By NG ENG HAN
During my primary and secondary education in Malaysia, I remembered writing several essays about travelling, and how teachers said it was important because it enabled one to meluaskan pengetahuan (broaden one’s knowledge). Although I wrote all those essays espousing the advantages of travelling, in hindsight, I didn’t really understand how the concept could actually benefit me.
Fast-forward 5½ years after SPM, in 2009, and here I am in Santiago, Chile, close to the end of my second study abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina, having just visited a Chilean friend I had befriended during my study stint in Barcelona in 2007.
For me, the past five years have been an incredible eye-opening journey as I travelled through 20 countries, lived in five countries across four continents, and met people from over 100 different countries.
I hope that detailing my experiences here would inspire others who have similar dreams to reach for the stars and also shed light on how to make these aspirations a reality.
Given the experiences I have had, one might think that I come from a super-wealthy family. The reality is that I grew up in a household where both my parents were government servants for many years, and would not have been able to fully fund any of their three children to foreign universities for higher education.
In academics, I was good, but not great, and rarely ranked within the top 10 in my class. However, I did eventually manage to obtain excellent SPM results and record notable achievements in extracurricular activities, all of which were important in helping me secure the opportunities for the next phase of my education.
After SPM, I applied for several scholarships and was fortunate enough to be awarded a 75% scholarship to study at the United World College-USA (UWC-USA), in addition to a full scholarship by the Public Services Department (PSD) to Germany.
For those who are not familiar with UWC-USA, it is one of 12 international boarding schools around the world that focuses on promoting international understanding by bringing students from dozens of countries to live and study together.
Although the PSD scholarship seemed the more lucrative and secure option at that point, I defied the advice of friends and relatives to opt for UWC as I felt I was able to challenge and grow myself more in a completely unfamiliar environment.
That gamble certainly paid off. In UWC-USA, I had an incredible learning experience living together with students from over 90 different countries. Through UWC, I also found out about the concept of financial aid, and every year, many Malaysians manage to secure necessary funding for tertiary education there.
This is largely still a secret among most students in Malaysia but everyone who desires a tertiary education and cannot afford it should know that the United States is the only country in the world where financial aid and scholarships are made available to a large number of international students on a wide-scale basis.
After UWC-USA, I gained admission into Dartmouth College with a generous financial aid package that required me to spend even less than a student in a Malaysian public university would pay.
Dartmouth provided me with all the resources necessary to achieve my dreams, in areas as diverse as food and lodging to health insurance and pocket money for study abroad programmes.
The first reaction people usually have when I relate my experience to them is to tell me that I am really lucky. I acknowledge that being blessed has definitely played a part in things.
However, from my personal experience, grit and the willingness to work hard is equally, if not more important, as well as the fact that opportunities are abundant if one is willing to work hard enough.
I have met many Malaysians in the United States and abroad who are pursuing a variety of their own dreams, even if they were originally from less privileged backgrounds because they were willing to make it happen.
While you do need a little bit of luck, it really boils down to passion, hard work and initiative that will provide the desired results in the long-term. In short, you can shape your own unique experiences too!
Back in the airport, I reflect about my recent stay in Argentina, where I studied their political history and learnt how it and other Latin American countries had huge immigration waves also in the late 1800s and early 1900s like Malaysia.
However, it seemed to have done much better in fostering a national identity that supersedes the various ethnic identities that existed after immigration.
Instances like these help me critically reflect upon my multi-ethnic experience growing up in Malaysia, and even after being exposed to such an incredible amount of new knowledge over the past five years, I still feel like I am only beginning to experience the tip of the iceberg of how melancong (travelling) can help one meluaskan pengetahuan!