I wrote this a couple of nights ago, so strongly propelled for unknown reasons and overwhelmed with gratitude at my present life. Truthfully, now that I’m rereading I’m honestly questioning, is this story really worth telling? Is it really anything to write home about, as impacting as I think it is? I always feel like my journey here has been one for the books because I came so close to losing everything one too many times, then just as magically, things worked out but quite frankly, don’t I sound pretentious for saying this, what more writing an essay-equivalent of my educational journey thus far? Narcissism sure seems to be a rather curious case. I’m feeling oddly uncomfortable.
But a promise is a promise – I’ll let you be the judge.
(You’re totally welcome to skip, too).
I grew up in an extremely academically-driven family; both of my parents are scholars, academicians and education advocates. Their respective educational journeys are the ones I continue to tell today, part-storyteller that I am. It’s no wonder, and perhaps the reason why I’m so academically inclined – it’s as if it’s innate, quite frankly. I am the youngest of my seven siblings and all of us remember our parents a little differently, especially our mother, because of her different trajectories when we made our respective appearances.
For myself, being the youngest and the one she had at 40 years old, it’s unsurprising that I grew up surrounded mostly by her colleagues, staff nurses, dental students and the setting of our national university. She had by then, received her professorship and was on her way to becoming the dental school’s dean. As a child, my most vivid memories of my mother were those of her running around in-between meetings or classes, slotting time in-between these affairs to send and pick us up from school, feeding us and still somehow, making it on time to the next item on the agenda. In car rides, of which there were plenty, academia politicking was and is a common subject as my parents conversed back and forth about the current happenings at work. Having done their graduate degrees in the States where they spent eight long years in the Midwest, they’re also up-to-date with rankings, Ivy League schools and all that jazz.
Really – honestly, sometimes I don’t know if I could have turned out any other way.
My eight year-old dream you see, was not something that was borne in a moment. Okay, it was – but more than that, it was the result of a cumulative ripple effect of my upbringing. Having six elder siblings meant seeing the college experience happen six consecutive times all through growing up, secretly wondering when is my turn? I went to high school in an all-girls public school; public that it may be though, in truth it’s definitely reputable and deserving of its accolade. I grew up in the heart of the city, my friends are all urban folks as I am – middle-income to upper-class urbanites for parents. Vacations often came in the form of countries abroad and even for the rest of us who didn’t have that same advantage, conversations about other places located oceans apart from home were common that we grew up pretty much knowing it’s only in due time that we take our cues and set sail, destination known.
As a teenager, I had my fair share of fun definitely, but one thing remained consistent: I was focused in this all-consuming goal. I’d believed so strongly that my life will only truly begin at 18 or 19 when I’m finally a college student. It’s silly thinking back now – was my eight year-old dream really just about entering university? Where others wanted to become dancers, singers or whatever else as kids and later, teens – I clutched on to this dream, wanting so badly to grow up faster and live it.
It wasn’t like my high school memories and experience were terrible; not at all. In fact, they’re a large contributing factor behind the person I am now, especially my female-power stances that it’s… funny, thinking back now and remembering my all-consuming excitement at transitioning to college. I jumped right in as early as I could, a little under two months following completion of high school. For all my excitement and build-up though, when the moment finally came… it knocked me out of my sails.
I’d chosen to attend a private college near home under their American degree transfer program – of which they’re known for – settling for environmental engineering, the outcome of a hard bargain. All through growing up my parents wanted me to become a doctor – it’s an Asian thing, I think – and when I finally mustered the courage to say that I really wanted to do something with writing, objections were immediate. I then negotiated with environmental science, because I’d always liked the sustainability-themed projects we did in school, but of course Mum drove a hard bargain, “If you want to do environmental, then it’s in engineering. No buts.” Unsurprisingly she won, I don’t even know how she did it because up until then, despite the plentiful mechanical engineering books in my father’s library I’d never ever wanted, nor entertained and what more wished to be an engineer!
Life is funny sometimes – it really is.
What’s funnier is that upon entering the college, it wasn’t unicorns and rainbows; not at all the stuff of my dreams for eight years. Instead, I was greeted by racism; for an entire year, I suffered in the racially-divided environment. I suffered an identity crisis, foolishly thinking I could keep my shining star status from high school here in this college and most importantly, this crowd. I was wrong. On so many levels, I was wrong.
I couldn’t fit in. I tried and tried, each time willing myself to be more like the mass and less like my real self. It was a terrible period; I’ve consciously blocked as much as is possible about the year spent here until today. The college has a high population of Malaysian Chinese, which I didn’t find to be a problem… except a majority of them were Mandarin- or Cantonese-speaking folks and racially discriminating, less accepting of those who do not speak their languages. They’d act all nice to me initially, thinking I was Chinese… only to realize I’m not – my inability to speak the languages gave me away – and then deliberately ignored me. While I wasn’t shunned, it was very difficult to blend in when conversations were constantly in languages I did not speak. Did they have the decency to switch to the national language, Malay in my presence? Hardly. Conversing in English, for some stupid reason equaled to trying to be a show-off that it was a no-go for them and all the more disastrous for me. It didn’t take long before I slowly muted, speaking only when spoken to and distanced myself, sometimes even going to painstaking lengths to avoid people.
I’d heard about crowds like these before; Malaysia’s a racial melting pot, after all. Unfortunately, the reality is that certain sub-areas are more heavily populated by particular races and not everyone is open-minded and accepting of someone who isn’t “one of them.” The same is sometimes observed in a heavily populated Malay, Indian and other communities. Is it a false sense of security in being part of majority? What bothered me most was not their narrow-mindedness, rather their ignorance. I’d been judged for many things, but I’d never – at least until now – been judged and deemed unworthy due to my skin color. Did I ever see this coming, racism? By my own fellow country people and society? Shame on them. Looking back now though, I’m glad for this experience; it gave me perspective, it really did.
Then there was of course, the scholarship rat race. I’d foolishly thought that I’d been well-prepared for it given my involvements and leadership roles in high school. My resumé for a high school student then was supposedly pretty impressive yet I kept being hit, one after another, by rejection letters. I can’t remember how many applications I had sent in, hopeful and confident at each one but the red light continued to flicker, so damn persistently. I suspect it was due to my major of choice; it’s up-and-coming but still largely uncommon. Sponsors, private or governmental agencies, would much rather invest in more traditional degrees like business, civil engineering and the like. I was a reluctant engineering student who knew it had to be environmental engineering because there was… no way I could survive being say, a mechanical or electrical engineer. All or nothing.
Real Life it seemed, was really only just beginning.
Thankfully, at the pit of pits then – grades were sinking, emotions were haywire and I grew further into myself, a hermit and unable to speak when previously in high school I’d always been the most talkative – the scholarship with the current sponsor came. Ironically, the first one I’d applied to and in truth, only did so because I figured it would finally ease the countless nagging by Mum. Let’s not forget the painstaking three-stage interview process. For a fresh high school graduate with the weight of a failing social life, I was a mess and was convinced I didn’t stand a chance.
But it came. Oh it came, yes it did.
Except… another reality check arrived, too – the application process. The research, email communications, understanding and trying to make sense of time zones, trying to discern the geography of the United States of America and then finally learning the colder reality of the qualifications by the Ivy League and Ivy League-standard school… How foolish I had been, clutching on a naively silly dream of being in the world’s best education hubs thinking they would come crawling to my feet, open and inviting.
For my eighteen year old self then, reality had never felt as icy as that day, when it poured right onto me.
Then came the other reality – I couldn’t meet the pre-university requirement of a minimum CGPA of 3.5. I risked losing the scholarship and with it, the opportunity to relive the long-fostered dream …so close, within the palm of my hands, and then… out of my grasp, just like that. There were tears, so many tears then; I don’t think I’ve yet shed so many as I did that particular period. There were also plenty embarrassing moments of going up to each professor just about begging for some kind of chance to change and up the grades, any grades. I can’t look back at this period without feeling shame, until today; desperation was stark in my very being and all due to a dream I’d held on to for so long – too long. Nothing worked so I took a final leap of faith. I reasoned with the scholarship coordinator, gambling on this – I knew I could not reach that cumulative GPA of 3.5, but I could get it to 3.4 if I achieved a flat 4.0 in the upcoming term. I remember her response so vividly until today, curt and final, “Get that 4.0 and we’ll talk again.”
I knew I couldn’t stay in the college any longer for my sanity, self-confidence and education’s sake. With that, I took upon the most challenging period of my life – at that time this really felt like do or die – and forced myself to get up, get to work and get those damn As. Until today, I have never… worked so hard in my life as I did in those painstaking eight weeks. On my prayer mat too, I don’t think I’ve prayed as hard and desperately as I did then; I’m a practicing Muslim, but I’d never thought of God and spirituality as sincerely and seriously as I did during this period.
Alhamdulillah, my efforts paid off.
She kept her promise – a phone call not long after, I was given the green light to fly. Looking back now, I can say with certainty that those eight weeks served as the foundation of the person I am today.
In all that madness, I decided I needed to fall on Plan B. The Ivy League and its counterpart were obvious no-go – suck it up, quit whining and move on. I needed to focus on getting into a decent school, decently ranked if possible and go on from there. I perused through College Confidential hard copies in the college library and came across, really randomly, my institution. The admissions office was the first of the lot to get back to me – I remember being so excited, calling Mum immediately. Other offers came in due time and quite frankly the other two schools were more known and better-ranked but I’d chosen my undergraduate institution… because it is located in a city – this is the real truth, I’ll admit it now. So silly, so incredibly I’d been. Second, was the fact that they’re one of the few to offer environmental engineering as a bachelors program (as opposed to the common tie-in with civil or chemical engineering) and third is the fact that they admit students on a rolling basis. I could leave as soon as possible: winter, January 2010.
The deal was sealed.
Suddenly long-haul flight tickets were booked, visa was processed and mere two days after Christmas, I made my first long-haul flight, cross-continents, 48 hours in total, lost an entire day due to the time zone differences, aboard a flight with a suspected terrorist on board, got delayed repeatedly, scarred by the TSA and finally… Philly, finally at long last. Such a long time coming, but here I am.
Of course reality had to pay another visit, challenging, “Did you think one hard lesson is all there is?”