This year’s President’s Scholar is passionate about the arts and hopes to explore Singlish at university

Alyssa Loo combines her love for the arts with her volunteer work, and champions youth issues too.

Low Jia Ying

Published: 8 September 2020, 12:19 PM

The President’s Scholarship was handed out to just one person this year – former Raffles Institution student Alyssa Marie Loo Li Ann.

She will be heading to Brown University in the United States to read linguistics, and is the first President’s Scholar to do so.

Alyssa is the only President’s Scholarship recipient announced this year because of a new practice by the Public Service Commission (PSC) to announce only recipients who are pursuing their studies in the current year.

Youth.SG spoke to Alyssa to find out more about her passions and what led her to the scholarship.

She's passionate about the arts

The 19-year-old shared that the arts helped develop her love for Singapore when she moved here from Malaysia in Primary 2.

“The idea of a country seemed very utilitarian to me then – you come here for one thing and you leave.

“But once I started reading local works like SingLit (Singapore literature), and became more involved with Singapore’s art scene, I realised that Singapore’s culture was very rich and it defined what Singapore meant for me.

“It made me feel more attached to Singapore as a nation. That’s why I also feel that I should pass that on, that I should use the arts to build up what it means to be Singaporean, and to build that sense of connection,” said Alyssa, who got her citizenship at 11.

Alyssa (second from left) with some friends from the film society at her junior college. PHOTO CREDIT: ALYSSA LOO

Alyssa tries to combine her interests in the arts with her volunteer work.

She volunteers as a tour guide and does the front of house for arts festivals organised by nonprofits such as OH! Open House. She also applies her interests in graphic design and filmmaking for her marketing roles in Advisory and SGExams.

The arts have helped her to better appreciate Singapore.

She said: “I think there’s much more to saying that you love a country, there’s a lot of nuance to it. You can love Singapore, and not be proud of Singapore in some areas.

“To develop that love, we need to be able to see Singapore from all different perspectives, and I think art is very good at exploring those nuances. When you finish reading a poem, there’s a sense of bittersweet awareness of Singapore’s weak points, but at once, you also appreciate Singapore as a country, no matter how flawed it is.”

She champions youth issues

Alyssa currently serves as deputy design head at Advisory, which aims to give career guidance to youths.

“We recognise that across different schools, there’s very different access to career guidance support, so we try to fill that gap for youths,” she said.

She is also part of the team that runs SGExams, an online community for Singaporean students to share resources.

They provide a platform for students to share tips with each other and to collate study notes for students who may not have the same access to resources as other students.

She said: “We’ve realised that across schools there can be deficiencies in support provided by teachers, if they don’t have enough bandwidth, for instance. Our student community can be the first place that students can go to for homework help if they don’t have that kind of support in their schools.”

Alyssa was also involved in the Youth Corps Leaders Programme, where she and her team partnered with Beyond Social Services to embark on a project that aimed to familiarise themselves with the residents of three rental blocks at Stirling Road.

Her team produced stories on Instagram from the residents to dispel any stereotypes people had about rental flat residents, and to help build their self-esteem and confidence.

Alyssa with children from Stirling Road as part of her engagement with the residents there. PHOTO CREDIT: ALYSSA LOO

She explained: “We wanted to show that there was much more complexity to them, and that they all had unique stories, that they all have things that we can admire.

“We’ve realised that a lot of the kids at the rental blocks also use social media, so whenever we publish some of these kids’ stories, they get to know each other through the stuff we publish.

“They’ll approach each other and say ‘Oh wow! You got featured on their page! You’re famous already!’ We found out that there was a lot of positivity generated that way.”

She's a little bit of a linguistics nerd

Alyssa shared that her friends would probably describe her as a little wacky and nerdy.

She said: “I have a lot of memories of weirding my friends out with a lot of random puns and ideas. I also like sending them strange articles that I come across.

“I have to admit that I’m really a linguistics nerd. When I find out the etymology of something, I’ll write a paragraph about it and send it to some friends. They’ll be so weirded out and think I’m really ‘extra’.”

In her free time, Alyssa enjoys watching Netflix like anyone else, especially bingeing on some anime.

She also writes poetry and reads SingLit, but has recently picked up more non-fiction, such as Hard Choices by Donald Low and Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh, as a result of her post-general election fever.

Alyssa (first from right) at a house visit with Youth Corps Singapore.

Her choice to read linguistics at university

As the first President’s Scholar to study linguistics, some may be baffled by her choice of degree.

“Yes, I’ve seen the Facebook comments,” she said, laughing. However, she stands by her motivation for reading linguistics.

Alyssa was inspired to study linguistics after her English Language and Linguistics (ELL) lessons in junior college exposed her to the dangers of subliminal messaging in the media.

She said: “How news articles decide to write their headlines or angle their stories can change how people receive that information.”

“That really scared me as a writer, because you would think that you have control over language, and that you think that language is only a vehicle to convey meaning, but it turns out that language plays all these subtle tricks on us without us realising. Especially with social media now, we get our information through language 24/7, there’s a lot of danger in that so I think it’s worth studying its effects.”

Alyssa also thinks that there is rich potential in studying Singapore’s diverse linguistic landscape.

“We can just look at Singlish, it’s such a strange linguistic amalgamation. It’s so beautiful, and I think more can be done to study it,” she said.

Getting the President's Scholarship

The President’s Scholarship wasn’t something that Alyssa was aiming for at all.

She said: “As a child I would open up The Straits Times and I would see all the President’s Scholars for that year and they all seem so incredible, making the scholarship feel unattainable. I just did not see myself that way.

“To me I’m just a person who’s trying their best, and I’m still trying my best. So it’s not that I’m blessed with some unattainable intelligence. I still do see myself as a very normal person so I was very surprised to even be shortlisted.”

“I’m also not a person to aim for accolades. I just try my best and if things happen, then it’s great, but if it doesn’t, that’s also fine.

“With the PSC scholarship, I already had all the resources I needed to go to university and pursue what I want and to have a career in the public service in the future. I was already very happy with that, so the President’s Scholarship was really an unexpected bonus for me.”

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