Conversations with Tong Xueyin

By Jessica Ho

Xueyin is a program coordinator in Climate Conversations. A young graduate with many interests, she had interned for 6 months and attempted several part-time stints before embarking on her current position with Climate Conversations. Here, she shares with us her unique experiences of working in a volunteer-driven organization, and her reflections from working with advocacy and sustainability causes.

Hi, I am Xueyin! I am a program coordinator, the only paid role in Climate Conversations. Climate change is a topic that we don’t really talk about in our daily conversations – so our aim is to normalise the conversation. We hope to understand the problem and to support the solutions, so that we can advocate for change. 

Climate Conversations wishes to tap on people’s social circles, since most people are probably more likely to engage in such conversations with their friends in a casual setting. So that’s the idea – your friends are like the ‘hosts’ who will invite others, and we will send a facilitator to facilitate the conversation with a structured program that our volunteers have designed. This also makes it easier for the hosts who don’t have to preach to their friends – we send someone to do that job! (laughs)

My job is to coordinate hosts, and I am also in charge of recruiting and training new facilitators. I try to integrate them into our volunteer community, and to continually undergo skills training. I also build partnerships with organisations who may be interested to host their own conversations in corporate positions. 

Mmm, I think this experience has been the most unique one so far. I have interned with non-profit organisations before, but the difference is that everyone else in Climate Conversations are volunteers. The dynamics with working with volunteers is also very different – they are doing this in addition to their full-time job, to raising kids… so I am always in awe of how much they contribute to it. For external organisations that approach us, there is probably already some alignment in our mutual goals. Many of our partners have been very supportive, and we are very thankful.

I think there are a few important aspects in working with volunteers. The first one is recognizing talent, because you have limited manpower. Instead of letting the experienced volunteers handle everything, we need to have an eye for talented and driven people. We can then groom them and hopefully they can take on more roles and responsibilities as they mature. We also have to make sure that the burden is split amongst our manpower.

It’s also about grooming people who might not be ready. Even if they are not fully prepared for the job, you must spend time with them and let them have a chance at trying new things. They may not do it perfectly at first, but that’s ok – because the process of letting them take on a responsibility can help them attain ownership. This is very important for endeavours that are not their livelihoods. 

Before I graduated, I applied for a few places but was unsuccessful. Afterwards, some friends recommended some internships for me so I went for the interviews. It didn’t matter that they weren’t full-time positions. So I interned for 6 months after graduating! Meanwhile, I continued to worry about my search for a full-time position – my Tuition Grant made it mandatory for me to be employed in a field related to my degree in environmental management, and I was due to embark on my Masters in 7 months’ time.

I had very little choices to choose from, and one of them was Climate Conversations. The position in Climate Conversations was actually a part time position, and I was initially disappointed for being unsuccessful after my interview with them. However, I later got an email from Chris (Xueyin’s boss) who told me that the initial shortlisted person had pulled out, and the position is hence open for me. The stars were aligned again! They made arrangements to convert the position into a full-time one, and that’s how I began working in Climate Conversations.

Yes, they were. The first one was a tech start-up, called abillionVeg. It is a vegetarian and vegan dish review platform, and I was involved in marketing and customer engagement. My second internship was with Forum for the Future, a non-profit on sustainability as well. There, I did research work. Both experiences were vastly different, yet possibly interlinked.

Skills-wise, not so much since they are all very different jobs. Mindset, yes – it readied me mentally as a working professional. (So I guess you made use of your internships to understand how the working culture is like and to hence build yourself up from there as a professional) Mhm, that’s a good way to put it!

Yeah. Oh and I just remembered – it is also about the people that you get to know. I always encourage people to build a good relationship with your ex colleagues. Just because you have left doesn’t mean that you burn all the bridges. It’s always good to end on friendly terms – you can drop by occasionally with a gift, or just to say hi! It’s fun to stay as friends with people who work in different fields, and it is also good for you professionally.

It’s very interesting. At first, it’s very confusing. Even my reporting officer (he told me not to call him boss!) is a volunteer, strictly speaking. Everyone on the board is not paid, and I get a lot of advice from the volunteers who are more experienced.  So my paid position does not mean that I lord over them – in fact, I have been very humbled by my superiors who have been very patient and supportive of me. Even the volunteers as well – they are not obliged to help me, but then they still do. 

I mostly report to Chris, one of the co-founders. I think he has been great! I also received mentorship from one of the volunteer’s husband – he doesn’t volunteer for Climate Conversation, but he has been considering helping us in some ways. I personally have benefitted from the mentorship. He gave me a lot of tips and resources on strategy planning, which would be useful for both Climate Conversations or future endeavours. 

These were unexpected gifts, and I’m always very encouraged by the fact that Climate Conversations is very supportive and helpful towards one another. 

I think the nature of our work doesn’t require a lot of hierarchy. Our flat hierarchy is also borne from our limitations – not having enough staff. Chris cares about workers’ rights and welfare, and he has never expected me to do overtime (OT). I think such hierarchies have its pros and cons: the pros include less stress and higher efficiency as I do not have to juggle many levels of clearances for the work that I do. Problems also get solved pretty quickly.  Cons are also inevitable; they may include random tasks that I have to take on. This is especially for tasks where no one has a specific specialization in. 

I totally feel that… even right now, I don’t think I am completely sure of where I am heading towards. Life is very long! I was really stressed in Year 4, because I didn’t have a clear idea of my purpose in life or for my work. 

I am sure many of us have gone through this, but I’d like to say: don’t worry too much! Often, the first job gets you a foot into the field. So it doesn’t really matter if it is part time, full-time, or even just an internship. You will be able to start building your social network, and it will also put you in touch with future opportunities. Since we are young, you can try different things and experiment with new skills. 

For me, I only have 1 year to work – so I know I wanted to explore and get as much exposure as I could.  Besides my internships and my current full-time job, I also had a few part-time jobs. I work part-time at the Urban Farm, an edible garden city, and I also work at a tuition centre. I also did freelance translation work. I didn’t do all of these at the same time, and it was very fun since I had the energy to do them and I got exposure to many different fields. I think this is what youth is about – having the privilege to explore different things. 

There are many NGOs in Singapore, so students can firstly explore what they do. With Climate Conversations, students can take the first step by hosting a conversation! It’s super low-commitment – 2 hours on a weekday or weekend with your friends with our facilitator. Interested individuals can also volunteer with us as a facilitator.