The Frederick Emmons Terman Engineering Scholastic Award is presented to only the top five percent of each year’s undergraduate senior engineering class in Stanford University. Terman scholars invite the most influential secondary school or other pre-college teacher who guided them during the formative stages of their academic career to Stanford University to receive an influence award.
One 2017 Terman Scholar is Mr Julian Tan’s ex-student Ms Rachel Lim. When Mr Tan first met Rachel in 2011 during a Singapore Chemistry Olympiad Selection Programme, Rachel was quiet in class and often performed poorly in her tests. Instead of casting her aside, Mr Tan went against the grain, focusing on the coherence of the few test responses that she managed to put together.
It emerged that behind her apparent weakness in the subject then, Rachel displayed a keen awareness of scientific concepts and good relational understanding, traits that were ideal for the pursuit of Chemistry as an academic subject. Mr Tan soon discovered that Rachel’s lacklustre performance in Chemistry Olympiad was due to her heavy involvement as the Vice-President of her school’s Chinese Dance Club.
Despite Rachel’s two indications to quit the Chemistry Olympiad programme twice, Mr Tan convinced Rachel not to give up. Together, they came up with an unorthodox approach to prepare for the competition, one which provided the flexibility required for Rachel’s hectic schedule and a way for Mr Tan to ensure adequate competency to make the Singapore team.
Rachel worked extremely hard and eventually clinched a Gold Medal for Singapore in the 44th International Chemistry Olympiad in 2012 and emerged as the top female participant in the competition.
This journey made Mr Tan reflect that as educators, they can often exercise more discretion in understanding their charges as young individuals and re-affirming their student’s multiple interests and talents. Mr Tan believes that a successful education system has to be able to afford to be less conclusive and more developmental, nurturing students’ confidence, and helping them to achieve their potential outside the boundaries of efficiency-driven school systems.
Mr Tan taught me Chemistry during my last two years of high school. He is a great chemistry teacher, who is very passionate about the subject, and communicates ideas clearly. More than that, Mr Tan is an unbelievably caring teacher. He looks out for each of his students individually, and is especially patient and encouraging towards those who aren’t performing as well. At the same time, his warm personality allows him to click well with his students and makes him approachable.
Mr Tan has undoubtedly been one of the most influential teachers on my life so far. I was tremendously fortunate to have him as the Chemistry Olympiad lecturer and teacher i/c when I was in Raffles Junior College. Many times, it was Mr Tan’s influence and encouragement that stopped me from quitting the programme. In the early days of Chemistry Olympiad, I was struggling in the programme – I was probably the weakest student in class then, and I was sleeping in every lecture because I didn’t understand the material. At that point, dropping out seemed like the most reasonable option. Mr Tan was the teacher i/c of some 2-week long overseas trip to the UK that I participated in, and at some point I confided that I was thinking of dropping out. I was surprised by his reaction – while some (and I would say most) teachers may encourage students who are struggling to drop the programme so that they can focus on those who are more committed, Mr Julian Tan – in spite of my horrible performance in the class till then – told me that he thought I had the ability to grasp the material, so long as I actually tried to read the textbook and study on my own. That was one of the turning points of my Chemistry Olympiad journey. I eventually did well in the Singapore Chemistry Olympiad, and was shortlisted to undergo training at the National University of Singapore to qualify for the International Chemistry Olympiad (IChO). Chemistry Olympiad trainings clashed with my Chinese Dance practices and training schedule, and I was again convinced that I should just give it up, since I had about 0% chance of making it to IChO, regardless of how much effort I could put in (…everyone else was just very good!) Again, it was Mr Tan who convinced me to stay with the programme. The day the commitment form was due, he persuaded me to stay in the programme – he thought it was alright that I skipped all the trainings and just did the selection test at the end, and so I just went along with it.
Looking back, at both points at which I was just about to quit the endeavor altogether, it was Mr Tan who convinced me to stay, and he deserves most of the credit for my later accomplishments in the area. This eventually constituted one of the most enjoyable, challenging, and enriching experiences of my JC life, and without his influence and encouragement, I definitely wouldn’t be where I am, or have accomplished what I did.
I no longer study chemistry, but the confidence i gained from his support, as well as the willingness to ‘just try’ in the face of unfavourable odds, stay with me. Thank you Mr Tan!!! You are awesome!! I hope you continue to be such a great influence on your students.