In 2012, when Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) student Shermain Lee was debating her choice of career, her focus turned to social work. Following her instincts, she looked for a university that would be appropriate for her vocational choice. As it turned out, she did not have to look far, as National University of Singapore (NUS) offered an excellent social work degree programme. She matriculated in 2013 after being awarded the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) Local Merit Scholarship, which covered her fees and expenses, and provided her with an allowance as well. She graduated in 2016. Ms Lee, 23, a policy officer at MSF, recognised the merit in going overseas for further education, as she would acquire an understanding of myriad social work practices in other countries. But she opted to enrol in a local university, as she wanted her foundation to be specifically grounded in the local context. Ms Lee cites “sufficient exposure and breadth” on related topics as a key strength of the social work curriculum at NUS, adding that the course prepares students to practise social work with confidence. Besides the wealth of knowledge and experience that lecturers bring from their respective specialities, Ms Lee benefited greatly from the Director of Social Welfare teaching one of her modules on social policy and planning. The lectures and tutorials were a strong foundation, providing her with the tools to begin her work in what she describes as a “helping profession”. This included “many of the frameworks with which to assess my clients, my work, and the role that I would play”.
While the course was a valuable introduction, she points out that “social work is so complex, and so often nuanced with emotion and values,” that studying the subject cannot provide a full understanding of what lies ahead. Instead, she says, “you have to be a part of it”. A key insight she gained from her course was “the importance of the connection between heart and head”. The heart, she says, creates a passion for people and a genuine desire to help, while the head provides an understanding of how best to help those who need it. “For social work to be effective, we must have both a genuine passion to help, and the right skills to do so. Let the skills we have acquired inform our desire to help, and let our passion for people influence the manner in which we approach learning the theories and concepts behind the helping profession.” As a policy officer with MSF, Ms Lee’s work is aligned with the values of the ministry. “We are professionals with passion for people,” she says. Her internships have also shaped her views, and helped to prepare her for her career. Her first internship, at a Family Service Centre in 2014, taught her a great deal about human dignity and the power of being able to help someone by understanding their struggles and how best to render assistance. The following year, she interned at MSF, where she gained a strong understanding of “the importance of informed policies, and the considerable impact that policies have on the direct work that policy officers do”. It also gave her an opportunity to see policy makers in action. After all, she says, the common goal of improving services for clients is a strong incentive for different areas of the sector to work together.
Since joining MSF last year, Ms Lee has discovered many opportunities to contribute to the organisation’s different functions, and her personal goal is to do meaningful work wherever she is placed. “It may sound cliched, but I really want to be able to make a difference, be it to an individual or to the system.” Ms Lee’s work has enabled her to become involved in the policymaking processes relating to the protection of children and adults, as well as the rehabilitation of juvenile offenders. “Our policies and legislations provide the strategic direction for the division, form the structures within which our operations function, and directly impact our clients,” she says. “I am thankful for the opportunity to be involved in something so meaningful and want to learn as much as I can, to truly understand the system, which will ensure that my work here is informed.”