In 2014, Anees Fathima D/O Mohamed Asana Labai returned to Singapore with her life seemingly in tatters.
The then-36-year-old mother of three had just spent the last three years working in Timor Leste before the need to settle divorce proceedings brought her back home.
“I said, ‘okay, while this is going on I need a diversion’,” she told Mothership.
“So I took up studies.”
Up to that point, Anees’ highest qualification — education-wise — was a private diploma; she stopped studying when she got married at 25.
Going back to school, she explained, would allow her to focus her heart and mind on something other than her difficult circumstances.
“It gave me clarity on what I wanted going forward.”
Before long, Anees had enrolled to study at Kaplan in Singapore. After earning a diploma in Business and Law, she found herself presented with an opportunity to pursue a lifelong dream — sit for an undergraduate degree.
By 2016, Anees was furthering her studies with Murdoch University at Kaplan where she pursued a Bachelor of Business in Human Resource Management and Business Law.
Received lots of support
But how did the single mother balance the raising of her children — at the time aged eight, 12, and 14 — with holding down a full-time job as a personal assistant to the chairman of an offshore oil and gas company AND studying part-time?
Lots of support, explained Anees.
Firstly, Anees’ employers were more than happy to give her the time she needed to study.
“The company didn’t initially have study leaves in place,” said Anees.
“But when I started doing my degree, the need was there.”
Anees worked with her boss to put together a proposal for employees to be granted time off to further their studies which was eventually accepted by the company’s management.
This she told me came in especially handy during the exam season when she could use the study leave to revise.
Loved being in a school environment
Of course, that didn’t mean that Anees had it easy. She recalled literally “running to school, eating on the way,” after knocking off from work on countless days.
Why didn’t she do what many working adults might see as the easier option? To just do courses online?
“You may say I’m old school,” she replied.
“I wanted the school environment. I wanted that feel of going to school, of being there, doing my studies, working with my classmates, doing projects and asking questions to the lecturer.”
And that’s why, having done her research, Anees decided that Murdoch University made the most sense for her. The pedagogy at the university included physical lectures as well as online programmes.
Most of all, as Anees described: “it’s a very conducive environment plus very interactive.”
While some may see having to attend in-person lectures as a chore, Anees said it actually provided the motivation to keep the course, not in the least because of the friends she made along the way.
Studying with her princess
One particular classmate (referred to as HL), whom Anees met within the first year of university, quickly became a mainstay in her life.
The pair were inseparable despite their age difference, HL being in her late-twenties.
“The moment we got close, we made sure that most of the modules we took were together. We studied out together, you know like she’ll come over to my home on weekends. During exams we’d study in school, spending lots of hours together.”
HL, or “princess” as Anees affectionately calls her, was also a source of encouragement when the latter needed it.
There were also the lecturers, who Anees described as generous with their time and always willing to explain difficult concepts even outside of the classroom.
“These are the kind of people that really shook me up and brightened my day. The classmates that I had, and the lecturers that I had, (they were) unbelievable.
I’m not sure if (the same) happens in every environment that same way, but it definitely happened for me at Murdoch.”
“These moments in my life, I will never forget”
Yet perhaps the single biggest inspiration for Anees was her children, who showed support through heartening displays of affection.
The kids, Anees said, would tell anyone who listened that their mum was going to university. All of the three children’s teachers, for example, were aware of Anees’ academic pursuits.
Inevitably, with all she had going on, the mother of three found herself with less time to spend with her children; birthday parties were sometimes postponed to make way for school assignments and examinations.
In addition, working in the day and studying at night meant that it was often past midnight by the time Anees would get home.
Yet, in her own words: “They have stuck through a lot of highs and lows with me.”
“My sons would always prepare a meal and leave it on the kitchen table for me,” she said.
On special occasions, such as Valentine’s Day, they’d also wait up to have a little celebration with their mum.
“These moments in my life, I will never be able to forget them.
I’m very very blessed, they are very supportive.”
In January this year, Anees graduated from Murdoch University with her bachelor’s degree.
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, a physical graduation ceremony had to be called off, though the 42-year-old is still hoping that one will be organised once things get better — she told me that she really wanted to savour the occasion with her children.
Anees said that she was excited to apply the knowledge she’d picked up throughout the course of her studies, and had already pinpointed some areas where she could make improvements to work processes.
When we asked Anees, what else she had planned for the future, the life-long learning evangelist needed no time to think:
“I’m planning to do my masters.”
Stories of Us is a series about ordinary people in Singapore and the unique ways they’re living their lives. Be it breaking away from conventions, pursuing an atypical passion, or the struggles they are facing, these stories remind us both of our individual uniqueness and our collective humanity.
Top image courtesy of Anees Fathima D/O Mohamed Asana Labai and from Sharon McCutcheon via Unsplash.
If you, like Anees, would like to upgrade yourself, you can find out more about Murdoch University’s courses and pedagogy by attending their university fair. Find more information here.
Interviewing Anees for this Kaplan-sponsored article made the writer go: “wow”.