Fulfilling a lifelong ambition at NUS Law
With her cap and gown and a Bachelor of Laws degree in her hands, Jolene Gina Abelarde has achieved a childhood ambition she once thought was unattainable.
For as long as she can remember, becoming a lawyer had been a dream for Jolene as she had always wanted to advocate for others. But she opted to study mass communications as her family’s financial situation meant that they could not afford the fees for law school.
Now, Jolene is bidding farewell to NUS with more than she had hoped for. She has won accolades in international and local moots, chaired events and led student clubs, started peer support groups to give back to the community she loves, and even received the prestigious National University of Singapore Society medal for outstanding all-round achievements in NUS.
Few would have guessed the journey the 26-year-old took to get here.
A journey of self-discovery
Fresh from graduating among the top of her cohort with a diploma in Mass Communications in 2017, Jolene was offered a scholarship to complete a degree in public policy and global affairs at a local university.
But she decided to put her studies on hold and chose instead to do volunteer work in Cambodia for a year. “I’ve always had a passion for working with underprivileged communities and making a positive change with my time,” Jolene shared.
However, her stint there was cut short when she met with an accident that left her left arm severely injured, forcing her to return to Singapore where she spent over a year recovering. It dawned on her that accidents come with heavy liabilities and brushes with the law. “It made real for me the importance of a legal education and the need to understand the interactions between law and society,” she recalled.
Her epiphany post-Cambodia pushed her to take a chance and apply to NUS Law, ranked as Asia’s top law school. She was elated and surprised by the admission offer, which had set her on a different path. “This debunked a misconception I had – that my polytechnic background would disadvantage me in the application process. My financial concerns were also put to rest when I received scholarships and bursaries to help with tuition fees and schooling expenses – which I am really grateful for.”
Making the most of opportunities
At NUS Law, Jolene found herself challenged by the intellectual rigour of her classes and immensely enjoyed the times spent discussing legal concepts and issues with her professors and peers.
“Lessons were tough but fulfilling,” she reflected. “What I find remarkable is that the way our professors challenge us to critically consider all perspectives when approaching a problem has fundamentally changed the way I think.”
Along the way, the shy student also discovered a newfound passion – mooting. This was unexpected as she finds public speaking nerve-wracking. However, her curiosity was piqued after taking a compulsory mooting course.
Jolene went on to do NUS proud in mooting competitions. Her strong performances earned her second place at Drew & Napier’s Advocacy Cup in 2022, and an honourable mention as Best Speaker at the 2023 VIS East International Commercial Arbitration Competition.
She credits the mentorship she received for helping her overcome her fears. “Thanks to the strong ties between NUS Law and its alumni, I was lucky to have some of the best coaches guide me throughout the process.”
Just as how mooting requires the appreciation of different legal opinions to understand the broader picture, Jolene says people from different backgrounds and disciplines can add value to law school and the legal industry.
She elaborated: “Instead of disadvantaging me, I realised that my mass communications background helped me contribute a commercial perspective in classes. The same applies in legal practice; I am a piece in the bigger picture of what it means to read and practice law.”
Building up the student community
Being the first in her family to attend university, Jolene had initially decided to focus all her attention on doing well academically. However, the support from professors and the School, along with the close ties she developed with her seniors, motivated her to take on leadership roles that helped her grow in confidence and contribute to the student community.
Serving as the chairperson in the Freshman Orientation Central Committee in her first year, she led a team to pivot effectively to online orientation activities for law freshmen when COVID-19 hit. In her second year, she took up the post of Law Club Vice President and made good on the Club’s promises to improve student welfare such as advocating for the provision of sanitary products in women’s toilets at the Bukit Timah Campus (BTC), an initiative that was eventually expanded to other NUS campuses.
Witnessing the challenges faced by students as they adapted to the migration of school activities online during COVID, Jolene co-founded student group Spaces@BTC to raise awareness and provide mental well-being support to law students through activities like horse therapy and terrarium workshops.
The formation of Spaces@BTC led to the birth of the Peer Support Group (PSG@Spaces), which works with the NUS Office of Student Affairs and the Health Promotion Board to train students to provide a listening ear to peers – something Jolene takes special pride in.
“The initiatives are my way of giving back for all the support I have received and I am glad they have helped strengthened the sense of community and care for students,” she said.
Added NUS Law Associate Professor Eleanor Wong who had the pleasure of working with Jolene in many of her roles as a student leader over the years, “She is a rare gem who stands out precisely because she doesn’t put herself first; instead, she inspires through service, leads through example and excels through uplifting her peers.”
After graduation, Jolene is set on an exciting career in international arbitration, confident that the strong foundation she is starting from stands her in good stead as she assists companies and individuals to resolve cross-border disputes.
Reflecting on her time in NUS Law, Jolene shared, “My journey has had its ups and downs but the strong community ties, the mentorship and intellectual journey I had been on have only served to strengthen my conviction to pursue a legal career.”
Keenly aware of the power and duty that come with her role, she added: “Lawyers are officers of the court and I know I am in a unique position to support people, groups and even organisations with their legal issues and to further the public good. It is an important responsibility and I am excited about what my future holds.”
This story is part of NUS News’ coverage of Commencement 2023, which celebrates the achievements of our more than 14,700 graduates from the Class of 2023. For more on Commencement, read our stories and graduate profiles, check out the official Commencement website, or look up and tag #NUS2023 on our social media channels!