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The New Paper
Aug 15, 2016
A few years ago, she found herself at a crossroads - buck up or drop out of school.
Miss Nur Aqilah Hassan was forced to repeat her fourth year at the School of the Arts (Sota), twice.
The former visual arts student at Sota just could not cope with the academic demands as part of the school curriculum, which included mathematics and science.
But those early stumbling blocks did not stop her from going on to receive a prestigious National Arts Council (NAC) Arts scholarship this year.
A former Haig Girls' School student, Miss Nur Aqilah, now 21, who scored As and Bs for her PSLE, said: "I take time to learn and process what I've learnt."
She was more interested in art, a passion that began at a tender age.
Sota students do a six-year integrated arts and academic programme.
From Year 1 to 4, apart from their arts specialisation, they study a range of subjects such as English, maths, science and humanities.
After Year 4, they can choose to pursue the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma programme or the International Baccalaureate Career-related Programme (IBCP).
The first time Miss Nur Aqilah's teachers told her that she had to repeat Year 4, she was disappointed.
The second time, she just felt "numb". She had lost the motivation to continue studying.
Then, a conversation with her art teacher, Mr Khiew Huey Chian, gave her the jolt she needed.
Recalling the chat with Mr Khiew, she said: "Towards the end of Year 4, he sat me down and told me I had to make a decision.
"Either realise my dream by staying in Sota, or leave and find another path."
The wake-up call gave her the push she needed.
She said: "This was not how I wanted my personal narrative to be."
The chat with Mr Khiew also gave her hope.
He told her about the IBCP, which was newly launched then in 2012.
The two-year IBCP targets students who want to specialise in a specific career.
On top of their arts specialisation, IBCP students learn a mother tongue, fulfil community service requirements and write a research essay. They also take subjects which develop their languages or develop their life skills.
Miss Nur Aqilah said that when she heard about the programme, she knew that this path was suited for her.
With the goal of entering the IBCP in mind, she put in extra effort in her studies when she retook her Year 4 exams for the third time.
She said: "I had to collaborate with my friends and find new strategies to study."
With a laugh, she added: "I didn't have much of a social life at the time."
The hard work paid off.
She scored mostly As in the exams and was offered a place in the IBCP, which is reserved for top students with teachers' recommendations.
Miss Nur Aqilah cites her mother, Madam Hamidah Abdul Karim, 50, a floral designer for over 15 years, as a source of inspiration.
Miss Nur Aqilah, who has two sisters, aged 19 and 17, said: "My mum breathes art. Just the way she views the world and her floral designs inspire me."
Her father, Hassan Ali, 58, is a senior technician.
Madam Hamidah told TNP that when her daughter retook her Year 4 exams, she noticed her staying up late.
She said: "She really worked hard despite what she faced. We as parents held her hands to help her.
"She's a good role model for my younger daughters and for everyone else."
From next month, Miss Nur Aqilah will be pursuing a degree in sculpture and environmental art at the Glasgow School of Art in Scotland for the next four years under the NAC scholarship.
In her spare time, she has organised art exhibitions, such as one in Geylang in February, which she organised with another artist from Sota.
Miss Nur Aqilah, who dreams of becoming a curator, has this piece of advice for others: "Never look at repeating (a year in school) as a big failure. Treat of it as a stepping stone and not something that will pull you down."