Not many people know this, but my school, NYU, does not have an “actual” campus. Our school buildings are littered throughout the city and navigating through the streets of NYC is part of my daily routine.
There is no clear distinction between academic life and personal life, and the blend of both makes it easier to feel connected to the city, as opposed to living in an enclosed campus where you might have minimal interactions with the outside world. Your perception is less filtered when you are not protected on school grounds. While sometimes it enables you to see the beauty of the city more clearly, it also pulls you into the jarring reality of New York.
When people think of NYC, they think about the glitz and glam of Times Square, the Broadway shows, the City of Dreams. But the truth is, New York is a harsh place. The people are less than friendly, the weather is unpredictably aggressive, and car drivers are even more so. No one talks about the immigrants forced to work ungodly hours for meager pay that is hardly enough to sustain themselves. Everyone is struggling, and this fast-paced city will bypass you in a flash even if you are standing still. Eventually, I learned that it was up to me to be independent and keep my feet moving.
Attending a school without a campus, I do miss out on many things. I’ve never been to a football game, never seen the intense rush of school spirit, never visited a fraternity house. But if the alternative is to see New York City in its truest form, to live and experience life as a local New Yorker, all the lessons it has taught me have made it worthwhile.
“Congratulations! We in PETRONAS are happy to inform you that you’re offered a full-ride scholarship to pursue a degree in Mechanical Engineering!
…and you will be completing your bachelor’s degree in the United States.”
When I was younger, if someone asked me where would I want to pursue my degree, I would say the UK as my answer – mainly because I’m used to their system and most of the people I know study there. Having scored 10 A’s for my SPM and being offered a scholarship to study abroad in Mechanical Engineering (which is what I want to do), I was elated. However, the elation didn’t last long when I knew that I was offered to study in the US instead of the UK.
At first, I was skeptical. I never thought I’d see myself studying here, but I went ahead and accepted the offer just to give it a shot. Little did I know, after spending my time in Taylor’s ADP and here in Michigan, I found out that I love the American education system better. If I had the opportunity to travel back in time, I would’ve convinced my 18-year old self to get excited to study in the States because here, while majoring in something as time-consuming as engineering, I still have room to explore my avocations which in return are beneficial to what I’m primarily doing by taking classes related to them.
So far, I’ve taken three French classes, a class on intercultural communications, and a microeconomics class (I’ll also be taking a class on European civilization for my study abroad program in France this summer). Honestly, I can’t emphasize how much these classes have motivated me to become a better engineer in the future. In the intercultural communications class, for example, I was exposed to the fact about how Mattel had disastrously failed to market their Barbie dolls in China just because they didn’t recognize the fact that Chinese parents prioritize their kids’ education from a young age. I reflected on that and I realized that to be a good engineer, being aware of others’ cultures is important to take note of in order to succeed in the field especially if we are working on a global scale.
I have to say, the decision I made 3 years ago was one of the best I’ve ever made.
Not going to lie, hearing about someone studying in an overseas university like Harvard or Oxford seemed so cool. After high school, I spent my days thinking about studying outside of Malaysia. I didn’t really know why I wanted to, but I told myself I had to. And the moment I did, I was excited, but still, I didn’t know what exactly for.
Fast-forwarding to three years since my first day on campus, I finally have time to reflect on my college journey (having fewer credits in my last semester doesn’t hurt too). All I can say is: “Wow… I am dumb”. You’d think having a perfect 4.0 in my first semester was an indicator that everything would be smooth sailing, right?
But I’m glad it wasn’t.
Ironically, the class that I’m most proud of was the one I got a C in. Because not only did I get it up from an F, but for once I was excited for learning rather than scoring.
And while I’m comfortable interacting with both Americans and non-Americans, the more I try to integrate into both communities, the more I realize I struggle to truly belong to both. When you try to soak up all the American culture so as to not feel alienated; but later you realize it’s at the expense of forgetting your roots. You question yourself a lot. I almost get a “reverse cultural shock” going home to Malaysia because I’ve been in the States so long.
I have no regrets, though. Throughout my college years, I’ve learned many things. I’ve learned more about mental health, sexuality, privilege, and other stigmatized issues that are rarely discussed in Malaysia. I’ve learned to be vulnerable and also to celebrate my strengths because acknowledging merely one isn’t healthy. I’ve learned to treat my failures as something to build off from, not mourn over. Most importantly, I’ve learned to learn because I’ve realized that I don’t know a lot, and I’ll never know enough. And that’s okay. Because not knowing everything brought me to America, and I’m pretty happy about that.
I spent my first week of college stalking everyone I met. My floormate’s profile picture was a selfie with Hilary Clinton. My orientation leader was doing three majors and six clubs, in addition to running an independent music production studio. Everyone was either a non-profit founder, valedictorian, varsity athlete, or UN intern. Some of them were all of those things at once. Everyone was a supermodel; everyone was amazing; everyone made me feel small and undeserving.
To compensate, I put my name down for every club that would have me. I majored in Economics, because everyone else did. My advisor recommended 4 classes, so I did 6. I worked two jobs, wrote paper after paper, but still wondered how I could do more, more, more. Subsisting only on black coffee and four hours of sleep, I pushed myself relentlessly, trying to catch up with people who seemed to fly through college.
Now, I’ve given up Economics and accepted that I hate club activities. I still stalk people on social media and worry that my admission was a mistake, but in these three years, I’ve also carved a space for myself in America, with people who don’t care that I haven’t cured cancer. Friends found and lost, but who will always remain dear; fellow Malaysians who have opened their homes to me; professors who are kind in my moments of desperation; even the Pret barista who gives me free coffee every Monday.
Sometimes, this is what it feels like to be a student in America: that I am not enough, and nothing I do will ever be enough. But sometimes, I look around at these amazing people who treat me with kindness when I am unable to find it within me, who remind me that the world can be gentle even as it is cruel. Sometimes, I find myself thinking: “This is enough.”
“It is not enough to dream. We need to live the dream.”
This is the motto that I live by now, having studied in the U.S. for 3 years and counting. Prior to coming to the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor (UMich), I could only dream of heading projects and initiatives to tackle social issues that I am passionate about. I thought to myself, “I don’t know that much to do anything. I don’t think I can take the pressure. I don’t believe I can be the ‘one.’”
If there is anything that I learned in the U.S., it is that everyone can make a difference. My school holds on to the belief that every student can change the world. No matter how small or how big your hopes and dreams are, everyone can and deserves to work towards it. UMich invests in student projects and the growth of its student leaders by rolling out monetary grants and providing personal mentoring from university alumni. My school’s commitment to experiential learning has empowered me to step out of my comfort zone and engage with these resources to realize my goals and dreams. I was inspired to ask myself, “Why not me?”
In these past years, I have led my classmates in restructuring the online training platform for my university’s dining hall operator, organized events for the Malaysian community at my school, and this year, I will be co-organizing USAPPS, an initiative which I have been a part of since 2016. Three years ago, I would have never imagined that I was capable of being at the forefront of these initiatives and efforts to strengthen and make our society a better place. Today, I am ready to give back and take the lead whenever the opportunity arises.
One of my greatest hopes is that I can share this aspect of the U.S. college education with Malaysian students of all backgrounds back home. I hope to be a resource and inspire students to live their dream of pursuing their studies in the U.S. Catch me at USAPPS 2019 as you ask yourself, “Why not me?”
If you told me five years ago that I would be pursuing a Master in Architecture, much less at Harvard (!!!), I would have laughed, because what an incredulous concept.
I wasn’t one of those people who knew right off the bat what I wanted to do after high school or even in pre-u. What I knew I wanted though, was the flexibility and freedom to shape my own education. And shape my education I did; I enrolled at Mount Holyoke College, a historically all-women’s liberal arts college, and for the first time in my 12 years of education, I had autonomy over what I wanted to learn.
I don’t think I would have found my love for architecture + design if not for the liberal arts system. The liberal arts allowed me to explore, but also to see how things connect. It meant that my Physics, Environmental Studies, and Theatre classes gave me a more holistic perspective and informed how I approached architecture + design. And that the things I learned in the Japanese Papermaking class I spontaneously enrolled in my freshman year could become the basis of my architecture thesis my senior year. I got to live in Denmark for four months, seeing and experiencing architecture sites I had only read about in person. And it was okay if I had only slept two hours the night before because I was up making models, because I finally found what I enjoyed and what I wanted to do with my life.
Four years of college, a Bachelor’s degree, and one gap year later, I’m choosing the US again and I’m going to Harvard – something I never dreamed I would ever do, something that definitely wouldn’t be possible without the experiences that shaped me at Mount Holyoke.
Everyone seems to know what they want to do in life – or do they? I’ve struggled with determining my strengths, weaknesses, likes, and dislikes for the longest time. I could never fix my mind on something without either losing interest or giving up. Why am I the only one who doesn’t know what they want? What’s wrong with me?
I’m fickle-minded, confused, and inexperienced. But that’s okay.
Freshman year of college: I find myself in a foreign country, studying something I was mediocrely interested in. I met an array of people from various ethnicities and backgrounds, each with their own fascinating habits and mannerisms. I attended lectures in huge halls occupied by hundreds of students. I ate at the dining halls and just like any other freshman, was initially intrigued by the vast variety of food but despised it after a mere two weeks. I hung out on the quad with my roommates and decided to get a suntan in midst of finals. But the biggest and most important takeaway I got from my first year of college in the US, was that I could study whatever I wanted to or even change my major every week until I finally found something I truly enjoyed.
Today, I wake up to the honks and screams of NYC, have the luxury of studying with the incredible view of the Manhattan skyline, and most of all discovered my true passion for sports management.
Sarah Lawrence doesn’t do majors, grades, or GPAs (we have grades, but you don’t see them until you make a request for your transcript from the Registrar, which involves filling out a form, paying the school, and waiting up to two days). The school didn’t even have required freshman classes. I knew all this when I went, but I was not prepared for what that meant for my education and life.
I spent 11 years in public school, where every subject and schedule of my day was mapped out for me. Going to a school where I had total control and flexibility over my classes was liberating—I could do an introductory Economics class in the same semester as a Physics seminar, and considered taking a class on Producing for Film, because the school was famous for its film department (note: it was recently included in Variety’s Best Film Schools for 2019. Link).
But when you’re used to structure, total flexibility can be stressful. In high school, I was told to take 9 subjects for PMR, 12 for SPM. There was no debate, no discussion, and my opinion didn’t really matter. Now I had to think about why I wanted to take this class, what would I learn, would it apply to my career, what career did I want, did the timing work, would it be too insane to do 9 am classes every day for an entire year? I had to think beyond the semester and sometimes even the year – was this class a prerequisite for another more interesting/advanced class next semester/year?
I agonized over these questions every semester during Registration (the period when we pick classes) and spent every beginning of the year in existential crises. But the experience meant I spent much of college reflecting and thinking about what I wanted from my life and career. (Almost) every class and activity I chose, I had to choose with intention. That type of thinking has helped me navigate my life and career since. I would not trade it for the world.
I’ve always been lucky enough to have life (sort of) figured out since young – I had very clear intentions whenever I had to make a choice, and oftentimes I would have enough courage to do whatever I set my mind to. I knew I wanted to go to the US to pursue my studies at a very young age, perhaps my upbringing heavily influenced my decision. My brother was a US graduate, and he would always tell me about his liberating experience.
Many people categorized their experience of studying abroad as “eye-opening”, and it is indeed what they said it is to be. I went into UofM with zero expectations, maybe even a little naive. It was also an awkward time for me to enter the university (I enrolled in the Winter semester), and I spent a big chunk of the semester trying to figure out where I stood in the school. It seemed like everyone else was already way ahead of me, and I had to catch up to them before I run out of time. As time passed, I realized that I don’t need to catch up to anyone, and I was in this strange phase in life where I felt like I was merely floating around. In retrospect, I’m glad I went through that phase; I guess that’s what growing up feels like. I realized that I was one of the luckier ones – I have the resources to do whatever I wished, I had the support from a strong group of friends and a great family back home, and I’m pursuing a degree that I am truly passionate about. I was still timid before I started school here, but strangely enough, I gained courage from my first-year writing class. I found joy in writing critically about topics that I had very little knowledge of, like this paper where I compared George Orwell’s 1984 to the current social climate in Malaysia. The liberty of penning critical thoughts gave me a sense of freedom and enlightenment, all while pursuing a degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. People said that it sounds like an interesting degree, and it is, but it’s also more difficult than I expected it to be. People were also concerned about my choice of degree, it’s a really niche field, they said, but it didn’t faze me.
Growing up is realizing that you have an opportunity to explore, and make the most out of it, even when it needs you to step out of your comfort zone. Growing up is also realizing that no one else’s opinion matters, and learning to be comfortable with yourself. Growing up is realizing that life gets hard sometimes, but learn to acknowledge it and power through. I guess that’s what I learned in the mere 5 months that I spent at the University of Michigan, and I can only imagine how much more I can grow in the next few years.
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 listings 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 the 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.