Being named valedictorian is a huge milestone for anyone, but for Jonathan Tiong, it was especially meaningful.
Jonathan was born with type 2 spinal muscular atrophy. This rare genetic condition causes muscle weakness, and it only gets worse with time. A neurologist even told his parents that he wouldn’t make it past 2 years old.
Despite the difficulties he has faced, not only has he made it to 24 years old, but he’s also become a graduate of National University of Singapore with a degree in communications and new media. Jonathan has always been a hard worker, but he never expected to be given this honor.
“I didn’t think I’d be valedictorian for the simple reason that I was not a typical valedictorian. I didn’t lead a (co-curricular activity), I wasn’t the captain of some sports team, that kind of thing,” Jonathan said. “I studied a lot, got good grades, but so did a lot of other people. So I didn’t really feel outstanding.”
Jonathan may not feel outstanding, but the people in his life can’t help but recognize the hard work and dedication he’s put in over the years. Much of the world, unfortunately, isn’t made with disabilities in mind, so simply getting to and from class — at a school jokingly referred to as the “National University of Stairs” — was a daily struggle.
“Sometimes able-bodied people can take a short cut, walk up a grassy slope. But I can’t do that,” Jonathan said.
But with the help of his full-time caregiver, who is also his dad, Jonathan attended classes using his motorized wheelchair. He was also careful when choosing classes. Any that were back-to-back needed to be reasonably close together in distance. Plus, he had to consider how long he’d be staying on campus, something that could lead to body aches from navigating in his wheelchair for so long.
Everything changed in his final year of school. The pandemic began, forcing classes to go virtual. This was a difficult time for students, but for Jonathan, classes became so much simpler. He didn’t have to deal with accessibility and logistical issues or involve others in getting to and from school, all of which gave him more independence.
“A lot of the time we are told by administrators that: ‘Oh we can’t do this because — rules.’ … But a lot of accommodations are actually a mindset thing,” Jonathan said. “People seem to have this concept that if you want to accommodate the disabled, we need billions of dollars. I don’t think that’s true. It’s a matter of will and decision-making.”
Along his academic journey, Jonathan got an internship at the sovereign wealth fund GIC, but he viewed the idea of getting hired full-time “as a dream or as a fantasy.” Many people with disabilities in Singapore are unemployed, going months to years without a job. That’s why he was stunned to receive a job offer to be their editorial writer a full 18 months before graduating!
Since he’s garnered so much attention as valedictorian, Jonathan has taken the opportunity to shine a light on how we define “success.” He believes the praise he’s gotten is because he’s met traditional markers of success with his degree and the job that followed. All of which are reasons to celebrate, of course, but so are everyday triumphs.
“We need to acknowledge the fact that living with a disability is hard in itself. And every day, the people with disabilities out there who don’t get recognized, don’t get covered, are winning their own battles every single day,” Jonathan said. “If we recalibrate our definition of what it means to succeed, you’ll find that everyone out there who is disabled, toiling away, day in day out quietly, no fanfare — I would say they are succeeding too. We all are.”
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