By Amelia Tan
THERE are not nearly enough days in the week for Singapore Management University student Benjamin Loh's volunteer work.
The 22-year-old heads a youth health advocacy group, goes on yearly community service trips overseas and is planning to write a book on life and death to raise funds for a hospice here.
'On average, I spend a couple of hours every day either replying to e-mail, making calls or attending meetings for my volunteer work. I do this in between lessons or after school,' he said.
Last year, the accountancy student decided to train to become a life coach - a role that entails weekly meetings with clients to discuss ways to solve their personal and professional problems.
He currently volunteers at life coaching firm Executive Coach International and coaches 15 students and working professionals for free. His clients are 20 to 40 years old.
All SMU students are required to do 80 hours of community service in order to graduate, but Mr Loh estimates that he has spent 150 hours on community service projects since he joined the university last year.
While he enjoys doing volunteer work for the impact he can make on other lives, he admits that he embarked on it for less than altruistic reasons.
'Let me be frank. I started volunteering to meet girls and, hopefully, get a girlfriend,' he said.
Growing up, he was a far cry from the eloquent and confident young man he is now.
He was overweight and shy throughout his teenage years. He was rejected by all the girls he had a crush on while in junior college and during his first year of national service (NS).
'I think it was because I had self-esteem issues. I was not comfortable with myself,' he said.
During his first year of NS, he found himself passing time on weekends playing computer games with friends and reading magazines.
He started volunteering three years ago at a family service centre in Bishan where he mentored youths from broken and low-income families. He wanted to spend his time in a more meaningful way - and get luckier with girls.
The work forced him to come out of his shell. Gradually, he shed his awkward persona and grew more confident.
'I remember tutoring a boy at a McDonald's outlet. I asked him what he wanted to do with his life and he shared his dreams of becoming a computer game designer.
'I thought to myself, wow, never would I have thought I would be doing this - getting to know strangers and helping them make a change in their lives,' he said.
Mr Loh, who used to dream of rising up the corporate ladder when he was younger, said he is surprised that he has continued volunteering every year with increasing intensity.
After he graduates, he hopes to carve out a career as a consultant to non-profit organisations.
He said: 'I'm filled with a sense of fulfilment each time I see that I can make another person's life change for the better. I know I will not be able to do this if I enter the corporate world.'
He has not told his mother, a sales supervisor, and father, an engineer, of his future plans but does not think they will object.
People he works with said they were impressed by his maturity and ability to engage others.
Mr Teh Huan Ying, a 29-year-old relationship manager at a bank, said he was apprehensive at first about engaging Mr Loh as a life coach, because of his age and the fact that he was still a student. But he said his fears were unfounded.
He said: 'Ben is intuitive in sensing the cause of my problems. He is also non-judgmental and does not prescribe answers to my problems. I feel he is wise beyond his years.'
On the personal front, Mr Loh has been dating a 20-year-old SMU student since late last year. They met during a Social Development Unit event.
'I guess everything has turned out quite well,' he said, laughing.
This article was first published in The Straits Times.