NUS Science graduate Wong Zi Heng has achieved much more in his four years as an undergraduate than most, and he did it all while being paralysed in most parts of his body. On 9 July, Zi Heng received his Bachelor of Science (Physics) degree with a Minor in Nanoscience as Valedictorian, proof that he stared down adversity, and won.
At the end of his first year at NUS, Zi Heng suffered a cervical spinal cord injury when he dived into the waters at a Sentosa beach. The former lifeguard fractured a bone in his neck and was unable to struggle or call for help. Thankfully, he was pulled out of the water in time. However, the accident left Zi Heng confined to a wheelchair and largely paralysed from the chest down.
Overnight, seemingly ordinary tasks like getting something from a shelf or going up a flight of stairs became impossible. Zi Heng also lost control of his bladder and bowel functions, could not properly regulate his temperature, and struggled with breathlessness and dizziness as a result of weakened lungs.
This would have been enough to send any ordinary person spiralling into a dark place. But Zi Heng is anything but ordinary. After taking a year off school to undergo rehabilitative therapy, the Ministry of Education (MOE) Teaching Award recipient returned in high spirits, determined to complete his studies and fulfill his childhood dream of becoming a science teacher.
Zi Heng did not let his disability hold him back from a dynamic student life either. A committed member of the NUS Science Club Management Committee, he helped to organise activities such as the Science Bash in 2015 and Science Students’ Fair in 2016, and took part in the Young Educators in Science programme which held workshops for secondary school students and demonstrations at the Science Centre Singapore. Last year, he went on a trip to Germany organised annually by the Department of Physics, where he was able to experience the culture and research environment the country had to offer.
Zi Heng also took up the opportunity to stay on campus at the College of Alice & Peter Tan (CAPT), an option that had not crossed his mind given his reduced independence following his injury. Staying on campus allowed the overachiever to partake in further school activities, including organising and participating in community events through the Neighbourhood Committee and the yearly Community Engagement Festival at the College. He also shared his experience at CAPT with prospective NUS students with disabilities in a session organised by the Disability Support Office under NUS Student Affairs.
His active life at NUS made Zi Heng appreciate all the things that he could still do. “We can’t control the circumstances that we are in, but we can choose how we respond to it. Though every day may not be good, there will be something good in every day that we can choose to be grateful for. Though there may be many things that we are unable to do and times when we feel that we are not good enough, we can choose to focus on what we can do and continue to contribute in ways that we can,” said Zi Heng, displaying wisdom beyond his years.
Zi Heng is grateful for the support of the University throughout his time here, from fundraising to help with his medical fees and arranging wheelchair-friendly transportation to travel between classes, to visits by staff and faculty to keep him up-to-date on coursework and plan his modules to allow time for physiotherapy lessons without delaying graduation. Friends and classmates similarly pitched in, helping to buy meals or prepare his notes for class.
Following graduation, Zi Heng will work in MOE and is excited to embark on the next stage of his journey. He hopes his story will encourage others to work hard to achieve their goals and face life with the same positivity. “I hope that my experiences can continue to inspire more people and through remaining an active citizen, I can continue to contribute to the future of our nation. I also hope that through my interaction with the community, people get to be more aware about the disabled and our society becomes a more inclusive one,” he said.