For two years running, J.P. Morgan software engineer Ailin Cheau has volunteered as a mentor for the firm’s Career Connect programme, a global philanthropic initiative that seeks to improve the career readiness of young girls from underserved communities.
Raised in a single parent home where her mother worked in a factory to make ends meet for Ailin and her two sisters, Ailin saw herself in many of the 80 secondary two students participating in the two-month long programme that kicked off in early July.
“When I remember my struggles, I was where these students are now,” Ailin said. “I wished I had a mentor or someone to advise me, to tell me that no matter the hurdles or uncertainties we face, we can grow from our setbacks. They are learning points that will shape our future.”
With lower grades in secondary school and no financial support, Ailin had limited options to pursue higher education. Two good Samaritans Ailin befriended over an online game decided to pay for her to retake her O-Level exams, so she could enrol into a polytechnic course of her choice. Ailin eventually graduated from Singapore Management University, and four years ago, joined J.P. Morgan’s software engineering programme. At that time, Ailin wanted to pay her benefactors back for their kindness. Instead, they asked that she pay it forward.
Ailin saw it as her opportunity to do just that when Career Connect launched in Singapore last year, partnering with the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) to inspire the next generation of women to pursue studies and careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).
By introducing STEM to young women, the programme aligns with Singapore’s national agenda to boost the number of women working in STEM-related research and development and relevant industries in Singapore. More than 85% of last year’s cohort indicated a greater awareness of STEM-related career options after completing the programme.
Through design challenges, career activities, mentoring and workshops in STEM, such as learning about robotics, coding and 3D printing, Career Connect participants worked together to develop user-centric STEM solutions to UN Sustainable Goals. They learned about using technology and innovative approaches to address real-world problems, such as poverty, hunger, climate change, and access to quality education and healthcare. With guidance from SUTD’s DesignZ staff and student facilitators and working closely with 60 J.P. Morgan mentors and 80 one-time volunteers, the girls also learned critical thinking, problem-solving, communication skills and working in a team. The students also had the opportunity to visit J.P. Morgan offices and the Dyson-SUTD Innovation Studios where these activities were held.
“This programme is not just about the prototype that the girls will develop at the end of it, but about how much they are able to learn, grow and develop a new mindset to look at things – and life – throughout this journey,” said Alifiya Mamaji, J.P. Morgan’s Asia-Pacific Head of Wholesale KYC Operations, Client Office, who co-sponsored the Singapore Career Connect programme with Siew Hwee Lim, J.P. Morgan’s Asia-Pacific Regional Controller.
This is echoed by Nada Khan Suratee, a Computer Science and Design student at SUTD who returned for the second year as a facilitator, “It gives me great joy to introduce design thinking and technology to secondary school girls, helping them to foster empathy and explore limitless possibilities in tech.”
Lyn Leo from Bendemeer Secondary School described how her team overcame difficulties during one of the STEM workshops. While building a robot from chopsticks, her team had trouble trying to manoeuvre the grapple so that it can pick up items and move them around.
“The mentors and facilitators saw that we were struggling and told us not to give up,” Lyn said. “Because if you don’t give up, it will happen eventually.”
Lyn, who participated in the programme with her 14-year-old twin sister Lynette Leo, is also in an Infocomm Technology club at school, and has participated in drone competitions. Her father used to work in a fishery port and her mother has a nail salon at Far East Plaza.
As quite a number of tasks required reading and following instructions, another participant, Jovene Kang from Queensway Secondary School, said she found it challenging at times to understand some of the terms or words.
“I asked my friends or my mentors to help me out, and that’s one of the challenges I overcame,” Jovene said. Even though Jovene would like to become a dance instructor when she grows up, she joined Career Connect as she wanted to learn more about technology. It has become part of her everyday life in school, with most of her homework assigned and graded on the students’ personal learning devices.
Jovene, whose father sells wanton noodles at a hawker centre, said she enjoys spending her Friday nights making dumplings with her family and bonding with her parents, older brother, and younger sister.
Jovene was also enjoying her Friday afternoons at Career Connect, making new friends and learning to socialise more. She described the mentors as “very fun,” a sentiment shared by Lynette.
“They joke around with us and make us feel comfortable,” Lynette said. “And they will help you when you are in need.”