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A drive and a passion to help children with special needs gets a high honor

As a student at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, Zulaikha Ismail,  known also as Zuzu, once served as an intern at a mainstream preschool, where academic pressures ran high even for very young children.

At the time she took notice of one preschooler who stuck to the back of the classroom, demonstrated anxious behavior such as flapping his hands up and down in front of his face, and seemed oblivious to the teachers, who generally ignored him in return.

“I felt it was an injustice, the way he was so troubled but was ignored by the teachers,” she says.

Zulaikha Ismail/Tom Benner photo

Later, while working at Rainbow Centre for two years and subsequently studying early education at Wheelock College-Singapore, she thought back to that student when she learned about autism spectrum disorder and the importance of recognizing the symptoms and the help available for children afflicted by it.

Her ongoing commitment to helping young children with special needs and to making a positive contribution to society has now won Zuzu a special distinction.

Zuzu, 25, who graduates in May and plans to enter the early intervention industry, has been selected from hundreds of other contenders as a recipient of a Young Professionals Group (YPG) Singapore Chapter Scholarship.

As stated by the Singapore Institute of Technology’s website, the non-profit Young Professionals’ Group believes in helping young adults achieve their dreams and build people of character. It offers a character based scholarship along with lifelong mentorship with the primary goal of encouraging and empowering young adults to realise their potential and pursue their dreams. YPG chooses students who want to make a difference in the world and think of the larger good, the website states.

The very competitive scholarship selection process involved three stages — a debate competition, a one-to-one interview about life aspirations, and the creation of a sustainable business strategy. For the latter, Zuzu helped design an app to help parents find open spaces and enroll in waiting lists at schools for special needs children.

Zuzu is now in a very select company and joins a global community of like-minded mentors and scholars devoted to providing mentorship for young people.

She is humbled by her new distinction, and hopeful that it helps her to learn from a mentor and make her dreams come true.

“I have a lot of dreams, things that I want to do, but I don’t have the right people to point me in the right direction, what should I do next, who should I meet, who should I talk to,” Zuzu says. “With this scholarship, I can continue with what has been burning in my heart for so long, to make the world a better place, to help these little angels.”

Separately, as part of a school advocacy project, Zuzu and several classmates developed a brochure to help preschool teachers to spot symptoms of special needs children in mainstream classrooms.

She adds, “Wheelock College has been a real stepping stone for me. It has helped to reaffirm my beliefs and the path to what I want to do in life.”

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