Theme 3: Support from the universities

Topic 5: What is taking a Leave of Absence (LOA) like?

Kerstin: I didn’t touch my work for the whole 5-month long semester, and went into the holidays for 3 months. So that was 8 months without school. Many people told me that was a bad idea, and that I should still get on some courses to keep my mind active and fresh. I think if you were to go on LOA, you should still try to get on some courses or read some books, so that when you go back to school, it wouldn’t be a huge shock for you. It was a huge shock for me because I didn’t study for 8 months, and suddenly the pressure was there.

I think one mistake I made during my LOA, which many people advised me against, was to work. I worked in my NSA, so they were very flexible with my working schedule. But still, the pressure was there, especially last year when the association was short on manpower. So, there was quite a lot of work for me to clear, and it definitely affected my recovery for sports. When I realised my mistake, I stopped my work. I told my association that I had to focus on my sport, and they supported me after that.

If you take LOA, there will be a lot of free time. Try to get into some courses instead of working, because it will help you to kill a bit of time. Get involved with more recovery, read up more about how you can improve in your sport.

When I took LOA, I didn’t have to pay school fees, so you don’t have to worry about that. For SMU, we normally complete our studies in 4 years, or we can extend to 6 years. We have a certain amount of modules we must clear. If you need a longer time, you have to pay more money. But if you take LOA, you don’t have to pay that semester’s fees.

As much as it sounds easy to take LOA, I met up with Mr. Eric first, and he questioned me, “What is it that you want to achieve?” He wanted to know my plans, because he didn’t want to encourage us to take LOA just for the fun of it, or just because we wanted to rest for a bit. You must have concrete plans and know what you want, and know that you’re going to extend your studies, as well as what your plans are afterwards. Mr. Eric really wants to make sure you know what you’re doing, so you have to have a plan before you take LOA.

Eric (SMU): I advise the student-athletes with the faculty to see that the semester is just 4 months. If you really take that off, it means you have to add on after that. That means you’re taking an extra semester or an extra year, so are you prepared to do that? One alternative is to take less modules, but that also means you may need to take extra semesters. But with all said, it boils down to what the athlete can cope with. For example, how big is the preparation for that games? Teong Tzen Wei also took an LOA to qualify for the Olympics – that’s huge, and he needed to take that LOA. There was another athlete who requested to take just 2 modules, and the faculty was unsure if he could cope with trainings day and night. At the end of the day, the student-athlete has to decide what he/she can cope with. You can take as little as 2 modules – 1 may not be worth it because you’ve got to pay the semester fees. It’s all a matter of planning, and what the need it. You can consult your NSA, coaches, and the faculties, then we lay all your plans out all on the table and it’s a lot easier and clearer, and then you can make a decision.

Chai Liang (NTU): Taking LOA is actually getting more common nowadays. Taking LOA for some purpose that you think is worthy is something we are starting to encourage. You need not stay on the normal path, for sports especially. We have a fencer, Kelvin – it’s the first time I’ve heard of a medicine student taking LOA for SEA Games preparations. In between, he went for World University Games (WUG) as well. It is really how individuals value the experiences that they want to trade-off.

However, it’ll be good as to discuss all these plans with your academic advisor. They’ll be able to advise you on the modules you can take. Try to plan your 3-4 years in university in the long term rather than taking things as they come. It will be easier for you to complete your candidature in the best way possible if you have a longer runway to work on your plans.

Lawrenz (NUS): It’s very common now for students to take LOA or take a leap year to travel. Gone are the days when your parents feel that you are losing out to your cohort in entering the workforce if you take a year off. I’ve spoken to some parents before and they are actually very supportive of their children taking LOA because they want them to do well in sports.

I remember talking to national hurdler Ang Chen Xiang’s father. He is studying medicine, and his father is very clear that Cheng Xiang has only that many years where he is in his prime for athletics. If I’m not wrong, he took a semester off to pursue his dreams.

We also had Jasmine Ser (Shooting) and Lim Heem Wei (Gymnastics) preparing for Olympics. There was a lot of personalised planning with their faculties to move things around – either take LOA, or reduce their load for the semester. The faculties are very kind, and they will tell the student-athletes some modules that are easier to do, so that they can sail by one semester or two. They can still finish their studies within 4 years if they want to, or finish later if they do take LOA. It’s all about careful planning personalised to the athlete.

Topic 6: How do the local universities support student-athletes?

Eric (SMU): When I went into SMU, I made it a part of my role to help the athletes. I think SMU is a fantastic university in the sense that you just need to get in touch with the faculties and they are all really very supportive about sports. It’s a matter of just getting in touch with them.

What the faculties need to know and to do is just to know things in advance. That’s why I coordinated this with the athletes and said, “If you have plans for the semester or for the year even, just come and sit down with your faculty member and go through the plans to see the things you need for the semester – whether it’s missing exams, taking leave, etc.” When you manage to sort it out early, everything can work. If you need to skip exams or need make-up exams, if you arrange it early, I think the faculty would be very helpful.

Of course pedagogy is very helpful, and also the modular system where students need to bid (for classes). The registrant office is very helpful in the sense that if you reach out early, they can even give priority bidding to national athletes so they can bid for courses that don’t clash with their training times.

We have a sailor, Kimberly Lim, studying Accountancy in SMU. She was on an Olympic campaign to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. She actually did forward planning with her NSA involved, and she managed to take off in-principle 7 consecutive semesters. The faculty supported her, agreeing to see how she was doing every semester, advising her to take summer modules to help with the workload. Eventually, she managed to qualify for the Olympics. That’s how big the help can be if we are really planning ahead for the athletes.

Chai Liang (NTU): I would believe the local universities are all quite similar – we are all good partners with SSI and NYSI. So, what we are offering the students are quite similar to a great extent. I think I’d rather talk about the challenges local universities face in supporting student-athletes.

Even though all of these student-athletes are in the national set-up, there are different levels of athletes in the set-up. For athletes in the set-up preparing for major competitions, it is more clear-cut how the university can support them.

As for athletes in the training squad, it is more difficult to support them as they are committing themselves to their trainings not knowing whether they will make the team or not. For these athletes, they need more delicate coordination because they can’t really tell your professors or course-coordinators that they will be going for the major competitions like SEA Games. If eventually they are not selected for the competitions, they will have to carry on with their classes and exams.

Lawrenz (NUS): A few years ago, many of the local universities signed an agreement with SSI to commit ourselves to taking care of our athletes, by providing flexible planning to support our athletes’ endeavours in representing the nation. That agreement has gone through all the deans of the respective faculties, where they have committed to support our national athletes and make our curriculum and examination assessments flexible.

There was one year where three waterpolo players from the School of Medicine had to leave for SEA Games, so hospital attachments and exams became an issue. But we worked around that, with an excited mindset for our students and we wanted to make it happen.

We also help with small little things like getting a carpark label. Some of our national athletes have to drive down to a venue for training right after school. In NUS, it may not be easy to get a parking space and they would need a label to park their cars. So we try to make small things like that happen as well.

We’ve never had an incident where a national athlete who needed to perform national duties was held back because of school work or examinations. Many years ago, we even had a sport officer travel with the athlete so that the exam could be administered overseas while the athlete was competing.

What are some of the support structures local universities have for student-athletes (e.g., special admission criteria, sport scholarships)?

Lawrenz (NUS): NUS offers 10 full sport scholarships. 5 per year to incoming freshmen, and these usually go to national athletes. The other 5 go to current NUS students who did not get the scholarship while they were freshmen, but proved themselves over 1-2 years that they are good in both their studies and sports. For this scholarship, we look for good sportsmen as well as those with leadership, because they are catalysts of change. We are not getting them in to help NUS win medals, we are getting them in to raise the standards and influence the rest of the NUS athletes.

We also have aptitude-based admission. If your studies do not meet the grades that we want, by virtue of your sporting talents, you can still get admitted to the university.

Eric (SMU): Similarly, we have the Yip Pin Xiu Scholarship at SMU. We give out 2 a year. It still has an academic criteria which is quite high. I always tell the applicants to make sure they really want it, and that they can cope with it, because it can be pressurising. I think if you’re juggling sports and studies, it can be really tough.

For aptitude-based admission, the threshold that faculties can take changes year-on-year. There are corporations out there that are very helpful. For example, Accountancy has Deloitte. Deloitte is very helpful to student-athletes, helping them in getting jobs before they graduate and internships.

Chai Liang (NTU): For NTU, we currently don’t have a sports scholarship, but we are working on that. What we do have is a Sports Grant, which is given on a yearly basis. Based on the performance, achievements and contributions of student-athletes, we offer the grant amount of $2,000 to 4 athletes every year.

NTU also has other kinds of generic scholarships, like Nanyang Scholarship.

For aptitude-based admission, I think all the universities are quite similar in that sense. We also can help athletes with on-campus accommodations. The sport officers are very happy to help student-athletes to discuss with your schools and make arrangements that you require.