I’ve been dreaming to study in the US my whole life. I was pretty resolved about going to the US for undergraduate studies. No comprises; can’t push the dream for graduate school even. It was when Maybank offered me a full scholarship to a US university of my choice that I saw my dream come true and alive. I realized I was living my dream when I read Cornell’s admission letter. The journey for this to happen certainly was not a walk in the park.
The whole time, I had no answer to the question “Why the US?” especially for an undergraduate, other than I just feel like it. Well, one year down and now I can answer this rationally. So, why the US?
1. Interesting experiences that let you grow and understand yourself. As cliched as this may sound, living in a new place of new culture and new people has helped me understand myself and encourage the learner (& adventurer) in me. Growing up in the Pearl of the Orient, never have I known that I was in love with hiking and exploring hills and falls. Here, it has become my hobby to explore nature’s wonders in upstate New York. The fact that Cornell has 3 falls and so many trails right on-campus just adds to my thrill.
My one-year in the US has helped me check off some odd listing in my non-existent bucket list. Be a roommate with a snake for 8 months? Check (Yes, pet snakes are allowed in one of Cornell’s dorms). Feed a snake dead rat? Check. Walk by a trail that’s at least 10 meters high with no railing? Check (Note: Depth scares me). Drag two luggage worth 50 kg around 42nd Street, New York City all by myself because I couldn’t find the bus stop to the airport? Check. These memories among others strengthened and made me more confident.
2. Inspiring people. So many amazing and inspiring people surround me every day. I met so many interesting people from all around the world who have influenced my perspective about the world in some ways. The thought-provoking conversations about Southeast Asia and its potentials with friends from Malaysia’s neighbors, the intro-to-American-life mini episodic conversations that lasted for the whole year with my American friends, and the socially responsible acts and brotherhood bond in my Alpha Phi Omega (APO) – Gamma Chapter fraternity are some highlights of social life in my freshman year. Witnessing the complexity in the way people think and regard the world beyond theirs exposed me to some interesting perspectives.
I initially thought I would meet interesting people only among my peers but found out soon enough that my professors will leave a lasting impact on me too. I had a government professor who had a “Caution, landmines!” sign on his office door. I had a Math professor who teared up in front of a 200-people-lecture for racial violence issues happening. I had a Computer Science professor who was friends with Edsger Dijkstra and loved poetry and would tell a beautiful poem every class. I had another Math professor who was obsessed with making surfaces (torus, Mobius, etc) using papers. Maybe it is the friendly relationship between students and professors that motivates us to excel in classes and learn beyond classroom syllabus.
3. Individuality is appreciated. The academic system is the US appreciates you as a person. Your thoughts and ideas matter. Hence, there is never a “stupid” idea or a “silly” question. In fact, you are encouraged to speak up, no matter how silly you may think you sound. There is always support to bring your ideas alive, to assist you through your learning, and to nurture your interests.
Having said these, an opportunity to study abroad, especially in the United States will change you as a person and evolve your being. An opportunity like this does not need to break your bank! Join me in USAPPS 2018 to find out how you can carve your path to study in your dream school in the U.S.
My first time seeing the famous central campus clock tower at UMich
In my upper secondary years, I was often asked where I would be pursuing studies in one or two years time. Back then, I would literally answer, “Aiya, don’t know la..” I just knew one thing, I loved and will always be a big fan of the study of Economics.
I studied in a typical all-girls public high school in Kuching, Sarawak. I happened to be placed in the science stream, meaning I was required to take classes in Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Additional Mathematics etc. Economics was not offered to science stream students in my school. But that did not keep me from reading the ‘The Economics Book’ (yes, this is the title of the book) and ‘Freakonomics’, the first two books I read which sparked my desire to pursue Economics despite being told that I would make a good doctor.
My passion and interest in Economics are the main reasons why I chose to study in the US, eventually. As crazy and unsophisticated as this may sound, I wanted to study in the US because many of the famous economists who wrote the books and articles I read (and whom I admired) were professors in US universities. Nevertheless, I also believed that the flexibility of the US higher education system would benefit my study in Economics. To me, Economics is a broad subject which requires, not only mathematical knowledge but also an understanding in various fields ranging from business to science and technology as well as the humanities like psychology and history. As I worked on my application to UMich, I made sure to emphasize on my excitement to take classes in different departments and how that would bolster my educational journey in UMich.
Having been through a tumultuous sophomore year in UMich, I must say that every amazing experience and aspect of the US education system which I have ever heard of were entirely true. These aspects include a flexible curriculum (as I mentioned before), holistic college experience, a vast array of social and career opportunities etc. But to me, the US education system or at least, my first-year experience in UMich was not only defined by those aspects above.
Visiting an ice cave in the Upper Peninsula with a couple of other Malaysians
Here are two things I learned which are also good reasons why I would choose to study in the US all over again, setting aside my desire to be taught by the economists who wrote the books I read in high school:
1) Your opinions and thoughts always matter
I tend to think of myself as a relatively quiet person since I almost never dare to raise my hand to contribute to a classroom discussion. But here in UMich, my professors told me that they want to know what I think. And that, if you speak your mind out, there is no boring comment or opinion unless you intend for it to be. However, what really surprised me was how my professors often took everybody’s ideas, mashed them up a little, and came up with even more interesting points to add to our topic for the day.
This routine in UMich gave me a newfound confidence as I became more engaged with my peers and professors in class to enrich my learning experience. More importantly, I was able to emulate this confidence in many activities I participated in on campus. I realized that this is how we learn in and outside the classroom as we constantly question and think about the facts in front of us.
2) It is not enough to dream. We need to live the dream.
I really do think that the US education system centers around the theme of experiential learning. We are always encouraged to put our ideas and plans into action whether it is through volunteer work, internships or by joining a club that fulfills your passion. UMich has provided me with the facilities, tools, and services to seek out these opportunities on and off campus.
Seeing all the creative and impactful startups and initiatives on campus, as well as the stellar performance of UMich alumni in their respective fields, have inspired me to act on my dream of using economics to serve the community that I am part of. I start off small by participating in a consulting club that provides pro bono management consulting services to on-campus administration and departments. I see this as a chance to improve my school for the benefit of the UMich community. I am also passionate about the Malaysian community at UMich. For this reason, I decided to join the Michigan Malaysians’ Student Association in their efforts to put together a cultural performance every year.
An entrepreneurship professor once said this to my class, “Don’t just describe the idea on paper. You gotta start thinking of ways to make it happen! …”
Malaysian Cultural Night 2018 Group Photo
Consulting Club Group Photo
Speaking of dreams and passion, I have always wanted to help other students like yourself to pursue your studies in the US. I hope everything I have shared so far will encourage you to delve further into the prospects of studying in the US. I look forward to meeting you at USAPPS 2018 this year! I am more than happy to address any questions you might have about the application process or my experience in the US.
Let’s face it, education in the US is not cheap at all. However, there are numerous ways to finance a US tertiary education. Some of the options include scholarships and financial aid from universities. Scholarships are mainly local and they are provided by, inter alia, Khazanah Nasional, JPA, and CIMB ASEAN. However, most of us are not aware of need-based and merit-based financial aids.
Ben Yap is a rising sophomore at Princeton and he intends to major in Computer Science. Ben had a very humble background: his father was a sole-breadwinner who works as a food vendor at a food court in Ipoh. There was no way that his parents were going to pay for his tertiary education but he has always wanted to study abroad, so Ben took up the Sime Darby scholarship after SPM and pursued A-Level at KYUEM.
Ben did not think much about studying in the US, but when his offer letter from Princeton came in, he knew that it was the right choice to make. However, Sime Darby did not agree on sponsoring him to the US, so Ben dropped the scholarship and looked into other options amidst the chaos of A-Level exams. He knew there was so much more that the US has to offer but he was uncertain of his intended major, which was a huge deterring factor for corporate companies when offering Malaysian students scholarships. Luckily, Princeton offers need-blind financial aid for any admitted students, irrespective of their nationalities.
Princeton gave Ben a very generous offer: Instead of having to pay $65,000 every academic year, he only had to pay $1000 in his first year, and $600 per annum in his subsequent years at Princeton. His financial aid covers his tuition, accommodation and dining meal plans. Princeton even provides Ben with $500 annually for his miscellaneous spendings. To fund his personal expenses, Ben works in Princeton’s dining hall in his freshman year. Although working at a dining hall might not sound glamorous, he got to meet many people from different backgrounds, classes and academic fields. He is also a guide at Princeton during summer, where he brings visitors around the university for tours.
Throughout his freshman year, Ben has studied a wide range of subjects including Spanish, Computer Science, and Cryptography. He is also part of Princeton’s Poker Club and the Institute for Chocolate Studies. He stays on campus over the summer to plan the Community Action Program which is part of Princeton’s orientation for incoming freshmen.
Ben will not be bonded to any company upon his graduation and he intends to seek for career opportunities in the US. This is the beauty of financial aid in the US; no other nation in this world offers such kind of scholastic opportunity. Ben’s journey to Princeton had not been easy at all, but he would tell you that every hardship he has encountered had taught him important life lessons. Despite attending one of the most prestigious universities in the world, he remains the cheekiest, coolest and funniest person you’ll ever meet.
As admissions decisions season welcomed itself earlier this year, Jia Yi (Harvard University ’21) was presented with a commonly met dichotomy among Malaysian students: the U.K. or the U.S.? Among acceptances to stellar schools from Stanford University and the University of Cambridge, she ultimately chose Harvard for several reasons. Continue reading to find out why!
Why The U.S.
I hope that you’re all well.
I’m Jia Yi and I am a rising freshman and a prospective Economics major at Harvard College Class of 2021.
In this post, I will try my best to summarise why I ultimately picked the US (and why you should too!) and how I navigated through the US application process. Hopefully, my advice will be beneficial in your future application endeavours and decision processes.
Before entering into the crux of this post, I will provide a short background about myself for context:
For my secondary education, I attended an International School in Malaysia. I did the British curriculum ie IGCSE and A-Levels and was widely encouraged by my teachers, peers, and family to apply for higher education in the UK.
The UK had always seemed like a natural choice, after all, I was already familiar with the expectations of the UK programme. Coupled with the fact that most of my friends and siblings were planning to apply to the UK and the relative geographical proximity of UK to Malaysia (compared to the US), the UK seemed like an obvious and safe choice.
However, I was attracted to the liberal arts program in the US. Though studying in the US had been a childhood dream, it seemed unpragmatic: geographically far and culturally dichotomous – an unlikely and far-fetched option for someone who had always been streamed into the British route. I was not sure whether I would be suitable for this program.
It was only after I competed in an academic decathlon competition at Yale University that I began to seriously consider higher education in the US.
To me, the most significant attraction about the US is how its academic institutions are at the forefront of academia, technology and ideas. The US is generally more reflexive to the structural changes in society and to the academic interest of students. I was enthralled by this opportunity and wanted to be at the frontier of cutting-edge knowledge and experience.
I began planning out my university application schedule in early January of 2016. Starting out with fixing dates for standardised testing, I remember spanning them across January until October. *Just some advice, if you’re planning to apply for early action, please take all your standardised testing preferably before September. During August- October, things do get very stressful and standardised testing only amplifies unhealthy cortisol levels.* Upon receiving some of my standardised testing scores and speaking to my guidance counsellor, I narrowed my university choices and started looking at the essay requirements for each university in the common application website. My actual writing process only began in July. Then, I had thought that I had given myself ample time to craft all my application essays. However, I only finished every component of my application in October, very close to the deadline for early application. So, please make sure to think, plan and start your university application early- you will definitely not regret it!
For me, deciding to apply to the US added a significant load to my already heavy academic and extracurricular commitments. Even though I had foreseen the differences between the UK and US education, I had underestimated the stark stylistic differences between these applications. The US application required a deeper sense of self-introspection – a format which I was not comfortable with. I was more accustomed to the format of the UK personal statement which was partially impersonal and more academically focused.
So when I first started my US application, I felt lost and overwhelmed by the essays and standardised tests. There were so many essays, activity logs and requirements to fill up – was it possible to finish all these in one summer?
Moreover, I felt a seeming disconnection between my home culture and the American culture. My writing style looked stale next to their richly descriptive essays. My thought process and ideas also seemed different and out of sync to theirs. And after hours of surfing College Confidential, I began feeling as though I wasn’t good enough. A niggling voice in my head kept telling me that maybe I was too different. Perhaps, I did not belong in the US.
Yet I remained resolute in my applications. Deep inside, I felt that the US was the right place for me and that I just had to try no matter how difficult it seemed.
All the required essays took a few months to refine. I remember ‘Americanizing’ my British writing style into a more active and confident voice. I also harmonised my home culture with the American culture. My culture had taught me that to be humble is to be demure and to not brag about your achievements. The US application process taught me that being humble does not mean self-deprecation or silence. To be humble means knowing yourself and being confident about your strengths and weaknesses. Upon reconciling my perceived polarising home culture with the American culture, the disconnection did not seem so jarring anymore. In fact, I began seeing American values through a different lens. This mutual understanding and realisation empowered my conviction that perhaps the US was the right place for me.
What I’ve learned from the US application process is that everyone, no matter how unexciting you may think you seem, has a story to tell. Do not be afraid to share your voice, your story, and your wit. Let your personality shine through in your essays.
Upon receiving all my university decisions, I ultimately chose the US over the UK for three reasons:
The flexibility of the US degree:
At 17, I was not set on a specific course and wanted the academic freedom for self-discovery.
I had always enjoyed a combination of sciences, humanities and the arts. So the liberal arts program was perfect as it provided me with the academic freedom and flexibility to pursue this combination of subjects – this would not have been possible in the UK.
Moreover, I feel that learning and new perspectives best came from the cross-fertilisation of ideas across different fields. So, I prefer the holistic education available at US institutions.
The supposed trade-off between extracurriculars and academics:
Previously, I had always thought that the tradeoff was between coming to the US for extracurriculars and going to the UK for academics.
However, after speaking to many of my seniors who studies in both the US and UK universities, I was very excited to learn that you get direct teaching from the professors in the US while in the UK, you tend to get lecturers instead. So, there was not really a trade-off in academics in the US.
In addition, there are also more extracurricular opportunities e.g undergraduate research opportunities, academic fellowship, internships in famous companies etc in the US. Of course, these opportunities would still be possible in the UK, but it is a lot more challenging because of existing UK Student Visa restrictions.
The Culture of Daringness
I greatly appreciate and value the culture of daringness in the US. After communicating with many of the seniors (in the US) and learning about their current achievements and future goals, I became deeply inspired by their dreams. I wanted to be emboldened and share a similar outlook as them.
Ultimately, the choice of going to the US was a very personal choice- it really depends on you and what you are looking for in higher education. Admittedly, I had oscillated frequently between going to the US and to the UK for several months. However, I decided that I wanted to challenge myself in a new environment and in a place where I greatly admire its culture of daringness.
If you are very clear on your future career aspirations and want to pursue a professional course e.g Medicine, Law etc, the UK could be the right place for you. If you are like me and want to have the academic and career flexibility, the US could be the place for you.
I hope that going to the US would be an enriching experience filled with many opportunities for personal and academic growth. I am beyond excited to see where this path will take me in the coming years!
Indecisive over what to do with life after high school. Lost in a plethora of pre-u choices. Confused over whether to follow your head, your heart or what your relatives say you should do. We’ve all been there. So did Chiang Kah Yee (Minerva Schools @ KGI ’19). But it’s important to know what happens after: she did fine, and so will you. Trust her- she knows exactly how you feel and that’s why she’s here to offer you her practical advice on how to tackle this, head on!
Crafting Your Own Journey
We’ve all been there – confused and unsure of what to do after SPM. You’re probably thinking:
“Do I jump into A-Levels January intake?”
“Wait… if I do A-Levels, does that mean I can only apply to the U.K.?”
“Wait… do I want to go to the U.K.?”
“Wait… where do I want to go to university?”
“Wait… what do I want to study at university?”
“Wait… how do I get into the university of my dreams?
Which pre-u program do I have to do? Do I even have to do pre-u?”
“Wait… do I even want to go to university?”
“Wait… how much is this all going to cost?”
“Wait… can I even afford that?”
Seems like a familiar slippery slope? Don’t worry, we’ve all been there. When I say we, I mean everyone – me, your seniors, your parents, your cousins, your teachers.
Step one: breathe. It is an overwhelming time in your life. You’ve just finished secondary school, the last predetermined step in your education career decided by someone else, the Ministry of Education. After SPM, the options are endless: A-Levels, matriculation, foundation, SAM/Ausmat, CIMP/CPU, STPM, IB, ADP, if I were to name the popular ones.
SO. MANY. ACRONYMS.
Your friends are already enrolled in their pre-university program. Your parents are asking. Your relatives are prying. “I don’t know!” you want to scream. I understand how you feel. It’s a heavy decision for an 18-year-old to make. It’s a heavy decision for anyone to make.
There are plenty of strategies you can deploy to tackle this:
Try imagining your ideal future career.
What do you want your day-to-day to be? Helping people? Solving problems? Your career decision is very individual and ultimately, you will be the one doing the work. If your <insert authoritative figure here> wants you to be either a doctor, lawyer, or accountant, you need to try to block their opinion in this matter. Yes, they may be paying for your education but it is your life. It isn’t a life worth living if you dread your job and material.
Remember struggling with <insert challenging subject here> (like Sejarah or Additional Mathematics)? Pursuing an undergraduate degree that you have zero interest or passion in will be exponentially worse. Trust me.
Don’t know what you want to do with your life? That’s fine too! I’m a rising junior and I’ve already declared my major, but to be completely honest, I still have days when I question my major and wonder if it’s my true calling. Not knowing what you want to be in the future is a) completely normal, and b) does not mean you can’t make any decisions.
I thought I wanted to be a journalist but after doing a short internship stint at The Star Malaysia, I realized it wasn’t what I envisioned myself doing for the rest of my life. Does that mean I wasted 2 months of my life? Absolutely not! If I hadn’t shadowed seasoned journalists and got a proper feel of the career and industry, I wouldn’t be able to completely rule out the occupation.
Knowing what you DON’T want to do is a step closer to knowing what you want to do.
I felt overwhelmed and frankly ill-equipped to make a solid decision about my future. So, I looked for education paths that were more open ended and less binding. If you’re unsure of what you want to do, avoid pathways that don’t allow for flexibility, i.e. foundation, matriculation.
Personally, I wanted the option of being able to apply to a variety of universities and was almost sure I wanted to pursue my education in the U.S. or the U.K. Thus, I narrowed my search to three programs: A-Levels, IB, and ADP.
After accepting a scholarship for a local IB program, I got accepted to the Minerva Schools at KGI. Minerva is an innovative liberal arts college based in San Francisco and funded by Venture Capitalists. I wasn’t sure if I was good enough for the university; I felt like an imposter. I had just finished SPM, was I ready to go to university? Minerva has a global rotation: students spend their four years of university living in: San Francisco, Berlin, Buenos Aires, Seoul, Hyderabad, London, and Taipei.
Like other universities in the U.S., Minerva is not for everyone. Every university is unique and has different value propositions. Make sure to be well-informed of the characteristics of your dream university and fall in love with those, not the idea of a big name.
It has been 2 years and I have zero regrets. I’ve experienced so many cultures, taken courses outside my comfort zone, made friends I hope I’ll have for life, and learned how to “adult.” My only regret? Not taking the initiative pre and post-SPM to find out about the plethora of pre-u and university options out there. I was lucky – I applied to my university on an impulse and was totally uninformed. I didn’t know what I was signing myself up for, but I’m glad I did it anyway.
Go explore. Read. Meet new people. Gain self-understanding. Figure out what works best for you – you’re the only one who will be able to. This leads me to advice #2:
See what the options are, and ask yourself what would suit you best.
Let’s go through some facts about the various options in the U.S.:
P.s. there’s a ton of information here, but there’ll be much more at the USApps workshop! Plus willing facilitators who will answer specific questions you may have. Sign up here. http://bit.ly/USAPPS2017
There are many types of universities in the U.S. I’ll briefly go through a few:
Public research universities
Universities under this category are state-funded (United States of America) and are usually large (student body > 20,000). These universities have graduate programs and conduct scientific research – it helps their university rankings.
Generally, these universities will be significantly more affordable for in-state students (students born or who live in the state of the university) as opposed to out-of-state and international students.
UC schools (UCLA, UC Berkeley, UCSD)
Penn State (any school with the word “State,” really)
University of Virginia, University of Madison-Wisconsin (not all University of X’s are public schools though)
Private research universities
Here’s the category in which all Ivy Leagues and most Tier 1 schools fall under. These are private-funded – through alumni donations, endowments and a hefty price tag.
New York University, University of Chicago, Boston University
Liberal arts colleges
LACs, which only offers undergraduate degrees, want students to be exposed to a breadth of disciplines. Even if you’re an intended physics major, you will probably have to take a philosophy course and a language course. Generally, LACs are small (student body < 2,500) which means less competition and higher chances of being involved with research opportunities and study abroad programs. In most LACs, students can take classes as other institutions. Wellesley College allows students to take classes at MIT- go take a look at the Five College Consortium, too!
Mount Holyoke, Middleburry, Swarthmore, Wesleyan
Oberlin, Ponoma, Harvey Mudd, Claremont McKenna
Minerva Schools at KGI (where I go)
Generally only a two-year program, these colleges serve a similar purpose as ADP programs in Malaysia. Students are placed in small classes and have to prepare to apply to transfer to a non-community college institution.
I’m definitely biased towards the education system in the United States. Here are some of the reasons why:
Many U.S. universities don’t require undergrads to declare their major until the end of their sophomore year. That buys you 2 extra years to try out classes in colleges (college of social science, college of business, etc) before settling on a major. It is like trying on a really expensive pair of shoes – even if you’re really sure you like it, you should try it on before purchasing to be sure. It’s a pretty expensive pair of shoes that you’ll wear for 4 years. High commitment, high stakes.
Opportunity for financial aid
U.S. universities have various forms of aid to subsidize the cost of attending: merit-based scholarships, need-based aid, work-study, loans, grants, etc.
You have to ask yourself a bunch of questions (beyond this list):
Do I want to live in a city or on a college campus? Do I want to go to a large sized university with thousands of students or a small college with hundreds? Do I want flexibility in deciding what I want to major in?
I personally wanted to:
live in a city, right smack in the middle of the hustle bustle;
be in a small, tight-knit community;
high flexibility in deciding my major, and having a lot of opportunity to explore;
experience different cultures and mingle with people from different walks of life.
If your criteria fit mine, you should consider looking into small sized Liberal Arts Colleges (LACs) with high percentage of international students in a metropolitan.
Do your research, talk to alumni/current students, reach out, email them!
Online research is great because you don’t feel like you’re bothering anyone but it can be extremely subjective because it’s a one-way information flow. Your situation and someone else’s situation could be worlds apart.
My best advice: talk to current students and seniors. Most people are very willing to help – they’ve all been there! Think about the people in your network who might be willing to spare 10 minutes to talk to you. Be polite, patient, and nice about it!
I’ve been on both sides but more extensively, the side of helping juniors. Personally, I’m more than willing to answer questions that are specific to me – ask me about my experience and my opinions. Do your own online research to avoid asking me questions that you can Google to find the answer. I’ve Skyped with interested people (if timezones and scheduling permits) and answered a bunch of e-mails. I usually get back to people within a week – if not drop me a gentle reminder. I’m in school/working/busy but definitely willing to help if you’re eager to listen and respectful!
Self-plug: attend USAPPS! USAPPS is an event organized by current students and alumni tailored specifically to share their experiences and guide current applicants through the strenuous application process of applying to U.S. universities.
You may think: “But I just finished SPM! I’m not applying to university yet.”
Applying to universities is not an ad-hog decision or process. A lot goes into it: where you want to apply to (U.S., U.K., Australia, Canada, Singapore, locally), and what pre-university requirements different universities have.
USAPPs is a very sharing, fun, and enthusiastic community. Attending the workshop will give you a better idea of which path you want to pursue, especially if you’re considering applying to universities in the U.S.
Facilitators are usually more than willing to help you proofread your CollegeApp essay and give advice on other issues based on their experiences. You’ll get a booklet with contact details!
Hopefully this post was helpful and enjoyable. You can contact me here or read more of my writing onmy personal blog.
Your dream of studying in the U.S. shouldn’t just remain a dream, as Kauutam Uthaya Suriyan (University of California, Berkeley ’20) has proven to himself. Against all odds, Kauutam showed that with hard work, one can reach for what is deemed impossible. Everybody has a different college application journey- come to USAPPS 2017 to learn about the different journeys our facilitators have braved through to get where they are today! You can register here: http://bit.ly/USAPPS2017
The Boy Who Dreamed Out of His League
After a 20 hour back-breaking flight, I finally reached the place I have heard so much about in the Hollywood movies I have watched throughout my life. “The United States of America,” they call it. For many others, it’s the “Theatre of Dreams”. I walked out of the plane with my head held high and a voice in it saying, ”Champ you made it!!!”. Soon, the same smile and confidence were humbled by the customs officer and a stern look on her face. She gave my passport a good stare and sent me to the immigration office. A gruelling one hour wait in the Immigration office gave me the chills and lead me to start asking questions: Will I ever belong here? Will I ever be able to call this place home? After secondary checks by the immigration officers, I was cleared to leave the airport and be on my way to my dream college: University of California, Berkeley.
I wasn’t just walking to my college dorm, but down memory lane as I reminisced the struggles I had to brave in order to get here. Since I was 7, I would cut newspaper articles of university rankings and paste it on my bedroom wall, dreaming of reaching the impossible. My love for UC Berkeley begun after I watched Vaaranam Aayiram, a Tamil movie where the protagonist falls head over heels for a girl in a train. He would go all the way to the girl’s college- UC Berkeley- to woo her over. Watching the beautiful scenes taken on campus, I remember telling myself that that was where I wanted to go.
However, I was told that I was dreaming for something out of my league, especially as the son of a taxi driver who struggled to make ends meet. Years of hard work, sleepless nights, and the beautiful support of my family and friends later, I received a scholarship to study in UC Berkeley. 8 years later, on UC Berkeley grounds I stood: I am a Golden Bear at last.
I dragged all my suitcases to the campus dorms. Though my confidence returned, it was constantly attacked by the voices in my head reminding me, “you are an immigrant. You are to be extra cautious with each and every step of your way.” I got my keys and was greeted by one of the warmest smile I have ever seen in my life. I never would have suspected that the beholder of the smile would later turn out to be a very special friend to me. A Vietnamese refugee, Hung Hyunh moved to the states for a cardiac surgery. 8 months forward into his new life which America had leased him, Hung was elected by the students to be a senator and represent them.
Hung was only one of the unique and inspiring individuals I was going to meet in my forthcoming year at Berkeley. As I began to meet more people, I realized that not only was I surrounded by a community of diverse backgrounds but also one that had the identical hope and dreams that I had. That dream was to strive and be the best versions of ourselves.
The people here want to make this world a better place for all the inhabitants. They had endless ideas for a start up and public policies. I met two people in a party who agreed the walks to cafeterias for late night meals were troublesome, which lead to a startup idea three months later for late night food delivery. Every conversation I had the privilege to participate in enlightened my mind; they served as a gateway to a new world for me to understand the varying personalities and societies that make up this world. I started to become more accepting of those who were different from me. I stopped taking others as weird, but as special and individualized.
I attended social gatherings and frat parties, literally bumped into so many people and started to realise how important networking is because you can’t take for granted what you might learn from the next person you are about to meet.
During the first couple of weeks alone, I was already being exposed to various opportunities the American education had to offer. From consulting clubs to dance clubs, you can learn anything and be anyone you want to be. All you have to do is step up, approach people and show your commitment. The quote, “Opportunities are up for grabs” is what the American college strives on. The system equips you with everything they deem necessary for your development and maturing; all you have to do is be brave enough to leverage it.
The Kaautam who boards the plane back home to Malaysia for summer break is a different man. This Kaautam is one who is braver, more curious and a higher fervor to learn. Though broken by failures, he is stronger than before and not to forget, just a little bit “cooler” than the Kaautam, 9 months back. Obstacles were no longer just obstacles, but a platform for self-improvement. Foreign ideas and concepts did not remain foreign, but as an opportunity to learn something new.
America may not be everything I imagined it to be. It is beyond the Friday night parties, the beautiful Californian beaches, the freedom to do anything and the Hollywood glamour you see on the TV screen. This is a place for second chances, for as much failures it takes to find your true passion, for the liberty to transform into anything and anyone you want to be. This is America. The land of the free, home of the brave.
So why did Kavi chose to study in the states and not anywhere else? So he can merge both of his interests in Astrophysics and Computer Science! Oh, did we mention cool opportunities like a semester abroad in Switzerland for an internship with the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) to work on an Artificial Intelligence in Particle Physics project? What’s even cooler is that these opportunities can be yours, too!
Why The U.S.?
That’s a question I’ve been asked multiple times over the years. Every single time, I ponder about that time in my life when I had to make a crucial decision on charting my next path in life. I had many options, but America stood out for no apparent reason. At that point in life, I could not come up with a reason as to why America seemed like a very appealing option, but it just was. With a skip of a heartbeat, I trusted my intuition and chose to go to the United States for college.
Now, 3 years on, I consider that decision to be one of the best I’ve made in my life. Why?
Over the last 3 years, I have grown so much as a person. I would attribute that personal growth to the flexibility of the American college education system. The fact that this system allows you to take control and plan your college life helps you think about your interests and goals in life. The system allows you to develop your passion and add some elements to it and then connect all the dots together. For example, I started off my college career wanting to be an Astrophysics major. Some time along freshmen year, I stumbled upon Computer Science and really liked it. And guess what? The American college system told me that I could extensively study both fields and graduate with a double major at the same time.
The options that this system provides you is limitless. I learned to speak a new language. I learned about archeology around the world. I had an amazing professor who taught me about medieval European history. I will be learning how to swim next semester. And the list goes on.
Wow, it seems like I have a considerable amount of free time to do all these things that are not related to my major. And all those things that I mentioned are actual classes and not “extra-curricular activities”. So do I have more free time? How?
Yes, and this “free time” is absolutely why you should choose to go to college in the US. An undergraduate degree in the US typically takes 4 years to complete. The system is designed to give students the flexibility of planning their college lives, meaning you choose what you want to do besides school work and you choose when you want to have fun. I chose to use this extra time to try my hands out at some astronomy research. During my sophomore year, I studied meteor showers and their various effects in the lower atmosphere. The reason I was able to get this research job was my background as an Astrophysics and Computer Science double major, which was only made possible by the college education system!
This American college education system that allowed me to learn French and do multiple degrees at the same time gave me the opportunity to use these skills through a study abroad program. Study abroad programs are programs for students to typically spend a semester in another university, which could also be in another country. This past semester, I studied abroad in Geneva, Switzerland. I took Physics classes in French at the University of Geneva. I also did an internship at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), where I worked on an Artificial Intelligence in Particle Physics project. All of this was made possible because I had the opportunity to learn multiple skills throughout my college life.
I’ve had to work hard to be given such opportunities, but the American college education system gave me an avenue to invest my effort. This system provided the framework that allowed me to grow as a person, learn new skills and expand my boundaries. I might not have known why the US before I chose to go there for college, but now I can tell you why you should choose to go to the US for college. Come talk to me and other amazing facilitators about our American college experience at the USAPPS workshops!
Say hello to another one of our core committee member- Lina Sim! A rising sophomore at Brown University, Lina hopes to declare a double major in Computer Science and Economics. As freshman year comes to a close, there is much for Lina to reflect upon- from considering factors beside prestige when choosing schools to taking the time to be grateful, regardless of the situation. As she tells her past self about the Great Places she will go, she hopes that you believe that you will, too!
I see the time has come for you to apply to college! Time really flies, doesn’t it? I can’t believe it’s already been a year, the days of applying to college are still very fresh in my mind. But before you step in, here are some things I wish I knew before I started this whole process:
1.Take it easy! Yes, applying to colleges can be a stressful and harrowing experience. The American university application process, in particular, may seem rather convoluted at times. Terms like holistic admissions, standardized testing, personal essays, recommendation letters and financial aid will start to occupy every breathing moment. Sometimes, it may even feel like the everything you’ve done in the first 18 years of your life hangs on getting into college. It does NOT! In the grand scheme of things, college is but one of the many different milestones in your life. Hang in there, wherever in the world you’ll end up for the next four years, it will be okay. I promise!!
2. The numbers and stats are not the end-all. At times, it’s easy to get caught up in the numbers, the rankings, the acceptance rates, and the prestige. Applying to colleges isn’t a game of Pokemon GO where you try to “catch” them all (after all, you only get to attend ONE college). While the rankings do reveal the quality of an institution and its students to a certain extent, do keep in mind that there exists a myriad of high quality colleges that may not necessarily come with a prestigious name tag that can still give you a world-class educational experience. Furthermore, we all have different learning styles and preferences. Some people prefer large lectures over small seminars, while others thrive in a smaller setting. Throughout this process, don’t forget to evaluate your own learning preferences and think about the type of educational environment you’d like to spend your next four years in. It’s a lot more important than you think it is!
3.Don’t forget to say thank you! It’s college decisions day! Congratulations on the acceptance letter! Now before you run off to write that celebratory Facebook post, don’t forget to thank all the people who made this possible in the first place. Oftentimes, it takes a whole village to put a successful college application together. Applying to and attending a university in the US is an incredible privilege, one that you would’ve not been able to afford if not for the support of your parents, teachers and mentors. So on this especially exciting day, remember to thank all those who have made this dream possible in the first place.
4. OH, the places you’ll go! Your first year in the United States will take you on a pretty wild ride. You’ll be baffled at people greeting each other with a “How are you?”, wonder why the nickel (5 cents) is physically larger than a dime (10 cents) and struggle to convert Celsius into Fahrenheit and kilometers into miles. You’ll find that coding isn’t that scary after all, and that History (contrary to popular belief) can be incredibly interesting. You’ll realize that you didn’t take a single Chemistry class your entire first year, despite declaring that as your prospective major. You will travel across the entire country from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast by public transport with your best friend over winter break, because why not? You’ll visit cities you’ve only read in novels and watched on TV for the past eighteen years of your life, spend New Years on a train across the Midwest (not knowing when exactly to celebrate because you’re crossing over time zones) and meet people from all over the world. Oh, the wonders and thrills that lie ahead!
5. Things will get tough. Going to university with very incredibly smart and talented human beings can be very intellectually stimulating, but sometimes, it can make you feel rather incompetent. The sheer amount of talent that surrounds you day and night will make you question if the admission office made a huge mistake of letting you in. You’ll feel like you’re nothing compared to your peers and that you’ll never ever be up to par with everyone else. Nonetheless, as cliché as this sounds, you’ll soon begin to notice that you are not alone, and that there will always be great people who are ready to support you all the way.
6. Don’t take the small things for granted. Try to take pleasure in the little things, and you’ll start to notice that they often make the biggest difference. The hustle and bustle of college life can often be overwhelming, to the extent of being claustrophobic at times. So try to appreciate the little things, and be amazed at how far it can take you. Try taking a different path to class and notice the cracks in the sidewalk, or sit outside when it’s warm and watch the people go by. Watch the leaves change color in the fall, listen to the birds chirping outside your window as you wake up, take a walk outside on the night of the first snowfall, and take in the smell of the earth after the first spring rain. Take a walk downtown (yes, a world exists beyond the campus gates). Talk to the dining hall ladies, you’ll never know how much you actually have in common (do this, seriously)! While these little things seem rather trivial and insignificant, you’d be surprised to find how magical these tiny moments can be. Try it! Just for a moment, leave your books, step outside, enjoy the sun/snow and simply appreciate you being here. 🙂
I’m incredibly excited for you as you begin this new chapter in life. It will be a journey that you will never forget. So congratulations! Today is your day. You’re off to Great Places! You’re off and away! Now that you know what you need to know, I’d like to leave you with this, before you go. 🙂
Time, as Sonja has realised in retrospect, is truly a powerful thing; it is capable of teaching you, proving you wrong and making you take note of the things you have not realised before. In an honest letter to herself, Sonja recounts the beginning of her freshman year and reminds herself of life in the U.S.’ sweet, sweet surprises (which are often not in ways she imagined them to be.)
Dear Past Self,
At this point in time, you’re probably sitting in your single-room dorm thinking of who to share the next meal with. You don’t really know anyone very well, and frankly you don’t feel like you want to know them. They seem so different, unrelatable, even obnoxious. It seems like very few of them have something in common with you. Come mid-semester—a few months into college—you will find close friends. Not just friends of convenience, but people that you actually share a sense of humour and perspective with. Unbeknownst to you, you will befriend *white* people that are curious about where you come from and are adventurous to try the food that you cook. (You can cook!) By second semester, the cafeteria room will not be so daunting. Tables around you will have familiar faces, and there will be a group that you’ll actually want to sit with—as opposed to just sitting with them because you feel like you should. In time, you’ll also be comfortable with yourself. Comfortable enough to confidently sit by yourself—if you want to. Right now, I’m comfortable with where I am. My friends come from Pakistan, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Chicago, Maryland, California, the Philippines, and more. If I want to watch Rupaul’s Drag Race in my room alone on Friday night I can, but just as well, I know that I can join my friends for beer & bad music that night, too.
My god, you will spend an immense amount of time in your room. So keep it neat and welcoming! Soft bed sheets are going to be the best investment you’ve made. Buying textbooks are going to be the worst (hint: download them, or find them in the library).
You’re going to discover that you’re not going to be a physicist, computer scientist, or economist. These academic challenges aren’t going to stop you from getting accepted by five job positions. You needed to know that these aren’t strong suits to discover your strengths. It will always come back to literature, writing, reading. Don’t forget your passions. These passions will propel you into a few jobs that will enable you to travel! The most wonderful surprise is knowing that you’ve saved up enough money to go to Cuba.
Things will fall into place: routine, friends, fitness, food. And the best past is, that you can boast of having read twelve Russian novels!
Introducing our second member of the 2017 core committee- meet Elina! A current freshman at UCLA intending to declare a major in Economics or Cognitive Science, Elina has a myriad of other interests that include fitness and fine arts. Read to find out how the U.S. education system can accommodate anybody’s wide range of interest, just like how it has to Elina’s!
Why The U.S.?
Simply put, I wanted to hone my logical precision and improve on consolidating my thoughts.
Thing is, I did not know how to achieve this so I thought that it’d be nice to pursue my tertiary education and be able to gain a wide array of knowledge from various subjects whilst still concentrating on a particular subject of my interest for the completion of my degree.
I love fine arts very much. Knowing that the height of athleticism is acquired through proprioception which helps athletes excel in their sports as well as knowing that contemplating on and understanding the characteristics of materials and properties of available resources helps artists create works that optimize the potentials of their resources and materials guided me throughout my childhood and I grew up thinking that an artist’s aptitude is defined by his or her technical precision and visual acuity. I spent my entire life thinking about spaces such as —- inter alia, spaces between my friends’ hairlines and eyebrows, spaces between my parents’ shoulders, spaces occupied by people, spaces between people, and spaces between spaces. This perspective has helped me improve my technical proficiency significantly as I traversed through my school years. Nonetheless, somehow the knowledge that I have acquired about technical precision and spatial familiarity never seemed to make me content; I felt that I was severely lacking mental precision and my thoughts were not in order. The divergence of my thought process lacks absolute convergence. My intuition told me that perhaps in order to improve on my thought process, I should expand the circumference of my existing knowledge by learning about many different things and take as many different classes as possible. The flexibility in tertiary education in the U.S. seemed like a perfect fit for me, so I applied to the U.S. and voila! I’m already completing my freshman year at UCLA.
I definitely did not regret my decision of coming to UCLA. UCLA’s a very, very big school and there is no doubt anyone here would feel like he or she is just a number amongst the other 31,000 bright undergraduates. However, if anything, the crowdedness of this place has given me a lot of room for self-reflection, reading and recalibration of my thought compass. The breadth and depth of classes that I have been taking here throughout my freshman year has helped me think better as a person. As ironic as it sounds, the divergence of the knowledge that I’ve acquired here seem to be leading me to some sort of convergence of thoughts. They might seem irrelevant and unparalleled with my artistic goals, but I definitely feel like a better thinker now. No where else but the U.S. would I be able to find the opportunity to take a multivariable calculus class, learn the basics of C++, study the origins of Abrahamic religions, justify the moral behind infidelity in an English writing class, discuss my thoughts on Michael Sandel’s trolley car problem, listen to Behnam Sadeghi analyze the logic of religion scientifically, all in one academic year.
California has been a wonderful place for me, not just academically, but also athletically. I’ve always been athletic since I was very little, and California has plenty of athletic activities to offer. I absolutely love hiking and camping in the national parks here. Having been overseas only a few times before coming to LA, I feel superbly blessed to be able to see and do a myriad of things here and I genuinely hope that everyone else will be able to experience the blessings that I have experienced.
(This is Arizona, not California!!)
If you have any questions on UCLA, arts, camping, hiking and other random things, feel free to hit me up! If you’re into hitting the gym (be it lifting and/or cardio) and anything athletic, we’d be good friends too!