Feature image credit: Collage by Kalsum Harun with images by Danist Soh and Sajid Khan on Unsplash

From the Editor: Homeschooling parents and observers alike often mull over that major turning point in a child’s life where he or she would “graduate” from homeschooling and transition into formal academic institutions and/or institutes of higher learning. Can the child adapt to the changes in environment and circles of interaction? Can the child thrive? How does homeschooling prepare for this stage of life? And a question that many might fear to say out loud is, “What if we make a mistake?” Maryam Kiyani shares her reflections on how she leaned on both her parents’ good counsel and the values she embraced growing up, in making a pivotal change to her educational journey.

My education has never been obtained through conventional methods. I was homeschooled for most of my life; I never attended school until I began my A-level preparations. I grew up mostly in Islamabad, Pakistan’s small capital city. My Malay Singaporean mom moved there shortly after she married my Pakistani father and had me. My earliest memories of homeschooling are of me pulling stacks and stacks off the bookshelves in my mother’s room for her to read to me. Finding materials to properly homeschool us in the small city of Islamabad posed a challenge to my mother. Yet, between secondhand bookstores and documentaries, she managed, and eventually found a community of other homeschoolers. Come to think of it, I don’t recall using many textbooks until after I had turned at least 10 years old. My mother taught my sister and I History, Science and even Mathematics through stories. She would read to us for hours, opening up our worlds to places and times far, far away.  

These conventional methods may have attracted rather unenthusiastic stances from well-meaning friends and relatives. Hopefully, those concerns can be finally put to rest, as I am pursuing my degree at the Singapore Management University. Looking back, I feel that the culmination of my learning experience could not have played out better than my thought processes and decisions over the last three years.

Sandwiched between the Sciences and Humanities, I set out choosing the former as a way to challenge myself.
Image credit: (from top left, clockwise) Nothing Ahead, Lisa Fotios, Ismaeel Zakariya, cottonbro studio, RF._.studio, Lady Escabia and Pixabay on Pexel.

It was my father’s hope that I would flourish in the sciences and mathematics. In addition, I had been told that the humanities would not land a respectable job and that A-Level humanities subjects were typically chosen by the less ambitious students who are content to cruise through their two-year stints and secure easy As rather than challenge themselves with difficult subjects. Rather than pursue these “easy As”, I started my A-level preparations by choosing Biology, Chemistry and Physics, only adding History with my mother’s encouragement. However, halfway through studying for the A-Levels, I made a 180-degree change in the subjects I was taking from the triple sciences, which I barely passed, to the humanities, where my true passion lies.

In addition to the attitudes of many adults around me, my ethnic background also shaped my educational journey, albeit in a different way. Growing up as a child with mixed parentage in a multi-ethnic household and living in a third-world country exposed me to the constructs of race, class and gender from an early age. The benefit of hindsight has also helped me realise that I have somewhat of an outsider’s perspective to society’s construction in both Singapore and Pakistan, which, coupled with my mother’s nurturing of my understanding of humanities, made for a natural transition for me to study these social processes. Social issues and history have always fascinated me, perhaps partly due to how many have directly affected me. 

A Turning Point

I was weeks away from my final exams with no hope of even passing three of my subjects. I reached out to my history teacher, who had always encouraged my class to take gap years to build our portfolios and experience the world practically outside of the four walls of a classroom. At that time, I felt trapped as though it was too late to turn back and impossible to move forward; I didn’t want to repeat a year to study subjects that I might be good at but I knew that I wouldn’t be able to pass the subjects I was enrolled in. He pushed me to do it anyways; assuring me that even though a 180-degree turn was difficult, it was not impossible. In my eyes, things could not get worse so I bit the bullet and told my parents that I had to drop all science subjects completely in my second year if I wanted to graduate. I had expected them to be angry for having wasted an entire year of schooling. I also felt immensely guilty that they had to waste a year’s worth of school fees. 

To my surprise, my parents were more concerned with helping me move forward and decide what to do for my second year in school. Their reaction was something I am still incredibly grateful for. I realised how my parents truly did value my happiness and ambitions above all and I could not ask for better proof of this fact. With their support, I managed to cover the full year of missed coursework for Sociology and Psychology in time for the final exams. Two years later, I graduated with two As in History and Sociology and a B in Psychology. 

Growing up as a child with mixed parentage in a multi-ethnic household and living in a third world country exposed me to the constructs of race, class and gender from an early age… I have somewhat of an outsider’s perspective to society’s construction in both Singapore and Pakistan.

Turning back 180 degrees offered new perspectives and opportunities for both prevailing and future endeavours. Image credit: Maryam Kiyani

Gaining New Perspectives

While I do somewhat regret “wasting” my first year, I’m more grateful for the clarity that the experience has given me. It was a confusing and difficult time but it was a necessary and transformative experience. It forced me to redefine my goals in life and challenge my perception of the world. Had I opted for the humanities from the start, I might have continued to see my choices as “taking the easy way out” or not pushing myself to realise my full potential. I would probably have also regretted not taking a science-oriented career path. So, even though my first year of A-Level preparation was stressful, I emerged more assured of myself and my abilities. 

After the A-Levels, I took a gap year to evaluate my career options. I was burned out by this point and could not think of diving into university applications. The pandemic hitting midway through my A-Levels also meant that I had little to no extracurricular activities to show for on my resumé. During this time, my parents and I also decided that it was best for me to return to Singapore to help care for my grandmother while I seek out internship opportunities. Looking back, I have gained valuable experience living away from my family, interning as an editing assistant and working my first job as an operations coordinator at a government clinic. This past year has allowed me to recalibrate my life, take a step back, and reassess my identity and aspirations in life. 

Some may argue that delaying one’s education to work is a waste of time but I’ve found it to be immensely helpful to step off the proverbial treadmill and experience life from a different angle. Gaining experience in the working world has been eye-opening; I’ve discovered much more about the society that I live in than I ever thought possible. I also believe that having a working experience is necessary for many my age. It has taught me to manage my time, finances and responsibilities on my own, something I never had to do before. It has helped me to grow as a person and learn to test my limits. Gap years are also often viewed as a waste of time, or even an extended holiday. While this may be true in some cases, a gap year is really what you make of it. Its value can’t be fully measured in tangible terms like grades or academic qualifications but for me, it was an invaluable opportunity to take stock of my life. I was standing at a crossroads at the beginning of my gap year, unsure of where I should go and what I should do. I wasn’t confident in my abilities. The time I took away from a formal academic setting helped to build my self-confidence, broaden my horizons and recover from the burnout I experienced after completing A Levels. 

Spending a gap year to attend to familial matters and take on internships offered a refreshing change of pace before embarking on my studies at SMU. Image credit: Joshua Tsu on Unsplash

Whenever I look back at who and where I was even a year ago, I realise that I never expected to be where I am now. These reflections make me all the more grateful for my past experiences, no matter how difficult they may have been. If I could advise the younger version of me or others in a similar position I was in, I would urge myself to challenge people’s opinions, worldviews, and perceptions of education, and take calculated risks in the name of interest and passion, rather than measuring oneself up to an impossible standard set by others. As I look to the future I find these reflections comforting as well as motivating. I no longer think in terms of a timeline set in stone when I plan my career and adult life. I believe that this flexibility is important when it comes to recognising opportunities in education, as well as applying one’s qualifications and talent in the workplace.

If you enjoy this article, check out our previous article for the entry written by the author’s mother, Shirin Feiruz, called, “Being Educated with Maryam.”