Happiness is key
[First published on 26 August, 2013] Many students can only dream of earning a place in law school, so turning down that opportunity is almost unimaginable. But that’s what Peggy Wu Hiu-nam did, after achieving a perfect 45 points in this year’s International Baccalaureate exam.
The former student of Sha Tin College, run by the English Schools Foundation, has opted to study music performance at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, rejecting places at the London School of Economics and University of Hong Kong, which offered a scholarship.
Although an exception to the norm in Hong Kong, she has decided to follow her passion – the piano – instead of a high-powered corporate career.
“I very much thought this decision through because I do have a very strong interest in semantics, in the field of law. I wasn’t able to make my mind up until very recently,” says Wu.
The 18-year-old, who started learning the piano at the age of three, describes herself as being “drawn to the stage”.
Law and medicine have always been popular choices among top students, followed disciplines such as business and finance which lead to lucrative jobs.
Seven of the nine highest-scoring students in the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education examination – 5** in seven subjects – will enter HKU next month. Six will study either medicine or law, while one will take actuarial science.
At the University of Science and Technology, both its international science research enrichment and global business programmes attracted students with exceptional results.
Cultural background has a noticeable influence on what a person will study. HKU’s Exercise and Health programme, for example, takes in more IB students and those with an international background because these students value the programme more than those from the local system, says HKU’s director of undergraduate admissions, Professor John Spinks.
Wu admits she struggled long and hard in deciding what to study. She also considered business and philosophy for a few years before narrowing the choice down to law or music.
She finally settled on music because she wanted to master the performing techniques while she was still young. Wu’s long-time piano teacher, Professor Eleanor Wong, is senior lecturer and artist-in-residence at the arts academy.
For the average teenager, discovering their personal passion is perhaps as difficult as sticking with it instead of following the path to a high-earning career.
Parental influence is often a factor. Neil Hodgson, a vice-principal at Sha Tin College, where most students are from local families, says pupils are often “reliving the ambitions of their parents”.
“Most of the time parents are keen for their children to study something leading directly to a professional qualification, such as accounting, medicine or law.
“My experience tells me that if students are not interested or passionate about these choices, they will not do as well as they could perhaps do in another subject area. It does happen that students end up doing what their parents want them to do rather than what they want to do,” he says.
In helping her daughter make her decision, Wu’s mother, Rizzo Chung, warned her about the gap between reality and idealism. “I wanted to make sure she would not be frustrated in the future. As a pianist, you have to sacrifice a lot of personal time for practice. You will feel lonely,” says Chung, who runs a music school.
She left the decision to her daughter, but adds: “Most parents in Hong Kong would not show support for their children’s wish to study music unless they fare worse in other subjects. Many dare not take the risk of letting their children pursue a career in music, even if it’s their passion. They are worried about a lack of job opportunities in the future, limited income and a relatively lower social status. Few would be pleased if their children ended up being a piano teacher,” Chung says.
Schools have a role to play in guiding youngsters down the right path. ESF schools carry out psychometric tests to help students identify their personal strengths. Counselling teams and tutors work closely with students on a one-on-one basis to ensure they are taking appropriate courses for their university aspirations.
“The important thing is to make sure students do subjects that match their strengths and competencies,” says Hodgson.
“One of the problems we find is that students wish to do something when their strengths lie elsewhere, so a lot of the counselling process is trying to help them get around to knowing themselves.”
But what if a 15- or 16-year-old has little idea about what they want to study or do some years down the road?
Hodgson says the IB curriculum gives students a broad choice of subjects which prepare them for a range of university programmes. Students do not need to decide on their final university choices and make applications until Year 13.
Unlike in Britain, North American universities do not require students to declare their subject major in their application, enabling them to put off making a choice until the second year.
“The British system better suits students who are clear about their interests and abilities,” says Joe Tsui Yan-cho, vice-chairman of the Hong Kong Association of Careers Masters and Guidance Masters.
Under the new four-year university system launched last year, Hong Kong tertiary institutions give students more flexibility by offering school- or faculty-based admissions, sparing them the need to declare a major until the second year.
Mirroring the IB, the New Senior Secondary curriculum also gives students more subject choices, rather than confining them to the arts or science stream. But that does not necessarily translate to diversity when it comes to students’ choices of what to study at university.
“Youngsters are influenced by societal expectations on what to study; the cream of the crop would go for law and medicine,” Tsui says. “People around them will say it’s a waste if they do other subjects like biology or physics. The same kind of expectations prevailed under the now defunct A-level examination.”