Hear it from a Fellow Traveller
You may not know her name, but Michelle Koay is one of those everyday heroes who found their calling in helping people who are struggling with school work, family, or life in general.
Being a great listener has helped her work as counsellor and she’s been able to help many young people surpass their emotional obstacles.
1. How did you become a counsellor?
Actually, I started out my career as an engineer. After spending 6 years as an engineer, I felt that I preferred working with people than with machines. I pursued a post-graduate degree in Master of Social Science (Counselling) which allowed me to switch fields to counselling. During my first job as a counsellor in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Counselling Centre, my clients were mainly young men serving their National Service and both male and female SAF regulars. Last July, I made a dramatic switch from working in a military setting to working with adolescent girls in a school setting when I joined Raffles Girls School.
2. What are some of your day-to-day activities?
Since RGS is a school, my day-to-day activities vary according to the school schedule. What is nice about working here is that we are like a family and I interact with the students and teachers during assembly, in the canteen, along the corridor and just about anywhere around the school.
During the normal school term, girls may walk-in to talk to me about their issues or I may see them based on their scheduled appointments. Sometimes, groups of girls will have conversations with me about ideas and opinions concerning some research assignments or community projects in which they are involved. Of course, teachers also drop by from time-to-time to discuss their students’ issues.
3. What does your job consist of exactly?
My job mainly consists of listening and talking to the girls and working through their issues. The girls who see me may be troubled or overwhelmed with various types of stresses: academic, relationships with friends and family, personal struggles and so on.
4. How would you define your role as counsellor?
I call myself a fellow traveller because I journey alongside the people I work with. I don’t see myself as an expert, as someone who knows everything about life. In a way, I’m sort of a facilitator, I don’t lead or follow, but I help them in their journey so that during the process, they can build their own strengths and eventually be on their own.
5. What part of the job do you find most rewarding?
The most rewarding part of my job is to be able to connect with people at a very deep level. My job is very interesting and enriching and there is never a dull moment because no one person is the same – each story is unique and different. In fact, my job does not feel like work and I look forward to learning something new about others and myself every day.
6. Do you have any memorable anecdotes to share?
One of the students was referred for counselling because of a disciplinary case in school. She was extremely distressed because her friends and teachers lost trust in her. It was difficult for her to reach out to her parents for support because she felt ignored and unloved by her parents. She felt that her parents paid more attention to her younger brother who was not doing well in school and was often showered with gifts and rewards if he made any progress or had any academic achievements. She studied very hard and did very well in school but she did not get the recognition and affirmation she hoped for from her parents. For a long period of time, she felt very isolated from her peers as well as her family and that made her very unhappy.
Over time, she slowly re-built the trust and friendship with her peers. In fact, she realised that her friends had already forgiven her and what she needed to do was to forgive herself and stop berating herself for what she did. At the end of last year, she decided to try to improve the relationship with her parents so she took the courage to initiate a conversation with them. She shared with her parents how she had been feeling and the difficulties she was experiencing. What was remarkable was that her parents did not brush her off and negate her experiences. Instead, they listened intently and were open to what she had to say. Her parents made efforts to spend more time with her and engage in various bonding activities together. I remember how happy she was during Chinese New Year, when she gave me some of the pineapple tarts which she and her mother had baked together.
7. How can youngsters channel their sadness, angst, anger, frustrations?
Youngsters can do so through creative expressions of art, music, and the body. The following are some examples: sketching, drawing, painting, sculpting, sewing, knitting, crochet, origami, scrapbooking, digital art, interior design, architectural design, singing, playing musical instruments, composing music, poetry, story-telling, writing, drama, floral arrangement, baking, cooking, dancing, yoga, Pilates, individual sports (eg. swimming, running), group sports (eg. badminton, soccer, tennis).
8. How do you define resilience?
The interesting thing about resilience is that it is very closely linked to failure. I feel that one has to experience failure or setbacks in order to develop resilience. Resilience is how one deals with failures, being able to face oneself and others, and learning and growing positively from that experience.
9. How can youth attain such resilience?
Creating awareness among parents would be a good start. Asian parents tend to set very high expectations of their children and are demanding and critical towards them. The children grow up and become fearful of failure and not meeting their parents’ expectations. Parents will have to create a more nurturing environment, which helps children develop and grow rather than a harsh environment, which does not allow room for mistakes. Youth will need to learn self-acceptance, self-care, and how to recognise their own strengths. It is also helpful for people around them to encourage and affirm them for their self-worth.
10. How could someone interested in what you do get a start in counselling?
Well, if they have some interest in helping people, but don’t know if that’s what they want to do, they can get a sense of it by volunteering. They can work with children, teenagers, the elderly and so on. One good place to source for volunteering opportunities is the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre website.
A related point on resilience is that these sorts of activities can actually help them find out just how resilient they are. Because not everyone is cut out for this sort of job. They have to be able to deal with strong and difficult emotions and not become overwhelmed by them.