While working as a special education teacher in 2011 and 2012, Ms Valerene Tan Si Jie came across students with varying degrees of difficulty with speech, language, communication and eating. She wanted to be able to do more to help them.

“I feel that a person’s quality of life decreases drastically if they are unable to eat their favourite food or communicate their thoughts with their loved ones. These abilities are essentially what make us human,” she says.

Knowledge helps

To equip herself with the skills to help people with problems in these areas, she signed up for a two-year Master of Science in Speech and Language Pathology course at the National University of Singapore (NUS) on a Social Service Scholarship.

The Social Service Scholarships offered by the National Council of Social Service require recipients to serve their bonds at social service agencies.

The master’s course, offered jointly by the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine and the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at NUS, was designed for graduates of any discipline who wanted to become speech and language pathologists. Ms Tan had a diploma in early childhood education from Ngee Ann Polytechnic and a degree in special education from Australia’s Flinders University.

“It was a rigorous and fastpaced programme,” she recalls.

“The academic modules were based on a series of Problem-Based Learning (PBL) clinical cases covering swallowing, language, speech, voice and fluency for adults and children.

“The PBL approach supports students’ clinical reasoning and problem-solving skills as they develop a theoretical foundation relevant to clinical issues.”

After graduating from the course, she started work in 2015 as a speech language therapist in the Children Services Division of SPD, an organisation that helps people with disabilities integrate into mainstream society. She works with kids in the Early Intervention Programme for Infants and Children, and her job also includes training caregivers and teachers so that intervention can be conducted both at home and in the classroom.

“Understanding every child and their family dynamics is really important,” she says.

She works closely with other allied professionals like social workers, occupational therapists and physiotherapists to come up with activities parents can do with their children so that they can “experience the joy of progressing together as a family”.

All worth it

Almost two years into the job, the 28-year-old says: “The variation and unpredictability of my job is what I enjoy the most.”

There have been a few unforgettable moments in the course of her work. One involved a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder who was non-verbal. All he used to be able to do was tap his chest to indicate “I want” and did so only for biscuits.

One day, while Ms Tan was reading a book to him and his classmates, she asked, “What is a hat used for?”

The boy took the book from her and put it on his head.

“Yes! Hat is for wearing (on the head),” she exclaimed. “What is a chair used for?”

The boy sat on a picture of a chair.

“I realised that he had more in him than I knew,” says Ms Tan. “I started to tune in to his interests and work on his communication using sentence strips and topic display boards. Now he cannot stop talking, which is so wonderful.”

To those who are thinking of taking the path she has chosen, Ms Tan says: “Keep an open mind when searching for a scholarship. It is not just about finding an agency to fund your studies, but finding one which aligns with your personal aspirations and values.

“If you are seriously considering a career in the social service sector, I encourage you to spend a day with us as a volunteer. Reflect on the experience and if you still feel strongly about the sector and see yourself playing a role in helping someone cope with life’s challenges, do not be afraid to take that leap of faith.”