Tan Xi’en Rachel is currently assisting Professor Lucy Reed at the Centre for International Law and is an incoming Practice Trainee at Rajah and Tann LLP.
Rachel was a Foreign Service Officer (Political and Economic) in the Southeast Asia and Europe Directorates at the Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs before she enrolled in NUS Law. She holds a BA (Honours) and an LL.B (Honours) from the National University of Singapore (NUS). She was awarded the Special Book Prize in European Studies for being the best student in the programme in AY 2010/2011 and was placed on the Dean’s List in AY 2009/2010 during her BA. At NUS Law, she was awarded the Best Memorial (Individual) in the Mallal Moot Competition in 2015, was a semi-finalist in the Drew and Napier Advocacy Cup Competition in 2016, and represented NUS at the National Round of the Philip C Jessup International Law Moot Court Competition in 2017.
This is a letter addressed to her 26-year-old self in the first year of the GLB programme at NUS Law.
Law school is a dream come true for you. You didn’t qualify to study law locally after you received your A-Level results, and couldn’t justify spending the money to study law in the UK. You were burnt-out and broken from your former job and this offer from NUS Law seemed like a three-year break. So you took it.
You will feel a little out of place because of your age. You will give up at least three years of disposable income and watch your friends settle down, buy their homes, and get promoted. Your peers will supervise you during your internships. But do not compare yourself with them. Detours take courage, and you must remember what an immense privilege it is to have the support that you have to chase your dreams.
Here are three things I would like you to remember.
1. Be grateful for what you have
Stepping through the doors of law school is a privilege in itself. You will face your fair share of angst – you won’t understand what consideration in contract law is for months, you will feel overwhelmed by legal theory, at times completely lost in equity class, and sometimes puzzle about the nature of constitutional law.
But you will have enough help to make it through. You have wonderful batch-mates enrolled in the same programme. They will walk this journey with you. You will become fast friends. You will spend many precious hours with them discussing legal arguments and life aspirations. You will collectively joke about how you cannot keep up with the younger students, because all-nighters leave you worn out. But you will also collectively determine to do your best, because you know the sacrifices your loved ones have made for you to be in the hallowed halls of NUS Law.
You will also have professors who will offer you summer jobs without hesitation when you tell them that you need work. You will have wonderful former colleagues who ask you to teach their kids part-time so that you can live comfortably. In short, you may not have a perfect GPA, but God is good, and your life will be full.
2. Focus on what you love
You will meander a little in your first and second years, but you will discover that your first love pertains to international work. The years in the Foreign Service have ignited a spark that you cannot stamp out even though you are no longer there. You will be irresistibly drawn to international law and spend almost all of your final year engaged in learning the craft of international law advocacy.
You will compete in the National Round of the Philip C Jessup Competition and lose by a narrow margin. You will not go to Washington DC, while your friends represent Singapore in Vienna, Oxford, and Hong Kong. You will feel the heart-wrenching regret and emotion that comes from failure and unmet expectation. You will blame yourself. But as your moot partner put it, you cannot be defined by decimal points. They may occasionally haunt you, but you must strive to live beyond failure.
And so you will endeavour to live beyond this. You will set your mind to thoroughly enjoy the process of learning and improving in each international law class. You will seize the chance to do what you love and learn as much as possible. You will eventually have the opportunities you now have because you decided in your last year to give it your best shot and to enjoy every moment of doing what you love. You will also find that there is a special joy in being engrafted in a community of people who truly love what they do.
3. Give back to the community
Lastly, you are no longer in government service. But you can serve your community no matter where you are. You must give of yourself whole-heartedly. Don’t forget your idealism and don’t become hardened simply because of what you may see. You must make a conscious choice every day to believe that the law makes a difference, and that investing your efforts in others, and in the community, has meaning beyond measure. Keep your faith, and look to the examples that inspire you on what a life in law should be like.
I promise you your money for law school will be well worth it.