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Fears of a University Student

Fears of a University Student

Words by: Joseph Koh (Photos by: Marcus Goh)

Two questions that everyone asks

Last month, I sat down with an ex-mentee of mine for the first time in years.

A few conversations in, I realised that seated across a table was a second year university student nursing an anxious heart. With furrowed brows and discoloured eyes, he tells me about a coveted internship that had slipped through his fingers like the fast-fading sunset — once beheld, now absent.

I was no different in university.

It is the time when the expectations and pressures of adulthood loom large — a monolithic mountain grown out of our fears. Eyes peel open, awakened to comparisons and the desires of wealth and success. The unquenchable thought that without racking up accomplishments in life, we’ll continue wandering: our lives amounting to nothing.

I am today still haunted by the stories of my friends from business school, especially those from Singapore Management University. This drill is pummelled into every student’s head: one internship is never enough; work tirelessly on that network; make full use of your summers; spruce up your resume with accomplishments that will make you undeniable in every job interview.

4 Years of Questioning

Even though I was pursuing a degree in social science, by the time I got to the second semester of year 3, my soul inevitably began fretting about my future. What am I do? Where am I headed? When will I find something that I’m great at? Am I looking for something that I’m not even sure is there?

I was flocked and flummoxed by questions but had very few answers. I did not know what I was going to do in life. My mind tossed and turned when it came to ascertaining the field that I was to pursue, having considered consulting, research, public relations, journalism, and even full-time ministry.

I wrote this in my journal during my final year in university: “In the morning, I felt like there was a constant, nagging fear that dwelled in my heart as I was chionging (rushing) my essay. I realised that the past couple of weeks have been like that and I didn’t really know how to manage it…there was such fear and a sense of dread as I embarked on anything.”

Having worked close to three years now and looking back at the hectic times on campus, I’ve come to realise that the questions most university students are asking could be distilled (in essence) to two broad, existential ones:

  1. What was I created to do?
  2. Am I significant?

It is really a question of identity because in our early twenties, we’re still figuring out and fumbling through a world that we cannot fully grasp or control. There were many things that I was interested in — music, urbanisation, branding, writing — but I had no clue about what I was particularly good at. God was quietly and confidently at work in my life, but I did not have much clarity on where His hand was directing me.

I’ve realised that the biggest danger is not in being unable to answer these questions, but in conflating and confusing that these two questions (of vocation and identity respectively) are intertwined with each other. In university, our competencies and skills are inextricably meshed with our value in society. We rush into applying for Management Associate positions at premier corporations because we believe that we will be more highly prized in the marketplace.

The bible, however, tells us that what we do is distinct from our self-worth. The gifts and talents that God has generously bestowed us with have no bearing on our significance as a son or daughter at the King’s table. Henri Nouwen shares, “Jesus came to announce to us that an identity based on success, popularity, and power is a false identity — an illusion! Loudly and clearly he says: ‘You are not what the world makes you, but you are children of God.’”

How then should we begin answering these two massive questions?

There are numerous tools and handles that could go some way in answering them but I believe that we all have to start from a place of surrender. It begins with us choosing to believe that forfeiting our soul to gain the whole world will only prove futile (Matthew 16:26) — the crowns we adorn have to first be crushed.

On 12 January 2015, I attended a church retreat in the last semester of university. I was about to graduate and this was the very period where the uncertainties of life got inside my head and under my skin.

During an altar call session, God waded past the seaweed and moss in my heart and found me. I wrote this in my journal entry to Him: “You brought me to the end of myself. I offered you my whole heart for the very first time in my life…I don’t know what giving you EVERYTHING entails but I know that there is no other way. I cannot live without you, Lord.”

My heart ached from this prayer, bruised from the breaking of my self-will. I finally caught a glimpse of the concept of knowing that all of me is found in Him. When we choose to “lean not on [our] own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5) and on our fears, we accord God the space of heart to unravel the answers to these questions to us.

Our Creator knows exactly what our hands were grafted to do. Our Father provides us with the love, acceptance, and validation that our broken souls need. In Psalm 33:15, it assures us, “he who forms the hearts of all, who considers everything they do” — there is nothing that escapes His clasp.

If you’re struggling in the throes of university today, I assure you that when you give your life over to Christ, you will never free-fall into an abyss of oblivion. He is more committed to your destiny than any mentor, employer, or friend ever will be.

“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

– Saint Augustine of Hippo


JOSEPH thinks that Nasi Lemak ought to be Singapore's national dish. He is passionate in discovering how faith can collide beautifully with urban culture, and believes in mentoring the next generation. He also wishes that a singular Singaporean accent will emerge in his lifetime. Follow him @firesandtimbers.

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