MS AW Mei Shan recalls her English language teacher calling her a stupid student in front of her Primary 6 classmates.

She was hurt by the nasty remark, but it also made her work harder to get into the express stream in Nan Hua Secondary School.

Ms Aw, who is now 22, says: "The teacher was wrong. I am not stupid, but her remark made me realise that I was not working hard enough."

The only child in her family, she scored good marks in Nan Hua where she was the top national police cadet with the best record in co-curricular activities. She was in the science stream in the school and in Jurong Junior College.

When she was 15, her father was struck by a major illness forcing him to give up his job as a factory worker. It was tough for her to study and take care of him while her mother continued to work in a factory to support the family.

She could not get into any of the public universities here because of the poor results she had in the A level examinations. She abandoned her ambition to be a physiotherapist because she felt she did not have the emotional strength to deal with difficult patients.

Ms Aw says: "I felt that I did not have the strength to persuade patients hit by strokes and heart attacks not to give up the physiotherapy that they need.

"My fear was that if they cried, I would cry with them."

A new beginning

Encouraged by her parents to try something new, she joined the first batch of students in the Singapore Institute of Management (SIM) and the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology's (RMIT) degree in business marketing programme.

She signed up for the three-year bachelor's degree programme in 2005 and worked in a Sentosa tourist attraction to earn pocket money.

Before she completed the programme in April this year, Ms Aw applied for a SpeedWing internship at Seaworld in Orlando in the United States.

From May to August this year, she was among the first batch of students from Singapore working at Seaworld's new Aquatica theme park. She earned US$7.60 (S$11.20) per hour. The experience "opened a new world of self-discovery" for her.

The experience made her more independent and confident of her abilities to take care of herself and pursue a career in the tourism industry.

Ms Aw says: "I did not know what I wanted in my life before my stint in the US. When I was there I was living my own life and making my own decisions away from my parents. I had to cook, wash my clothes and shop for groceries.

"Living away from home made me learn more about myself. I made decisions about what I really like to eat and should I go to a party or work overtime.

"I broke the physical reliance on my mother. When I am at home here, Mum cooks for me and washes my clothes. Sometimes she even tidies up my room when it is messy!"

It was an eye-opener for Ms Aw to serve American visitors in the Aquatica theme park that was opened in March this year. They are more vocal than Asians in expressing their appreciation for good service.

"You feel that your services are being appreciated," she says. "It is great to see American CEOs, ordinary workers and families enjoying themselves.

"The theme park brings people together and families, including those with handicapped children, are united when they are in the park.

"It is sweet to see such family unity in action, especially if you are someone who has had a misfortune in your family."

Moving on

Ms Aw will continue to look for other jobs while she is waiting for a reply to her application to be a market development manager in Sentosa Resort World.

Looking back on the days in Primary 6, she says she is not angry with the teacher who called her stupid.

She adds: "If I see her, I will say, 'How are you?' If she wants to know how I am faring, I will say: 'I am doing great!'"