Conversations with Michelle Ow

By Janice Chrysilla and Kuo Pei Yu

Michelle Ow is the founder of Chrysalists, which aims to support youth in period of transformation and change, drawing on the idea of a chrysalis and the changes that such a life-stage brings about for a butterfly. By providing the right support for youth through Chrysalists’ programmes, though, Michelle believes that youth can emerge from periods of change, stress and trouble transformed for the better. This role of supporting youth through youth training, facilitation and coaching realises a life-long aspiration for Michelle to become a teacher – though she never knew this would be the form this dream of hers would take.

My name is Michelle, and I support young people through training facilitation. Youth coaching is where I try to understand youths better by listening to them and trying to understand their goals and dreams.

 

When I am not running programs, I do administrative work and connect with people who are also involved in youth work, such as teachers, trainers or facilitators. I also coach trainers and facilitators, and interact with parents too.

Since young, I have always aspired to be a teacher. In secondary school, my results dropped and I wasn’t doing very well. I had my first Outward Bound programme in junior college – and that was when I realised I can actually accomplish something.

 

I was in the Trim and Fit programme all along, and I never thought that I was cut out for outdoor activities. My first experience with Outward Bound proved otherwise, even though I may be clumsy at times. I also learnt that education is not necessarily bound to the classroom, and that experiential learning may yield greater impact for the participants through its own engaging methods. These sparked my interest in engagement through outdoor facilitation.

 

After A levels, I enrolled into Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s Mass Communications. I joined the Outward Bound club and started learning hard skills such as kayaking and rock climbing. I also read up more about Outward Bound, and even went for two more courses in Australia and New Zealand, where I learnt how to make outdoor programmes more engaging and impactful. I also met friends with similar interests.

Different programs will have varying aims, depending on the target audience. My business, Chrysalists (http://www.chrysalists.asia/), aims to support youth in periods of transformation and change.

 

Chrysalists came from the word chrysalid – the cocoon phase. Support here is more of providing a listening ear, empathising and being compassionate rather than giving solutions. Chrysalists is really to support people out of of care, concern and compassion, instead of from perspective of judgment.

 

I started Chrysalists as I realised that people typically feel very stressed and troubled when facing change – especially if such change has to come from the inside, such as habits, value system and beliefs. During this period of change, one may feel very uncomfortable and need some support. I am also speaking from personal experience – I would have appreciated if someone had supported me through my own period of transformation and change.

The youth has always been my primary target audience ever since I first became a camp facilitator. Back then, I focused a lot more on hard skills such as outdoor activities. Then, I realised I want to also be doing something that I can continue even when I am 40 or 50 years old – so I thought of delving into soft skills.

 

Having worked with the youths for so many years, I also considered the impact I want to leave with them. I asked questions such as, “What happens after they go home?”, “Do the parents continue what they went through and continue to support what they did during the camp?”, and “Do the teachers support them after?” Sadly but frankly, a lot of the things that we do during the camp are usually not sustained beyond the camp because adequate support is not provided. When the impact is not sustained, the effectiveness of the programme may be questioned. Nonetheless, I do not blame the parents and teachers because they may not have the necessary tools to do so.

One of my freelance work includes working with Reactor (http://www.reactor.sg/), an entrepreneurship training company for students aged 14 to 24. I have been working with them as part of the facilitation team since September 2017, and I facilitate their training sessions and enhance what they already have.

 

Besides that, I also do freelance work in community engagement programs. Such programs are a kind of public forum where people come together to share about a topic. I recently did a focus group on Elder Shield, and also did other groups on CPF and freelancers. A regular one is on new citizen engagement, an engagement program for people who come to Singapore and apply to be citizens.

 

Another recent freelance work that I did is in mindfulness, with an organisation called Centre for Mindfulness. They train teachers, children and corporations in reducing stress, increasing happiness and increasing productivity, etc. So in the midst of learning about mindfulness, I also practice it and realised its usefulness. It is not so much about the method or approach, as having the attitude will help on a day to day basis.

 

All in all, I am still trying to formulate the direction Chrysalists should be moving towards. For now I have figured out two areas, which are training and coaching.

I think working with adults is a bit more challenging, especially in terms of their approach to learning. The past 4-5 years have been eye-opening for me as I learned how to interact and engage with them. I also found out that it takes some time for adults to be accustomed to change, because their education had taught them to apply what they have learnt instead learning new things along the way.

 

More adults are becoming open towards change. They have been asking questions and taking courses etc. In order to understand them, we need to empathise and listen to their challenges, their concerns and fears. Doing so is in line with Chrysalists, as we are all about empathy and creating relationships with people, no matter what age group they are.

It is important to know what you are getting yourself into. If you have decided be a freelancer (in any industry, not specific to coaching and training), you need to be prepared for uncertainty. Freelancing can give you an stable income, but the income is not fixed.

 

So it is important to understand the difference between what is stable, what is regular and what is fixed. Stability is very dependent on whether I feel safe. For example, having family and friends with me may make feel safe even if I am only earning S$500 a month. Stability is not fully based on financial circumstances, unless you are the sole breadwinner and you are the one that your family members depend on.

 

Regular pay means getting paid monthly. It is not the same as a stable nor fixed pay. For freelancers, not having a fixed pay makes it important to have a good management of expenses. It is up to the individuals on how they want to manage this.

 

If I were to give a piece of advice to people who are freelancing, I would ask them about their priorities: fixed/regularity/stability? A regular job will be suitable for one who would like a fixed pay. If money is not your main pursuit, you can consider freelancing for experience and exposure.

 

Challenges of freelancing, if at all, is to find avenues for regular pay. It is important to be attached to a few companies as they have different peak periods – having less than five will be advisable. Nonetheless, it ultimately depends on the industry. It is important to know how regular the work sessions are and when the peak periods are at for the different companies.

 

For example, for leadership programmes, I know that the cycle will be from February – June and July – August during non-exam periods in schools. Thus, engaging in adult work also helps to balance out my workload, especially during these exam periods, so that the pay is somewhat regular.

The potential to impact people makes me excited. Once I’m in the room and I start seeing participants coming for the workshop, I feel the energy and I look forward to seeing where these participants will go to, and how I can support them in their development.

Yes there are, again because we are all humans. There are times when I wonder if the participants do have takeaways from the workshop, and how I can enhance the experiences for the participants, especially when they don’t feel very fulfilled after the activity. There are not a lot moments like that, but enough to keep me reflecting.

 

Other moments include a mismatch in the expectations between the participants and the clients. There might be a tension between schools’ expectations of the programme and what the participants want. For example, some students attend the workshops simply because they are forced to.

 

Thus, we will need to build a stronger relationship with these participants and fulfill their expectations at the end of the course. We do so by tailoring the courses to their needs, although this may not be what the clients hope for. It is thus important to consider who my client really is.

 

While the practical approach is to listen to schools, it is also important to engage the participants in the process. Pragmatically speaking, we will be able to fulfil the expectations of both stakeholders when feedback from the participants are good.

I feel that all my experiences shape who I am today, thus I do not have any major regrets. This is also how I live my life by.