At 22, Ms Chew Chia Shao Wei is the youngest and newest employee at charity Brahm Centre.
"But don't look down on her just because she is young or small-built. She is from Harvard," her colleagues tell elderly residents when accompanying her on visits to their homes.
Ms Chew Chia told The Straits Times: "Then the clients would be, like, 'Huh? Why don't you get a better job?' I think they don't realise that it is a great job; that it is very rewarding and fulfilling."
She works at the five-year-old charity, which champions mental resilience, as an assistant care coordinator. She visits the homes of elderly residents who have, or are at risk of having, mental illnesses, assesses their needs and coordinates the help given. She also conducts research on hoarding.
She joined the centre last month, and is one of the most qualified among its 17 full-time staff.
Ms Chew Chia graduated magna cum laude with a liberal arts degree, with a single major in history and literature and a minor in social anthropology.
At Harvard, the top 5 per cent of the graduating class are awarded summa cum laude, while the magna cum laude goes to the next 15 per cent. She had a near-perfect grade point average of 3.96 out of 4.
HELPING THE LESS FORTUNATE
When you think of people who don't have as many opportunities, it becomes imperative to do something and give time to volunteer.
MS CHEW CHIA SHAO WEI
She was a high achiever in her younger days too.
When she was 15, she won an international essay competition organised by the Royal Commonwealth Society - in a category for students aged 16 to 18.
The winning essay was published four years later as an illustrated book, The Rock And The Bird, which tells the story of a friendship between the titular characters. The book was named Best Young Adults' Title in the Singapore Book Awards last year.
Ms Chew Chia, an alumna of Raffles Girls' School and Raffles Junior College, also had As for all her subjects in her A levels, except for a C grade in economics.
People with such grades in junior college and university tend to opt for better-paying jobs, but her volunteering experiences kindled her interest in joining the charity sector.
In particular, a three-week service learning trip to Cape Town, South Africa, when she was in Secondary 3 was "transformative" for her. She went to an area with a high incidence of HIV infection, and helped mainly children and infants who were abused or neglected.
"After returning to school from the trip, I often asked myself, 'Why am I here? Why am I back in school?' But then I would think of the needy people I met in Cape Town and how much they would love to be in my place, to be going to school - and such a good school too," she said.
"When you think of people who don't have as many opportunities, it becomes imperative to do something and give time to volunteer."
Ms Chew Chia went on to volunteer at various organisations, including eldercare charity Lions Befrienders and youth charity Heartware Network.
During her university days, she volunteered two to three times a week at Health Leads, a national healthcare organisation that connects low-income patients with basic resources like food and housing. She spoke to low-income patients to assess their needs.
She said: "In my last semester at Harvard, as I was trying to decide what to do with my future, I realised that the volunteer work I did was the highlight of each week.
"No matter how difficult the work could be, I noticed that on the days that I had to go for my volunteering shift, I would literally jump out of bed because I was just too excited. So I decided that after graduating, I would do what I love."
She added: "I have learnt how to listen, how to be present with someone, and gained knowledge about the community and what things are like on the ground... Those whom we call our care recipients have at least as much or even more to give and teach me."
Her mother had also worked at Brahm Centre and was its head of counselling and psychotherapy. Ms Chew Chia joined the centre a few months after her mother retired.
Her father is a semi-retired adviser in philanthropy in a local university. She has an older sister and a younger brother.
She said: "After hearing my mother's stories about her work, I knew that Brahm Centre would be a place where I could learn more about serving the community.
"My mum couldn't give details about the cases due to sensitivity issues, but she talked about the skills she used to manage the cases and the breakthroughs made."
Ms Chew Chia also felt that working in a smaller charity would allow her to take on more responsibilities and expose her to different types of cases in the healthcare sector.
When asked what her family and friends thought of her career choice, she said most were supportive, but noted that some friends were sceptical or had financial situations that would make it hard for them to not opt for better-paying jobs.
Brahm Centre executive director Angie Chew said of Ms Chew Chia: "She has natural kindness that people just take to, and this is an asset when you are in the caring profession. It is wonderful that a young person like her wants to care for the elderly instead of chasing material wealth."
Ms Chew Chia said: "Some young people hold back from joining this sector for different reasons, such as financial or family pressures.
"But for those who have the option but never explored it or just dismissed it, I would encourage them to challenge themselves to make a difference, because the reward is immeasurable."
An enthusiastic crowd of library staff gathered in Widener on May 4 to listen to Shao Wei Chew Chia ’17 and her academic advisor Suzanne Smith discuss Shao Wei’s senior thesis research on a topic of special interest to Harvard Library. The discussion brought together staff from Harvard-Yenching, Houghton, the Archives, Preservation Services, Lamont and Widener.
Shao Wei Chew Chia will graduate from Harvard this May with concentrations in history and literature and anthropology. Her senior thesis explores the myth of Chinese proverbs in Widener. Harvard Library’s Ask A Librarian answer on this topic has been viewed more than 176,000 times, and Robert Darnton’s Wall Street Journal op-ed from 2012 discusses the strength of this myth. Shao Wei uses as a primary source for her research a best-selling book from 2008 by Danny Feng titled Allocutions on the Wall of the Harvard University Library and explores the concept of secular pilgrimage. As Shao Wei described, although the book is fiction, its claims were accepted as fact by many in China, bringing fame and financial gain to its author.
Suzanne Smith, a lecturer in the Committee on Degrees in History and Literature and the director of the Center for Writing and Communicating Ideas, discussed the process of serving as Shao Wei’s academic advisor. She described the intellectual journey of narrowing Shao Wei’s research topic and the various theoretical constructs they considered through the research process. She provided suggestions for effective library outreach to sophomores and juniors as they explore their research interests.
Shao Wei described the series of conversations she had with library staff as she delved deeper into the myth of the proverbs. Several library staff reminisced about moments when their conversations with Shao Wei helped her to find primary sources and contextualize her work. Suzanne described how Shao Wei has unearthed new scholarship on this topic, breaking new ground by finding primary source materials in English- and Chinese-language publications. Barbara Meloni, public services archivist, described how the Archives has looked repeatedly without finding any evidence of engraved proverbs.
Laura Farwell Blake, Head of Services for Academic Programs, reflected, “Harvard as a locus of secular pilgrimage is a familiar concept for all of us who see the many visitors who share the Yard with us. This view of a specific mythology with its home in Widener was a marvelous thesis topic and Shao Wei has created a new piece of scholarship that I so appreciate.”
Cheryl LaGuardia, research librarian at Widener Library, commented, “It was a real pleasure to hear about the research, the process, and how the library contributed to the project.”
Anu Vedantham, Director of Learning and Teaching Services for the FAS Libraries, observed, “At Harvard Library, we help undergraduate students with thesis research all the time. It’s a rare moment when an undergraduate chooses a research topic close to the history of our libraries.”
In addition to this presentation for library staff, Shao Wei has shared her work at Widener as part of Junior Family Weekend in February 2017.
By Anu Vedantham, Director of Learning and Teaching Services for the FAS Libraries
Published on May 10, 2017.