Student Diaries: In the Same School From 5 to 18...

As A Level and IB students across Singapore graduate from school this month, Milly Connor and Sean Nelson share incredible memories of being at Tanglin Trust School, all the way from Nursery through to Sixth Form.
Student Diaries: In the Same School From 5 to 18...
By Carli Allan
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Hundreds of Sixth Formers in Singapore are graduating this week. Exams have finished. Grades have been submitted. And students are saying their last goodbyes to teachers and friends as they exit the campus gates for the last time. For students Milly Connor and Sean Nelson, the last day of term marks the end of an era. It is 15 years since they both walked (or maybe toddled) through the nursery doors at Tanglin Trust School – and they are among a small number of students to complete their education where they started.

Life at an international school in Singapore (and worldwide) is often full of change – families move country (and schools), saying goodbye to friends becomes an annual tradition, and students make the 'big fish to little fish' transition from primary to secondary school.

Both Milly and Sean joined Tanglin Trust School in Nursery, aged just four years old. Milly moved away to the Netherlands for Years 2-5, returned to Tanglin in Year 6, and has stayed until Year 13. She is now moving to the UK to study biology at Durham University. Sean also joined Tanglin’s Nursery in 2006 and has stayed at the school for the past 15 years. As a male Singaporean he will now go on to serve two years of National Service in the Singapore Armed Forces, and then plans to study marine biology at a UK university.

As they say their final goodbyes to Tanglin, Milly and Sean speak to about their most memorable moments, life during Covid-19, knowing all the shortcuts around campus, and where to buy the best muffins!

The first day of school can be a difficult time for any child to face – and it has to be on the definitive list of important childhood memories. There’s likely to be tears, plenty of nerves, and clingy, difficult goodbyes at the school gate. It is 15 years ago – but as Milly and Sean recall there was also a warm welcome and some very big bags to carry!

Milly: “I was only four, but I do remember an overwhelming sense of what I guess you could call belonging. I distinctly remember my mum dropping me off at the door to the class, me becomingly increasingly teary-eyed and anxious, and my schoolbag being outrageously large for me. However, I don’t remember feeling like that for very long; from the very beginning, I have always been conscious of how well Tanglin ensures that new students are integrated and encouraged to step outside of their comfort zones.

“When I returned in Year 6, this was evident. On my first day, each member of the class was encouraged by my teacher to come up to me and state one fun fact about themselves. I remember one girl, now one of my dearest friends, mentioned her love for a popular book series I was reading, and I guess you could say the rest is history!”

Sean: “I distinctly remember first walking onto the school bus as a small, confused infant with an oversized bag, catching the eye of an older Sixth Form girl who I now know was Head Girl at the time. She sat next to me, asked me my name and asked if I was new, reassuring me that everything would be ok, and so I walked off the bus slightly less nervous.

“Whilst I don’t remember much of what happened after that point, I remember loving the tricycles that we would ride at breaktime, as well as getting to know my peers, some of whom I am still in contact with. I also remember my fondness of the sand pits and my excitement for ‘circle time’. After that I am told that I hopped on the bus with much more confidence, excited for the day ahead.”

There are moments in school that you’ll remember for the rest of your life. After spending both their primary and secondary education at Tanglin, Milly and Sean say that their most memorable moments include the school’s International Days and overseas trips.

Sean: “I have made so many memories at Tanglin, but some of my longest lasting memories have been from overseas trips as part of Duke of Edinburgh and CAS (Creativity, Action and Service) programmes. Kayaking 50km down the River Kwai in a tight-knit group, sleeping in tents, and cooking our own meals are memories I will never forget. Tanglin’s trips are always a highlight; I partially attribute my Year 2 trip to a wetland reserve in Singapore 11 years ago to my current desire to enter the marine biology field!

“Other memorable moments include my weekly visits to the Singapore Botanic Gardens. I led a small group for a service project that propagated endangered species’ seeds, bringing some back to plant around our own campus; some have now grown into small trees! I hope that whenever I come back onto the campus, these will serve as lasting memories of my time here.”

Milly: “During one of the school’s International Days, there were stalls that represented all the different nationalities and ethnicities at Tanglin. I thought it was such a fantastic event to celebrate the different amalgamation of people at the school.

“I also hold so many fond memories of the incredible outdoor education expeditions I have experienced in Tanglin. Over the years I have visited places such as Borneo, Thailand and India. These trips taught me vital life lessons and skills, as well as helped me to develop and strengthen my friendships with those around me. One of my favourite moments has to be rafting down the River Ganges, a paddle in hand and a smile on my face, surrounded by friends who had been practically strangers the week before. These experiences have been invaluable, and I know I will carry them with me long into the future.”

The end of the international school year is always tinged with having to say goodbye to classmates who may be leaving the country or changing schools. Milly and Sean have seen many friends come and go over the years, and they reflect on what it’s like to be the ‘stayer’ – the one who doesn’t move.

Milly: “Being an international school in a place such as Singapore, many people come and go over the years, students and teachers alike. I have never felt that I was at a disadvantage or missing out by staying at the same school for the majority of my education. Although I have had many friends come and go, these bonds do not disappear but change and evolve once people move on.

“It has been a privilege to remain in Tanglin for as long as I have. I have had some friendships in Tanglin for over 13 years. That type of friendship and bond is something I am very grateful for.”

Sean: "It was always difficult during Junior School years where my friends would often leave after a few years in Singapore but staying in the same school also means that I have also managed to make some friendships that have lasted for many years. Inevitably, being in the same class as others has allowed me to develop stronger relationships than if I had left Tanglin and been forced to ‘start afresh’. I have also been able to foster good relationships with teachers and staff, many of whom know me very well by now, and understand my capabilities as well as my passions and interests.

“Finally, on a more practical note, it’s always helpful to know all the shortcuts and unknown spots around school!”

With campus closures and online learning, Milly and Sean have both experienced two very unusual years in education. Both students say they have been “lucky” to sit their final IB exams this year, well aware that exams were cancelled in other countries. And they describe Tanglin’s move to online learning in Year 12 as very smooth “despite some technical troubles, awkward call silences and mute-button chaos”.

As they reflect on the Covid-19 pandemic, both Milly and Sean say it has been the social side of school they have missed the most.

Milly: “Limitations on groups of five and social distancing measures have made it hard to host year group or inter-school activities. For example, we were not able to host the annual Christmas Pantomime as a graduating year or have a Prom.

However, we must celebrate the small victories and the efforts of those who have worked to adapt to the times. For example, we were able to have an in-person certificate-giving ceremony in formal attire. Also, we have created initiatives such as the Christmas card project, which involves everyone in the school working on something collectively whilst adhering to guidelines. Although not the same, these events were just as, if not more, memorable.”

Sean: “It was always surreal to look out my window during remote learning and see the roads devoid of cars or pedestrians. I will always remember being the only student on the school bus when we were the only year group initially allowed back into school.

Covid disrupted all of our lives, but as a student I think both Singapore and Tanglin were spared the brunt of massive change. Whilst it has prevented some of the things I have been looking forward to since I came to Tanglin in 2006, such as the annual Muck-Up day, Prom and our Christmas Panto, I feel lucky that Covid hasn’t affected me as much as students elsewhere. Regardless, it has definitely made these years memorable."

As Milly and Sean reflect on the past 15 years, the memories bring back plenty of smiles. Whether it’s Milly raving about Ms Ruben’s “amazing biscuits” or Sean remembering how “Mr Hinckley taught him to draw elephants and tigers”. But here’s what they will miss the most…

Sean: “I will miss so much about Tanglin, but most of all its people. Having spent so much time with them both inside and outside the classroom, it will be a difficult goodbye. However, aside from this, I will definitely miss the variety of co-curricular activities. I doubt there’ll be many other times in my life will I’ll be able to debate in national competitions, perform in orchestras along Orchard Road, and then compete in volleyball and badminton leagues on consecutive days. Tanglin has allowed me to pursue my passions, which have helped to shape me into the person I am today.

“I will also miss Tanglin’s facilities. It will be strange to no longer have quick access to a practice room and recording studio, nor will I be able to walk down into the library to find the answer to a history question.”

Milly: “Simply put, I will miss everything. Even the things I did not particularly enjoy (IB coursework, for example), I now look back on and think about all the skills I learnt from these experiences.

“If I had to pick what I will miss most, it might sound cheesy, but it really will be the people. My friends, my peers, the teachers, the support staff, and Bernadette in the Wellbeing Café who always greets me with a big smile and a “Good morning’. Tanglin really isn’t just a school but a community, one which I know I will miss deeply when I leave.

“I will also miss the muffins in the canteen (they are really good muffins).”

Both Milly and Sean agree on what they won’t miss after leaving Tanglin – and that’s the early morning wake-up calls!

Milly:Though I consider myself a morning person, a 6am rise is never fun for anyone no matter how many cups of coffee you consume. Also, the truly nefarious number of stairs there are in Tanglin. Especially in the Nixon! All joking aside, there really isn’t much I won’t miss about Tanglin, I have come to love all its little quirks.”

Sean: “Although registration starts at 7:45am, which does mean we miss the morning traffic, it is never nice waking up so early. Watching the sun slowly rise from the school bus is always a relaxing sight before the school day, however.”

And finally, after spending more than a decade in the same school, Milly and Sean sum up what makes Tanglin special to them. It didn't take them long to find the answer!

Milly: “What makes Tanglin so special to me and my peers can be summarised in three words: Welcoming, Creative and Supportive. ‘Welcoming’ because of the incredible sense of community and the diversity of the school; no matter who you are, where you come from, or what you like, you will be welcomed with open arms; your differences will be accepted and celebrated. ‘Creative’ because, although the school has been around for nearly 100 years and is steeped in history, Tanglin is constantly looking to the future and staying innovative.

“And finally, ‘Supportive’. I think what sets Tanglin Trust apart and differentiates it from other schools is the degree of support from teachers, other students and faculty members. The commitment and dedication of the teachers really is next to none in all things, sports, academics and the arts.”

Sean: “What makes Tanglin unique is the calibre and quality of teaching. It is clear without exception that teachers are genuinely happy to teach, passionate about their subjects, and inspiring students to learn. I have seen the real bond between student and teacher for the past 15 years.

“This positive attitude is also mirrored in the student body, with universally committed, caring and mature students. When everyone genuinely wants to be at school, it is clear that something is being done right!”

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