Conversations with Melanie Tan

Melanie Tan is currently the Programme Manager at IDEAS Hub Dover in United World College Southeast Asia (UWC SEA) Dover. The IDEAS Hub seeks to inspires and supports students and the broader UWC community to explore, innovate, collaborate and create sustainable solutions to shape a better world. She is mainly in charge of creating multidisciplinary programs for K-12 students. Melanie graduated from Singapore Management University with a degree in political science. She is passionate about helping students thrive in an increasingly unpredictable and complex world.

Outside of her job, Melanie has a keen interest in art. On her off days, she can be found doodling in the park.

How would you describe your typical workday here?

Mel: As programme manager, I need to meet a lot of people every day and also advise the kids on competitions and events of a Design and Technology nature. So, a typical workday would look something like: I come in in the morning, I talk to my colleagues about the rundown for the rest of the programmes lined up for the week, then I meet with the different departments to talk about their needs and discuss what the students are learning in class and also outside of class.

At 11.30 am, that’s when all hell breaks loose – we have 70 kids coming into the IDEAS Hub, coming into this space and taking up saws and hammers, and trying to make something to call their own. We love seeing their enthusiasm. So, everything they do –cutting, sawing, 3D-printing things, or playing with the electronic bits – they will do here in this workshop space, and we make sure no one gets injured or hurt. Sometimes they use the equipment here to make props for their Harry Potter or Star Wars themed movies at the green screen room.  Kids always have a lot of projects – personal projects, projects for class – and it’s always interesting to see what they have every day. Just the other day, one of them 3D-printed a wand to so he could be Harry Potter in his class’s movie.

After this, we usually break for lunch. Subsequently, I will meet people from different organisations who would like to co-create programmes together with us, or make site visits too. For example, I have met with space entrepreneurship companies, big technology companies and video production houses. We also have parents who come in who are very interested in this space. So, we give them a rundown on what they can do at the space. The IDEAS Hub isn’t just for students, it’s actually for the community, meaning staff, alumni, and anyone involved really; so even the staff’s kids can come even if their kids aren’t from UWC.

When school ends at 3pm, we have some students who come in wanting advice on their personal projects. They are mostly middle and high school students with fairly sophisticated projects. One of them is making an electrical guitar from scratch. Another student is making a shoe by 3D printing a shoe mold. We also mentor students who need guidance in organizing competitions. At 6 o’clock, it’s the end of the day for us here!

Have you always been in this line of work?

Mel: No – when I just graduated in 2015, my first job was with a social innovation company. It was quite similar to this one but my work specifically focused on furthering the conversation on the circular economy in the region.

When I was looking at my curriculum vitae applying for this job, I had an epiphany that education was my real passion. In university, I had participated in 2 education themed competitions: one public policy competition in Malaysia in which I was a semi-finalist, and another international one in Slovenia. I always was very concerned about education, but I was a bit hesitant in making it a full-time job.

Did you always know that working in social areas – social innovation and impact, and now education – was something you wanted to do?

Mel:  It was something that was my passion but not I would never have thought of making it to be my career.  There’s a lot of self-discovery that has to take place for everyone before they decide what career they want to pursue at the end of the day. You might not get it right the first time, it will take a few tries and experimentation.

When I was in university, I was like ‘Okay, maybe I’ll have a stable job, go for professional training programmes, and then maybe slowly slog my way to the top.’ But I realized that I’m not really a stickler for rules – I can and do tolerate them – but I thrive in a creative environment. Many organizations are now looking for ways to innovate and remain relevant in a tech driven world. So, what better way than to come in and say, ‘Innovation exists in the intersection between one field and another field’, and if you have that ability to pull these two fields together and make something new out of it, you would be very much in demand. 

So then how did you find your way into this job?

Mel: It all happened by serendipity. I knew Colin, who was already working here at that time who shared a post about this job opening on Facebook, and I just clicked on it! Really, it was just being at the right place at the right time, and having the skill sets that they needed. They happened to be looking for someone who was connected to the local creative community and who was also passionate about education and interacting with students. I won’t say I was – or am – the most qualified. I mean a lot of parents ask me, ‘Oh, what’s your background? What did you do? How did you end up here?’ But there’s no Master’s in Programme Management you can take for this, so all you can do is really to find a need to which you can contribute some value, and make it all work out.

What a ‘Programme Manager’ of a creative space or makerspace traditionally looks like – or is ‘supposed’ to look like – really depends on how you will define it as a person. You would never have seen a Twitter account manager or social media account manager as a common job 10 years ago. Jobs come up because of a need, or disappear because there is less of a need. And when there isn’t a specific job anymore, what else can you do? You need to keep asking yourself these questions to find a fit between your area of expertise and an area of need out there.

What were some of your considerations or reservations that you had when considering switching jobs?

Mel: Working in a start-up as my first job taught me a lot of things. Unlike a big organization where you can specialize in a particular skill set, you needed to do a little of everything when working in a start-up. It wasn’t easy but it definitely prepared me for working in UWCSEA. I felt very grateful to be given the opportunity to travel extensively around the region which gave me a broader perspective of the innovation industry in Southeast Asia in my previous job.

I decided to move to UWCSEA because I wanted to experience working in a big organization. It is a forward thinking school that is well known for integrating very progressive ideas into its curriculum. The school strongly encourages students to be change makers in their own communities. As it is one of the best international schools in the world, I knew that there were many older and experienced individuals who were applying for the managerial job. I was quite nervous. I kept asking myself whether I would be able to handle a manager position after only a year of formally working.

I was very lucky to have a supportive boss who would take time to guide me especially in the initial stages when it took a bit of time getting used to working in an organization of 300 staff and 3000 students (159 nationalities and 50 languages spoken!) from just a team of 7 people.

What would you say have been some of the highlights of working here for you so far?

Mel: I think it would definitely be the working environment. It’s a very important factor that some people may not look out for. Work doesn’t exist in a vacuum, how enjoyable your work is, depends on whether you have supportive colleagues and the culture of the company. To find out what kind of culture best suits you, try to intern in as many companies as possible to get a feel of what kind of space you would like to be in for 10-15 hours of your day.

The college staff are generally very warm. We greet each other even though we don’t know who they are. I love interacting with the very different groups of people at the college: there’s the facilities people who are really good at the technical work, the teachers who engage with politics, society and culture, and finally you have the precocious students who are very eager to learn.

That aside, I would say one of the highlights was definitely where one of the students who religiously goes to the local space enthusiasts meet ups (Astropreneurs) was telling me enthusiastically about building a filter for Martian water. He told me with much fervor ‘We’re going to create a replica of Martian water.’ And my brain just froze – what was I doing at 15, at his age? And he continued, ‘I have it all planned. I have put together a team and timeline. We should be able to launch within the year!’

Can you imagine yourself doing that at 15? He was just really passionate about what he was doing – he would tell me with such conviction, telling me that Elon Musk cannot provide all the solutions that we need to help us get to Mars, so we must come up with them.

 How do you usually respond when students’ parents ask about your qualifications as a Programme Manager?

Mel: Usually I tell them what I’ve done so far in the makers’ scene. Being the project lead for a 10-city product design competition required me to travel to different cities in Southeast Asia and did the conceptualization, liaison, sponsorship, even the marketing. I had some help on design, but had to do some of it too. That’s my background and experience. I think I also come from the point that I’m – okay, not the same age – but really quite close to the students’ age, and capable of relating to them. I also share about my experience in education and my understanding of how to prepare the students from a young age in order for them to meet the expectations of employers who want you to have work experience even when you are fresh out of university. It is the mindset of learning you need to develop more than the hard skills.

Would you say that there are any formal or traditional requisites or qualifications for this job?

Mel: What a Singaporean thing to ask! No formal qualifications, believe it or not. Because you don’t have to a master at all of these woodworking, cutting, electronics, workshop skills – but you definitely need to understand how these all work, and understand the processes and new developments in these areas. For 3D printing, you might need to understand the basics and the basis of 3D printing, but not in detail. What you really need to know is how 3D printing is being applied in various industries and the impact of the change.  This is also true across other fields be it in illustrating, computing, or coding, whatever the skill is.

Sometimes some stduents will tell me, ‘Oh, I don’t know how to do this’ and I’ll just whip out my phone, ‘Okay, I don’t know too, but this is how we can do it, together.’ Being constantly willing to admit you don’t know something, but then working on finding out about it – this mindset of lifelong learning is really one of the things you need to have. Most skills can be picked up anytime, anywhere but it’s usually just a matter of how committed you are to doing so. As a Programme Manager, when you create programmes, it’s like a teacher’s work really, you need to have learning objectives, need to know how it all links together and be willing to plug the gaps and go deep into the details. It does help if you have teaching experience but if you don’t, you would need to work very closely with the teachers in the school to complement the students learning outside of the classroom.

What are the professional competencies you would consider most important or relevant to your work?

Mel: Communication, continuous learning, managing conflict, valuing diversity, adaptability, and mentorship.