACH to continue contributing to the recognition of mental health’s importance across campus.
The first event I had ever attended as a REACH member was the well known Doggy Destress event. We brought dogs who belonged to our NYUAD community members, gathered along the Highline, and offered some delicious banana pudding dessert. With the help of our furry friends, REACH created a space for students to unwind right before the examination period. This event remains a highlight of my university life.
Three semesters in and a pandemic later
Life does not stop even during a pandemic. To continue supporting the student body during this challenging period, REACH shifted gears to move all of our programming virtually.
I’ve also undergone counseling training to become a peer counselor in the virtual Nook space. I often think back to my 19-year-old self, alone and struggling in the army, and the 15-year-old me basing my self-worth on academic performance. It further strengthens my resolve to be there for anyone who might ever need a listening ear.
While I may not be able to solve everyone’s problems — especially during times like now where many things are beyond our control — at least I can help make sure someone knows they are never truly alone in facing their problems.