Learning for life

A graduate at 62, Mrs Rebekah Nair proves that it is never too late to hit the books.

IT HAS almost been seven years since 13 July 2015, but Mrs Rebekah Nair still has vivid memories of that day, right down to the brightly-coloured churidhar (Indian tunic) she was wearing. “My eldest child was graduating from the National University of Singapore so the whole family was there to celebrate his achievement,” she recalls.

After the convocation ceremony, the family zipped over to the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) for another momentous occasion — Mrs Nair’s first day of school as an undergraduate.

At 55, Mrs Nair was embarking on a long-awaited journey — her tertiary education. “The whole family was excited to see me start school,” she tells Lifewise with a smile. It was a passage that was nearly 40 years in the making. “I finished my A-Levels in 1979 but could not continue my studies because there were some family difficulties back then.”

So Mrs Nair started work as a full-time librarian at the former National Institute of Education. Being constantly surrounded by books and students deepened her desire to continue learning, so much so that she promised herself that she would go back to school one day. As life would have it, Mrs Nair had to leave her job in 1990 to become a full-time mother to her two young children. “Then in the early 2000s, the situation at home stabilised; my children were older and doing well in school. So I started looking at degree courses I could take up. But God had different plans,” she says.

Mrs Nair became pregnant again and, hence, she decided to put off her studies as she wanted her youngest daughter to have the same amount of attention she gave to her older children. It was only when this daughter began secondary school that Mrs Nair felt the time was right to enrol at SUSS for a part-time Bachelor of Arts programme in Tamil Language and Literature, with a minor in English Language.

Her family members were her biggest supporters and cheerleaders, especially her husband, who is an engineer. Whether it was to finance her studies or to clarify technology- related topics, her husband and children were with her every step of the way. Mrs Nair, a devout Christian, is grateful to God for the many blessings she has received, including a loving and supportive family.

Rebekah Nair learning to use the laptop

Overcoming the odds

Starting university can be a daunting experience for a younger student, let alone a mature one. Being decades older than her classmates, Mrs Nair’s concerns stemmed from practical grounds. “I wasn’t too bothered about the age difference because I was there to learn,” she says. “I was more concerned about things like time management. I was determined to continue looking after my family very closely, and I didn’t want school to get in the way of that.”

There was also an apprehension about technology, which was already a basic essential for education even before the COVID-19 pandemic. “Computers are not my strong suit,” she admits. “I can write much faster than I can type. And because my major was in Tamil, I had to learn to type in Tamil!”

Mrs Nair overcame these hurdles with a dash of creativity and support from her family. “To better manage my time, I would record my lectures and listen to them again while doing household chores or travelling from point to point,” she shares. “I also sought advice from my youngest daughter on typing in Tamil. At that time, she was in Secondary One and also learning the language in school, so we studied together. Looking back, it was a marvellous learning experience for both of us.”

Mrs Nair adds that she has never been ashamed to ask her husband and children about things she is not sure about. “They became my mentors,” she reveals. “I suspect then, they secretly relished the role reversal. I have always been interested in every aspect of their lives, be it school or otherwise, and they reciprocated with care and concern for my schoolwork and classmates as well.”

Rebekah Nair graduating from SUSS

SUSS also provided enrichment classes to help Mrs Nair become more IT-savvy. These came in handy when COVID-19 hit and students had to switch to virtual learning. “By then, I was quite comfortable with doing things online,” she says.

Then there was the workload and rigour that are part and parcel of tertiary education. Mrs Nair turned to her university’s study guides and library for materials that helped her gain better insights to her schoolwork.

Despite the challenges, Mrs Nair does not express regret embarking on her tertiary education as a mature student. “With age comes a maturity that can help you see things with new, fresh perspectives.”

The benefits of academia are too good not to take up, she adds. “It opens up my mind to be more analytical, sharpens my critical thinking skills, and gives me more meaningful ways to spend my time.”

And when it was time to pick out what she would wear for her own graduation, Mrs Nair chose a bright churidhar once again, just as she did for the graduation ceremonies of her children. “I may have a degree now, but some things will never change,” she says.

You are never too old to learn

Mrs Nair has these words of encouragement for other seniors looking to continue their studies:

Should I do it?
“Go for it! The process of learning and acquiring knowledge is just as enjoyable in your golden years as it was in your youth.”

What should I study?
“Learn what makes you happy,” she advises, adding that it was important for her to study something that would connect her to her Tamil heritage.

Can I do it?
“Age is never a yardstick so we should never limit ourselves in learning. This valuable advice was given to me by my Tamil teacher.” She adds that there are generous government grants that seniors can tap on to fund their studies. For instance, the SkillsFuture Mid-Career Enhanced Subsidy covers at least 90 per cent of the programme cost for a range of tertiary courses.

Find out more at skillsfuture.gov.sg/enhancedsubsidy.

How can I do it?
Lean towards your loved ones for support, be it help with technology or to test you before an exam.

Source: Lifewise issue 92 (Apr – Jun 2022), National Healthcare Group. Reproduced with permission.

Published on 23 May 2022.