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She tried really hard to catch up but even with her best efforts she could only reach the middle level in her school. Lui felt really frustrated because she could never catch up with her competitive peers. But her mother did not understand her predicament and kept urging her to work harder. The pressure and workload increased as she progressed through the grades. Gradually she lost her interest in studying.

As the family purse strings were tight, Lui’s mother did not have the spare cash to pay for her daughter’s tutorial classes. Lui began to work part-time jobs when she was 15 to earn money for her tutorials. She got her first job in a street market where she learnt how to communicate with different people and earned the money for her tutorials herself. This gave her a sense of achievement which she had never felt from studying, so from Secondary Three onwards, Lui did different part-time jobs.

“Work gives me a greater sense of achievement, and helps me more than study does,” she says. “At least, I can take care of myself.”

Lui’s mother did not feel the same way and often scolded her for being distracted from her studies. Lui began thinking about dropping out of the school in Secondary Four. It was the prospect of taking the DSE that helped her make the final decision. Her mother was strongly opposed to it and insisted Lui should at least finish her secondary school even if she only went to school one day in a week, but Lui was determined to quit the system. After a huge quarrel, she dropped out of the school and moved out of their home.

Lui admits it may be difficult for her to look for jobs, but she says she does not regret her decision and she has no plans to take any vocational courses. “You can never define whether a person is good or bad by his certificate. To study or not won’t make a difference to my life,” Lui says. “I have a job for now. I don’t care what other people think.”

Karmen Yan Ka-lai pours a glass of wine

Karmen Yan Ka-lai is proof that dropouts can find success. The 22-year-old is an entrepreneur who has built her online wine-selling business from scratch. But it was a struggle getting to where she is now. She dipped in and out of the education system several times before starting her own business with the help of a Government Grant Loan Scheme.

Yan was born in Macau and came to Hong Kong when she was 14. As she could not get accustomed to the pace of study and the rigid teaching model, she began skipping school under the pretence of sickness.

When Yan was 16, her teachers and family found she had no interest in study, so they sent her on a two-week vocational interest class organised by a community centre. Yan found she enjoyed the training more than she did traditional education, so she dropped out of school. She enrolled on courses run by the Vocational Training Council (VTC) instead and underwent further vocational training in the VTC’s Youth College for three years. Although her parents were opposed to this and maintained that a traditional education would ensure her a brighter future, they gave in in the face of Yan’s resolve.

Despite the more the relaxed teaching style in vocational school, Yan says she was discriminated against and excluded by her peers for taking her work seriously. Although it was a dark period for her, she thinks these experiences taught her life lessons she would never have learned in traditional schools.

Through hard work and perseverance, Yan managed to enter a design school in 2015. At around the same time, she started an online winery business with a friend and got financial support from a grant loan.

Life looked bright and Yan’s family had high expectations, but trouble flared again when she chose what turned out to be the wrong course – Exhibition Design. The heavy workload made her depressed and she cried every night.

At that point, Yan dropped out again to concentrate on her business. However, the business closed down several months later because of a difference of opinion between her and her business partner. It was a huge blow, but with the help of some friends and mentors she finally decided to rebuild her own wine-selling business.

“It feels like I have tumbled to the bottom of my life and stood up from the trough repeatedly,” Yan concludes. “But I have never had any regrets since choosing this path.”