Chan Wei Zhang: From EM3 to NUS Computing Degree

He scored only 109 for his Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), but come 1 July 2021, Chan Wei Zhang will not only be receiving his degree from the National University of Singapore (NUS), he will also start work as a software engineer in one of the world’s leading manufacturers of equipment for test and measurement, as well as secure communications.

As a child, Wei Zhang did not like to study. When he was Primary 5, he went into EM3 - a track for academically weaker pupils that was later scrapped in 2008. His eventual low PSLE score landed him in the Normal (Technical) stream in secondary school.

Wei Zhang played a lot of computer games when he was in secondary school, and “Restaurant City” was one of his favourite online games. He was very interested in “hacking” the game by downloading tools or modifying the code to speed up his performance, as well as to get more in-game benefits like points or unlimited money. That sparked his interest in computers and computer programs, and also paved his future in the field of computing.

From ITE to polytechnic

After completing his N-Levels, Wei Zhang went to the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) to study for a NITEC in Info-Communications Technology. He subsequently enrolled in Republic Polytechnic (RP) where he completed a Diploma in Information Technology.

“When I was in ITE, my only goal was to get into a polytechnic, and then enter the workforce. I had never imagined myself going to university,” Wei Zhang said.

While he improved academically in RP, he did not have an eye on going to university until he received his final results. He applied to NUS School of Computing twice, and was accepted on his second try.

Learning beyond the classroom

At NUS, Wei Zhang chose Information Security at NUS Computing as he wanted to specialise in security. He enjoyed the hands-on approach of his course, which has improved his understanding of basic computational theory and concepts, and he was also able to apply those concepts in the real world.

In his third year, he went on an NUS Overseas Colleges (NOC) programme in Israel and interned with Israeli cybersecurity startup company ArcusTeam.

Wei Zhang was heavily involved in the Code for Community programme at NUS Computing, where he volunteered to teach children from low-income families basic programming and basic web development skills. He started as a tutor, guiding primary school-age children on coding. He went on to conduct courses, and was later involved in developing the curriculum as a course coordinator. Besides learning how to better communicate his ideas to others, he also became more adaptable as he often had to change his lesson plans to cater to his trainees’ abilities.

“When I first started at NUS, I was worried that I might not be able to cope due to my educational background. It has turned out to be a lot better than expected – at NUS, I met a lot of open-minded people, and I’ve made many friends and connections. And I have also learnt a lot outside the classroom, by participating in programmes like NOC and volunteer work,” he said.

Wei Zhang added that students should “have fun, enjoy the journey, and do your best”.

“Don’t compare yourself with others because there will always be others who are better than you. If you try, but fall short, it’s not the end of the world. There are always opportunities for you to grow,” he shared.