As an adolescent, I attended a Chinese primary school. I was very active in co-curricular activities, especially in the Scouts, and scored 11A’s and 1B in SPM.
I wanted to be a doctor. It felt natural to meet the expectations of my peers and teachers, and I had proven my academic capability to pursue it. After SPM, I secured a place at Raffles Junior College through an ASEAN scholarship.
A-levels in Singapore were tough and humbling. For the first time, there were many people better than me. I met so many who aspired to be doctors, and sometimes, for the wrong reasons. I was disillusioned by the competition because I felt that a medical vocation was not a bandwagon for just anyone to jump onto.
At Raffles, I learnt rock climbing, kayaking, and went on expeditions such as a trekking trip to the Himalayan region of Sikkim. There, we did a community service stint for two weeks in Kolkata, built a clinic in a rural village, and met many locals who seemed upbeat despite their poverty. The experience touched my heart and strengthened my conviction to become a doctor so that I could help the needy.
After A-levels, I did not return to Singapore. A Singaporean education may be perceived as a guarantee of a good future, but this future does not suit everyone. Nevertheless, although I did not enjoy living in Singapore, I enjoyed the academic curriculum and am very grateful for the exposure.
Later on, I took a gap year and embarked on a three-month Raleigh expedition in Sabah, which tested my tenacity and ability to work in a challenging environment. I lived in villages and jungles and survived in Spartan conditions. I particularly enjoyed building a village kindergarten.
Next, I took up various work stints in a corporate company, an Italian restaurant, and a Malaysian outdoor adventure company – Nomad Adventure. I also applied for a scholarship to study Medicine but did not get it, leaving me in a dilemma because it would be a great financial burden on my family if I pushed on with my dreams. I finally gave up my ambition of becoming a doctor and felt very lost.
By then, I had saved enough for a one-month solo backpacking trip to Nepal. I trekked for two weeks to reach the Everest Base Camp, did whitewater rafting, kayaking, and paragliding. I met wonderful locals, went on 12- hour bus rides with a live chicken under my seat and furniture on the bus roof, and watched the sunrise behind Mount Everest. I took tremendous pride in achieving all these feats before I turned 21.
I was then accepted into a local private Pharmacy degree course, though my heart was not in it. At this time, my boss invited me to stay on in Nomad. Enticed, I accepted the offer, but little did I expect for things to change completely.
At Nomad, I dabbled in every aspect of business, from handling sales and marketing, outdoor operations, to managing the outdoor equipment shop. I had the opportunity of designing my own urban race in Malacca and KL, and played an important role in one of the biggest adventure races the company ever organised.
That was when I discovered my flair for event management. Above all, I enjoyed working with outdoor enthusiasts and providing exceptional outdoor experiences to the public.
I enjoyed myself tremendously in those two and a half years. Unsurprisingly, the idea of ditching university and working in a relatively unconventional industry was not well received by many around me. Still, I stayed on.
During my stint, I worked with foreign professionals as well as locals from the outdoor education industry. I learnt that opportunities abound overseas, especially in countries where outdoor recreation and education is well recognised. The many aspects to outdoor recreation can be as simple as teaching someone the ‘flying fox’ or even creating a learning opportunity where a person afraid of heights overcomes his fears in a supportive environment.
Experiential education cuts across age, gender, physical ability, and language boundaries, because each person’s experience is unique. Many areas of outdoor recreation are also relatively unknown in Malaysia, such as wilderness first aid and rescue, outdoor gear design and manufacturing, etc., not to mention the endless serene mountains, beautiful jungles, raging rivers, and breathtaking vistas around the world to work in.
My latest joy is being one of only two successful international applicants to be accepted into the nine-month Cert IV Internship Course in Outward Bound Australia, recognised worldwide as a certificate of competence for outdoor instructors.
At the end of the day, it is okay not to know what to do after SPM, because life changes at many different stages. With an extra thirst for adventure, you will be surprised at how much you can achieve.
Tham Pei Ting wanted to be a doctor. She took a gap year before starting university, but ended up staying on at an outdoor adventure company and has since decided that a career in the outdoors is the way for her. She has also been selected for the Cert IV Internship Program for nine months in Outward Bound Australia.
Note: The above entry was written in 2010 for What’s After SPM?, published in 2011. This non-for-profit book project is a collaboration between Leaderonomics and a team of young Malaysians. Click here for details on the project and authors.
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