Youth Helping Youth: Pinkpau’s Guide to US College Applications

American college applications are a strange beast. I considered applying to a few US colleges before but the sheer number of alien acronyms, requirements, and costs (not to mention the fact that I would theoretically be a “transfer” but wanted to start over) gave me too much of a headache. It is a wonder sometimes that there are international students in the US tertiary system at all!

Writer and general busy bee Su Ann, also known as PinkPau, went through this herself last year and has succeeded in getting herself a spot in a top US university (I believe Columbia but I could be mistaken). She has helpfully provided a comprehensive guide to US applications for Malaysian students, whether fresh out of secondary school or in pre-university programs. This first part of her guide also includes a sample resume for the applications (don’t let the sheer number of achievements scare you!), as well as a sample fee waiver letter – really useful as US college applications can go higher than US$50 each and many people typically apply to a few at once.

Su Ann will publish a few more guides, including one on writing the application essays. She’s also happy to answer questions till January, the end of application deadlines.

Asking a qualified college counselor experienced in US colleges is the ideal option, as is contacting the university, but Su Ann has a very friendly peer perspective and definitely makes a great start. I wish I had her guides three years ago!

Entrepreneurship and Languages – two blogs for you

If you’d like some entrepreneurial inspiration, or would like to learn Japanese in double-quick time, here are two blogs you may want to subscribe to:

1) Australia-based HatchThat is filled with interviews with inspiring entrepreneurs from a wide range of industries. They cover all sorts of interests – from sexual and reproductive health to DJs and party planning. They are always on the lookout for other entrepreneurs to interview – maybe some of you from this list would be interested!

2) A lot of young Malaysians are into anime and manga, and consequently are trying to learn the Japanese language. What if I told you that you could learn enough Japanese in 18 months to not only be really fluent, but also be able to understand technical documents and ultimately be hired in software engineering? Impossible? Young African man Khatzumoto has done exactly that.

On his blog, All Japanese All The Time, Khatzumoto explains his method for learning total Japanese in such a short time – essentially being totally immersed in the culture (surrounding yourself with Japanese media, doing fun things in Japanese, etc), aiming to understand rather than memorize, as well as some smart use of flashcards. He is currently using the same system to learn Chinese, and shows you how to use this system to learn any language – no matter how old or young you are.

If you have any other interesting blogs, please share them with us!

The List of Youth Speakers and Inspiring Young People to Invite to Your Conference or Event

In response to tech conference Tokion‘s lack of women speakers, women bloggers everywhere banded together to create a list of women speakers for any conference, hosted at Personism. The ever-growing list contains hundreds of inspiring women in design, the arts, entrepreneurship, activism, non-profits, business, and everything else that would certainly be an asset for any conference or gathering of minds.

There’s another group of people often missing at these conferences though: young people. Sure, there is no end to youth conferences, but look at the big ones like TED or ideaCity – how many of the participants are under 30? IdeaFestival is testing out a “IF Kids” section, which was apparently quite successful in the 2007 festival, but might be a little condescending to young adults who aren’t actually kids but who aren’t quite old enough to blend in with the other adults. And even if those big events were more inclusive socially, many deserving young people won’t be able to afford them. Tickets are upwards of US$500 a piece, and that’s if you’re lucky enough to get them before they sell out. Factor in travel, visas, accommodation, and all other costs and you see a very pricey proposition that turns away many young people from otherwise being the biggest contributors.

What young people need are more opportunities to be represented, more exposure to wider groups of people (and not just their peers). Young people should be taking the stage more often in those big events, they should be the ones being listened to by big minds such as Al Gore or Richard Branson. It’s their voice that should be heard, particularly since all the big chances will be handled by us anyway.

Inspired by Personism’s list, I am now creating:

The List of Youth Speakers and Inspiring Young People to Invite to Your Conference or Event

This list is by no means exhaustive. If you want to be on this list, or know anyone (below 30) who should be here, leave me a comment with their name, country, the field they’re involved in, and a brief description. Please also include a link to a website or webpage about them. It doesn’t have to be their personal/business website – a profile or a news article works too, just as long as it has information (and preferably contact details too) about themselves.

Don’t be afraid to self-promote! So many of us deserve better but are too shy or modest to ask for it. I will scan the list for scammers and spammers though.

You may notice that (at least in the early versions) this list is skewed towards a certain geographical area. This is partly because I’m from that area so I know more people there, but also because people in non-Western countries tend to be underrepresented in big events like these. See the diversity of countries as a good thing – you’ll get a very varied set of backgrounds and opinions, information and knowledge will cross borders, and everyone benefits.

List last updated: 26 Jan 2008

NAME COUNTRY FIELD DESCRIPTION
Tiara Shafiq Malaysia / Bangladesh / Australia Youth, Alternative Education Maintainer of youth/alternative education blog EducateDeviate
Suzanne Lee Malaysia Photography Self-made professional photographer and traveller
Poh Si Teng Malaysia / USA Journalism Co-founder of Malaysia youth socio-political magazine theCICAK
Tharum Bun Cambodia IT, Communications Blogger on ITCs
Khailee Ng Malaysia Entrepreneurship Co-Founder of theCICAK and various web ventures
Daniel CerVentus Lim Malaysia Entrepreneurship Maintainer of Malaysian entrepreneurship blog Ideapreneur
David Askaripour USA Entrepreneurship Founder of youth entrepreneurship portal Mind Petal, web entrepreneur
Brett Farmiloe USA Passion Went on the “Pursue the Passion” roadtrip to interview leading people about their passions in life
Hayley Angell Australia Passion, Empowerment Life coach and speaker on youth empowerment
Jessica Kiely Australia Youth, Career Development Founder of FRANK Team, a company that empowers youth through speakers and newsletters on career development
Adam Smith Australia Youth, Education COO of Education Foundation Australia
Bec Heinrich Australia Youth, Education, Leadership CEO and Founder of Rising Generations
Tom Dawkins Australia Youth, Media Founder of youth media portal VibeWire
Simon Moss Australia Youth, International Development, Education, Poverty COO of youth-run development organization The Oaktree Foundation
Hugh Evans Australia Youth, International Development, Education, Poverty Founder of youth-run development organization The Oaktree Foundation
Jennifer Corriero Canada Youth, International Development Founder of TakingITGlobal
Effa Desa Malaysia Film, Activism Founder of Filmmakers Anonymous, organizes film festivals in Malaysia
Renee Dillon Australia Art, Crafts Organizes workshops for budding artisans
Victor Gan Australia Photography, Film Self-trained photographer and filmmaker
Craig Kielburger USA Children’s Rights, Activism Co-founded Free the Children at 12 years old
Aaron Gill Malaysia Web, IT IT entrepreneur
Michelle Gunaselan Malaysia Activism Writer at TELL magazine, co-founder of voter education initiative VoteED
Cally Highfield United Kingdom Art Artist, illustrator, and novelist of Rose Petal Tea
Hwa Yang Jerng Malaysia Philosophy Interested in Machine intelligence, Cultural phenomenology, History of ideas, Bridging/unifying the liberal arts, science, engineering, and commerce
Kenny Koay Australia Entrepreneurship Founder of j2k, a mobile phone plan distributor that provides employment opportunities for international students in Melbourne
Trisha Okubo USA Entrepreneurship, Media, E-Commerce, Fashion Founder of Omiru: Style for All, a style website dedicated to real style for real people. Style expert featured in Lucky Magazine and the Wall Street Journal. Disruptive Innovator at eBay, currently focusing on social commerce projects
Kidchan Malaysia Arts, Graphic Design Self-made artist; interesting observations about Malaysia
Darren Lee Malaysia Internet Technology, New Media, Web2.0/Social Networking Founder of Intrivent Global, Internet Technology Evangelist, New Media Specialist in the field of Web 2.0/Social Networking
Bryce Ives Australia Youth, Media, Arts First General Manager of SYN Melbourne, Australia’s largest youth media project. Crrently the online producer of the ABC’s Heywire
Nikki Brooker United Kingdom / Australia Youth, Politics, Peace First young person in the UK involved with campaigning to establish the UK Youth Parliament, then a trustee and co-ordinated the London Region. Also involved in Peace One Day
Reynato Reodica Australia Youth Policy, Youth Rights Executive officer of the Youth Action Policy Association, peak body for all youth workers and young people in NSW Australia
Brandon Bear Australia Youth Health, Sexual Health Working in sexual health and drug and alcohol health promotion in the field of harm minimisation for 5 years
Joshua Rayan Malaysia / Singapore / Australia / Indonesia Media, Communications Founder of Words Wizards, a creative communications agency that has become a branding specialist for many corporates
Yvonne Foong Malaysia Health, Neurofibromatosis Advocate for neurofibromatosis awareness, writer
Carol Chew Malaysia Politics, Youth National chairperson for Beliawanis, the young women’s arm of Malaysian political party MCA
Joel Clark Australia Youth Empowerment, Leadership, Poverty, Education Founder of nonprofit organisation, Community Spirit Tours, and wide-covering youth advocate with a number of organisations
Josh Lim Malaysia Media, Advertising Founder of blog advertising company Advertlets
Adelyn Lim Malaysia Children, Health, Cancer Founder of children’s cancer organization ROLF Kids
Joel Neoh Malaysia Youth, Entrepreneurship Winner of The Firm and founder of YouthMalaysia
Jennifer L. Pozner USA Women, Media, Writing, News Founder of Women in Media & News, a women’s media analysis, education and advocacy organization dedicated to increasing women’s presence and power in the public debate
Christine HappySlip USA / The Philippines (?) Media, Video, Web Creator of one-woman YouTube show HappySlip
Zadi Diaz USA Media, Web, Production Co-founder of online production company Smashface Productions
Alicia Curtis Australia Youth, Leadership, Mentoring Assists schools and businesses harness the leadership potential of their young people
Donnie Maclurcan Australia Politics, Community, Social Entrepreneurship Founder of Australian community project Project Australia
Miriam Lyons Australia Youth Policy, Festivals Director of Center for Policy Development, director for various festivals in Australia
Matt Noffs Australia Youth, Drug & Alcohol Dependency Development Manager at the Ted Noffs Foundation
Billie Jean Edwards Australia Youth, Indigenous Issues Young Indigenous leader
Joey Le Australia Cultural Awareness, Personal and Professional Development, Leadership, Mental Health for Young People, Youth Health Issues Former Chair of NSW Youth Advisory Council. Currently working as a medical doctor with an interest in psychiatry and adolescent health
Danielle Begg Australia Social Policy, Youth Activism, Psychology Co-established youth advocacy group Australian Teens Advocating Change (ATAC), aimed to promote multiculturalism, the prevention of substance abuse and a positive image of youth in the media through community service announcements and nation wide tours
Jimmy Kyle Australia Youth Empowerment, Indigenous Youth Program manager of Koori Connect, which engages indigenous young people on a range of cultural activities and events aimed at improving community connection, school retention and providing vocational learning opportunities
Sarah Chunys OAM Australia Mental Illnesses, Youth Health Motivational speaker on the subject of adversity/getting through tough times and mental health issues including suicide
Josh Shipp USA Youth Empowerment High-rated youth speaker, CosmoGIRL columnist, has a TV show in development
Peter Draw Singapore Art, Drawing, Children, Happiness Social Cartoonist
Xavier Clarke Australia Indigenous Youth, Social Issues AFL star and co-founder of Indigenous youth support group Unity Foundation
Linh Do Australia Youth, Environment Youth founder of Change A Million Light Bulbs and Change&Switch
David Toovey Australia Youth, Social Justice Current director of the Oaktree Foundation

Don’t forget to list your recommendations!

Bloggers’ Challenge – Get $30 To Support Education

Six Apart, the company behind Movable Type, TypePad, and LiveJournal, have just announced a Bloggers Challenge to help schools, by raising money for various schools programs in the US.

To participate, just send an email to donorschoose@sixapart.com by 5pm Pacific Time October 1st to get a $30 gift certificate to donate to any DonorsChoose project.

DonorsChoose is an American initiative whereby schools and classrooms post projects and needs online and get funding from the public. Among the projects include buying handheld tools to teach maths, building a garden weather station, and getting an LCD projector for history class. While all the projects and schools are based in the US, anyone from any country can participate. You are also welcome to sponsor other projects with your own money once you redeem your gift certificate. There are also other blogger challenges, as well as the option to start your own.

Help support education – join the Six Apart Bloggers’ Challenge for DonorsChoose!

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Thinking About Studying Medicine? Read This First.

For some honestly bizarre reason (which I have yet to discover), Malaysians are particularly kiasu about young people going to medical school. The biggest drama with JPA scholarships revolve around medicine. There is a bigger demand for spaces in medicine than anything else. Students who are the slightest bit brilliant or intelligent are pushed into medicine, regardless of their passions and skills. Apparently Medicine is the “holy grail” of Malaysian higher education: if you’re not studying to be a doctor, you’re stupid.

But do any of these people – the students and those that push them – really realize what it means to be a doctor? Do any of these people really know what medical practice involves?

It’s not just about grades or intelligence. It’s not about dissecting frogs. It’s not about tests.

It’s about sacrificing whole chunks of your life for the sake of someone else’s. It’s about having someone’s life – and death – in your hands. It’s about dealing with wheezy old people and mucusy babies in the middle of the night when you haven’t slept for a week. It’s about not crying too much when a child dies. It’s about being on call 24/7, knowing that even in the middle of a much-needed romantic interlude with your dream partner, your pager could go off because someone somewhere is having a medical emergency. It’s about life.

On Ask Metafilter today there is a question about being cut out for medical school. The person in question isn’t necessarily quick-witted or bright; however, he more than makes up for it in persistence and effort. He loves medicine to death and has worked with sick people, but comes from a liberal arts background. Can he still make it in medicine?

skepticallypleased gives an answer that is practically REQUIRED READING, though the rest of the thread is necessary too. If you are considering going to medical school for any reason, ESPECIALLY if it’s due to societal pressure, READ THIS FIRST.

Wow, loaded question. It’s funny I saw this one early but I’m about to ask another question. And, it’s not just medical school you have to worry about but residency and practice too so I’ll hit on it.

I’m almost like the person you mention although I tend to do well in school and upon standardized tests. I was liberal artsy and well, after some post bac classes, the MCAT, and lots of applying to grad school again am I am now a doctor and, barring the winning of the lottery, won’t be able to retire till I am 75.

I HAVE TO KEEP THIS SHORT FOR MY OWN SANITY.

Only go to medical school if:

1. YOU WANT TO HELP SICK PEOPLE GET BETTER. That’s the only thing that will help you get through the long, painful hours learning material that you will soon forget and is very dry and rote, sadly. (And, that’s the first two years of medical school).

(As for the next two, you have different challenges). If you actually feel good about sticking your finger up a 80 year old’s behind to see if she’s bleeding at a 3:30 AM admission in the ER when instead you could have been sleeping, you’ll like being a doctor.

In short, it’s not going to be about the money. At least not for your 20’s and 30’s anyway. Plus, if medicine has taught me anything, tomorrow is not guaranteed. You give up other things as well. On a side note, I luckily wined, dined and married the woman I love before medical school and, when I had more normal hours as lawyer. I could never fathom having developing the relationship I did with my wife while in medical school. I got to know her ambitions, got to know her family, and we really did a lot of stuff together. In medical school, that life is not so feasible. It’s simply because unlike any most other work, you have to keep reading when you come home (after a couple hours of lecturing or in dissecting the cadaver).
(I probably need to take MeFi off my favorites).

Most of your day is spent filling out stupid paperwork stupid lawyers demand of us, navigating the bureuracy of the hospital, reading labs, and just making sure your patients are getting better. Honestly, it’s tasks that nurses and PAs with some experience do just as well as doctors. The place we separate ourselves from them is our “fund of knowledge” and that requires a lot, a lot, a lot, a lot of dedication if you want to do it well.

The sad secret about medicine is that the imaging and treatments are so good, that you can be a lazy doctor but also a fine doctor. Read this excellent piece by a doctor who has a brain power far above mine and you’ll understand what it takes:

Sorry to ramble but to sum up: At least for 7+ years medicine is going to require your all (that’s when the last of many, many tests you will take end). And, it’s hard to maintaing deep relationships, be well rounded, and sort of follow the other pursuits your liberal artsy mind is going to care about also. It’s not just crap like knowing the Classics either. If you wanted to guarantee a loss in a current events trivia tournament, field a team of doctors.

And the latter is not a knock on the profession at all. Honestly, under the knife or when I am truly sick, the last thing I want to be going through my doctor’s brain is a Hamlet soliloquy. I want her to know the best evidence based medicine possible and have the best technical and manual skills possible. Some of my classmates fit this bill and I would humbly and readily trust their opinion over mine anyday.

How can I live with myself then? Well, I’m a lot slower and I hope superior reasoning skills will help me in the end. In short, I can’t name 4-5 leading causes of a left to right heart shunt off the top of my brain, but I’ll probably recongize it on a physical exam or an EKG and it will be diagnosed more accurately on an echocardiogram. (The ability of 21st century imaging to make mediocre doctors like me excellent is a topic for another debate. But, again, read Gawande’s piece and you’ll see where, well some doctoring is actually needed.).

2. Ok, enough of my baggage. Back to your question. Is medical school “doable” Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. and Yes.
It honestly does not take much intelligence in memorizing a lot of stuff and spit the right answer back on a multiple choice test. I would say you need about a 115 IQ to be a doctor. If you’re slow at accumulating lots of information, then, well, you’re butt is going to be on the desk chair longer than most people. If you bad at science, well, then, your butt is going to be on the desk chair longer than most people, but you’ll get it. You’ll pull through. And, it seems like you have the intelligence and drive to do it. And, really, that’s all it takes. A friend of mine in medical school got a horribly low MCAT score (I’m talking really, really bad I’m shocked she was in an American medical school bad.) And, she had a liberal arts background from a prestigious school also. But, she wanted to be a Plastic Surgeon (a very tough specialty to get into) and she essentially worked real hard at it for a four years and got into a plastic surgery residency.

I’m not worried about you as you seem to have a true passion for helping people and want to be a doctor.

I’d be more worried about your discipline. Science is not harder than the liberal arts. It just requires a lot more discipline. You have to understand things from the ground up but, strangely, you can’t just reason how we got there. I hope you the reason you are not a good science student is that it’s not because you hate science either. That’s no good in medicine. You have to be both a scientist and a humanist and I feel you have to like both too.

As far as getting into medical school. If your science grades are bad, it will be tough. You might have to retake them again or hope you rock your MCAT. Even then, you can go to a foreign medical school and just work your way into medicine here as you are an American citizen. (Some of the foreign schools are not even requiring a Bachelor’s degree! But, if you can pass the liscensing tests they make you eligible for, you can be a doctor here! (Not a competitive specialty of course, but a doctor nonetheless — perhaps even in Psychiatry which might be good for someone who is not too too excited about the so-called “hard” sciences.

Ok, I hope I helped you out a bit. Medicine sucks a lot, but I’m not going to be a doctor that convinces you out of it. I still have a ridiculous amount of pride when people ask what I do and I say I’m a doctor. And, in those rare times that I feel I influenced patient care past what the mechanized delivery of algorithmic medicine gives a person these days (surgeons might not have this feeling as much, but that field has its own drawbacks), it feels REALLY GOOD to be a doctor.

And, well, medicine has its share of nasty politics (something I find incomprhensible because you see how fragile life can be everyday), it definitely has a decent amount of bad attitudes (although I’d bet perecentage wise less than other professions) and, sadly, the work is basically repetitive. I can’t remember more than 4-5 patient’s names from over 75 I saw last month. You do do a lot of the same stuff until something new comes along, but that something new is probably not something you invented or pushed along anyways and it builds off the previous stuff in the first place. Talking to patients is not repetitive but you rarely have time for really getting to do that. (I guess you would in Psychiatry and you know the conversations are going to be different…..:))

I really feel anyone can be a doctor if they work at it. How good of a doctor and how much time they will have for other pursuits is questionable and you’ll need intelligence to help you out there. (I can guarantee you my friend who became a Plastic Surgeon has never read a blog of any kind, but someone like Gawande, well, people blog about him).

Still, medicine is a lot more social than other professions. And, really, no patient is the same. And the desire to be well rounded can be carved out later in life or at level that you can be individually at peace with and things.

So, in short, if your friend can simply stay disciplined for a decent amount of time and get organized and work hard, he’ll be a great doctor and he’ll like it. Plus, being a doctor only opens more doors than it will ever close for you. He won’t have to practice medicine at all — he can work for a drug corp, teach, research, etc. So, it’s a big world and most people find their way in it.

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How To Get Involved With Your Passions

A recent post on Ask MetaFilter asks:

How do you cope when you seem to be surrounded on all sides by ineffectiveness and apathy?

In his question, jmnugent talks about his frustration at seeing his work and ideas not coming to fruition due to the apathy around him. He feels that not many people “care about quality work” and only does the bare minimum, and is finding it hard to be passionate when it seems no one really cares.

There is quite an animated discussion over rewards for efforts, living on principle, and the value of ideas. In the middle of all this comes the true question: How does a passionate person get involved with other passionate groups and people?

The main answer is that you have to go and look for those groups and people – expecting them to look for you will not yield much. You may be lucky and get discovered, but – like being rich, being famous, or finding the love of your life – a lot of it requires effort. Along the way you’ll also need to earn trust, work on communications skills, and do the work without blame or worry on someone holding you back.

Fortunately it isn’t that difficult to get started. Here are some starting points (as posted by me to jmnugent’s question) on getting involved with other passionate people: (click on the More link)

Continue reading

Starting School? Keep It Cool.

The first week of school in Malaysia has just ended, and slowly all those in primary and secondary schools are getting back into the rhythm of classes, homeworks, and tests. For many this would be their first experience – first time in primary or secondary school, first time with a child or family member in school, first time in a new school.

Here are some ideas on making your schooling life meaningful and worthwhile:

Relax! A lot of people get unnecessarily stressed out by what happens in school. It’s not the end of the world if you fail a test, or get a tough homework assignment, or get too tired or ill to attend school. Take care of your own sanity, first and foremost. If things are getting too much, take some time off to relax – meditate, work on a favourite hobby, or just lie back and sleep.

Take care of your health. Some schools have the unhealthy notion that no matter how sick you may be, you must come to school, except if you’re bedridden. This is insane and really doesn’t help anyone – you’ll only stress yourself out, and you may be contagious. (Personal experience: I was down with the flu but still worked a million things in school. I ended up being so exhausted and ill that I had to be hospitalized for a few days.) Take some rest and recuperate – you’ll learn better when you’re healthy!

Don’t worry too much about grades or scores. They’re not as important as people say they are. Sure, in some cases they’re helpful, but ultimately what matters more is what you do with yourself regardless of grades. If you fall short of a perfect gradesheet, or end up failing your papers, don’t despair – there are always other chances for improvement and proving yourself.

Broaden your horizons. Here’s your chance to explore the world outside yourself. Don’t just hang out with people of your race, or stick to a clique, or make your textbooks your only source of information. Make friends with people of all backgrounds! Get involved with different things and different groups of people! Read vastly and partake in all sorts of experiences! The world is your oyster – go out and explore.

Have some interests outside of school. Yes, you are allowed a hobby or two. Don’t let what you enjoy disappear just because it isn’t academic. Try out some new things once in a while – a new sport, a new craft, a recipe you’ve tasted somewhere, a play you’d like to watch or perform in. Don’t worry about maintaining standards – you’re not being graded here. Enjoy yourself.

Don’t overload yourself. Sure, it’s good to have all sorts of interests and activities, but trying to do too much will only tire you out – and ultimately, you won’t be able to make the best of anything. Give yourself time to rest and do nothing but recharge. You don’t need a full schedule – especially not a schedule that’s packed with things you don’t really enjoy just because you want to impress someone!

Learn elsewhere. School isn’t the only source of education. (Indeed, whether some schools are sources of education is debatable.) Education comes from everywhere – different books (and magazines and publications), the Internet, the media, people, experiences. Take stock of different viewpoints, and think critically and creatively – don’t just accept one viewpoint as gospel.

Rethink tuition. Tuition classes, despite the publicity, aren’t actually necessary. Pay attention in class and do your own self-study, and you’ll be fine. Much of the time, they’re a waste of time and money anyway. Do go ahead and get extra help if you’re struggling, but don’t go to tuition classes just because they’re the “thing to do”.

Keep your options open. You don’t have to take Science classes and get straight As in all exams and get a scholarship for Medicine in a top university. You can build your life however you want it. Be open to changes of plans – life is never really set in stone. Don’t let other people tell you how to live your life. It’s yours to develop as you see fit.

Any other ideas and tips for those new to school? Share them here. And good luck!

Kick-Start!

Attention all Malaysians 18-25: NESCAFE’s Kick-Start is about to start their 3rd season – and they need you!

The Malaysian Kick-Start, based on Australia’s NESCAFE Big Break, is a reality TV show based on “kickstarting” one’s dream career through start-up money (as a grand prize) and mentorships. Among the careers and projects worked on by the semifinalists include:

  • Race car drivers (this was oddly popular)
  • Artists
  • Writers
  • Event managers
  • Martial arts instructors

and many more.

While Big Break focuses more on individual projects, Kick-Start concentrates on careers; their application forms ask for your “dream career” and their website contains plenty of career-related information. However, based on personal experience (I was shortlisted for the first season and attended the finals) and observation of the winners, Kick-Start tends to work best when you have a certain project in mind: the previous two winners set up a car parking system and a recycling program (though their dream jobs weren’t quite as specific).

Here are some tips for getting through Kick-Start:

  • Have a project in mind – one of the questions asked is “what will you do with the money”. When I was auditioned, I was there to be a writer; however, I didn’t quite have a clear plan in mind. (My theory was that writers don’t have plans!) One other memorable semifinalist (and an acquaintance) was someone who was a “social linguist cum musician”. Apparently he needed two auditions because the judges couldn’t quite figure out what to do with him! However, because there wasn’t much he could do with the money, he didn’t get past the first televised round.
  • Be yourself – There were a few people who deliberately chose offbeat careers just so they can get a headsup on the competition. Fine, if you really want to go to that path, but not so fine if it’s not really where your heart lies! You’ll be more passionate with something you truly enjoy, and it’ll show – to the judges, and the the public voting you on.
  • Don’t be a backstabber – The first few televised rounds are based on group projects; their performance in the group project determines who gets into the finals. During the projects (and even after), quite a few contenstants bitched behind their fellow competitor’s back, gossiping about them and saying quite unfriendly things. This does not reflect well; it only shows that you’re not a team player, can’t get along with people, and you’re very difficult and disagreeable. Not surprisingly, they didn’t get far. Nice guys do finish first!
  • Don’t be afraid to be quirky – this is an extension of “be yourself”. There are quite a number of genuinely quirky people who hold themselves back because they think they won’t make a good impression. Forget that; being quirky just shows more sides of yourself and gives you some personality – it’ll also make you stand out from the rest and be memorable. Don’t be afraid to be silly or do unorthodox things…they can be the key to your success.
  • Watch out for your mentors – this sounds like an odd piece of advice. However, if you’ve seen the first season’s mentors you’ll probably understand. I was very appaled at how almost none of the mentors on the show (bar one) were really “mentoring”; most of them tended to deride their proteges, criticizing rather than helping. One such mentor stood out in this regard; his charge was an aspiring racecar driver, but he (the mentor) was continually absent and never really concentrated on his charge’s progress. While the rest of the track team complimented the participant’s growth (not too bad considering he’s completely new), all he could come up with were criticisms and derision. I felt bad for the participant (a finalist); I wanted him to win just so the so-called “mentor” would shut up! If this is the case with your mentor, go find someone else for support, or rely on yourself.
  • Be dedicated – you’re given a mentorship with someone in the industry (hopefully the quality of mentors has improved!) and some grant money for your project. You’re also relying on the support of the public. Work on it! You can’t laze off now. Indeed, now’s the time to make further progress on the project. Give it your all.
  • When one door closes, another opens – just because you didn’t make the finals (or the shortlist, or the shorter list) doesn’t mean your project is doomed. One semi-finalist wanted to set up a vegetarian restaurant; while she didn’t make the finals, she did get contacted by a fellow restauranter and her dream’s coming true. As for me – that rejection was the “last straw” that led me to research other opportunities…which led me to Up With People…and the rest is history, as they say.

If you’ve got this really cool project in your mind, now’s the time to see it happen – Apply Now! Closing date is 3rd October 2006.

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Blogathon: #24 – Re-Entry Shock

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Lorelle suggested I write more about re-entry shock – “culture shock” that happens when you go back home after your long trip (whether with Up With People, or some other study abroad program, or some form of international travelling). I briefly mentioned it in the Culture Shock entry but it is something worth mentioning on its own.

So you’ve been out of your hometown for a while. You’ve gone through the culture shock cycles a few times and you’re used to it. You’re enjoying your travels, but now it’s time to go home. Or maybe you’re not enjoying your travels and you really want to go home. Either way, home’s for you.

You think “oh, it’s home, something familiar, I’ll be fine”, right? Think different. You might surprise yourself with the amount of shock you feel upon re-entry. Suddenly the country feels very different. People aren’t what you remembered them to be. The food doesn’t taste as nice. Everything’s suddenly different. What changed?

You.

Of course, it’s not just you. Life back home doesn’t sit in a vaccuum waiting for you to return. It moves on, and in moving on a lot of things would change. Personal issues, nationwide issues, politics, the environment…so many things. You won’t have been able to gradually adjust to the change; it’s all sudden for you. Like an overnight swap.

But you’ve also done a lot of adjusting. Through all those travels you have internally adapted to the cultures you were in, living their lives, sharing their souls. You may not have noticed it, but they have influenced you…so now, when you return, it feels like you really just left home.

I had a horrible re-entry experience. My family came to pick me up at Rome after my tour. First mistake. It was too sudden a transition, like I was rudely awakened from a pleasureable dream. The family insisted on sight-seeing; I was very moody and exhausted, and I already went to all the same places the day before anyway, but I had no choice but to trail them along. I was already going through the stages of grief and was on the brink of tears; my sister told me not to cry because it didn’t look nice.

A week after we reached home, we were visited by my cousin and his family. I was going through major jetlag so I wasn’t really awake when they were (I slept till mid-afternoon) and I couldn’t really entertain them because I had no energy left.

A week after that, we went to Dhaka for another cousin’s wedding…TORTURE. Her wedding was actually pretty cool; however, it was just too many relatives at one go, too much to process. I still hadn’t processed my Up With People tour, never really got to think about it, and now I had to deal with hundreds of people (I come from a large family). My mum wanted me to stay for 3 weeks, even though the wedding was over by the first week…in retrospect I should have listened to my instincts and said “No”, and come home. Instead, I spent most of my time on MSN, chatting to one of my crew mates as we built our crew website together. It was the only way I could cope.

Some people deal with re-entry shock better than others. Being a frequent long-term traveller may help, though it’s not a guarantee. We all have our own coping mechanisms. What’s important is that we take care of our own needs – re-entry shock can be quite a disturbance to all our systems (mental, physical, emotional) and not having enough time and space to process and work through the changes will only harm you in the long run.

It could take years, it could take minutes. Whatever it is, deal with it like you would culture shock anywhere else – keep yourself busy, stay healthy, get some rest, talk to someone. Take care of yourself. Once you’ve back in balance you’re ready to take on home – and the world – again.

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Blogathon: #8 – Up With People Dress Codes

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Earlier I had talked about what to bring on an Up With People tour. One important part is clothes; you’ll need a variety of outfits for the different dress codes you’ll encounter.

When you get your schedules, you may see different notations for dress codes – Dress Code 1, Dress Code 2, and so on. This may sound really weird at first (numerical dress codes?) but after a while you’ll get the hang of the system.

Here’s what you’ll encounter:

Dress Code 1: Business Formal – worn during official meetings (especially with mayors and businesspeople), tours of business facilities, and anywhere where you need to make a good impression. Suits or a jacket and shirt with slacks or skirts work fine. Some people wear a simplified version of their national costume; this works amazingly well, because you don’t look like the rest of us. Most people wear black, but there’s no restriction on colour; one time we had 3 people dressed in varying shades of pink and maroon. They looked like a colourbar.

Dress Code 1
A bunch of us in Dress Code 1 for a tour of the General Atomics nuclear facility in San Diego (behind us is Blanton Belk, founder of UWP, and the General Atomics head who is also UWP alumni – can’t remember his name though). Most of us are in business shirts or suits, but Nanu and Joyce have decided to go ethnic – which works well.

Dress Code 2: Smart Casual – for occasions when it’s not very casual nor very formal. This can be a bit of a gray area, but usually you’ll tend to know when you’ll need to dress in Code 2. The main difference between this and “casual” is the lack of denim. This is one of the two default dress codes (when a dress code is not specified), and is a good idea in a more conservative area where you’re not sure how casual they will be.

Dress Code 2- kinda
Rie, myself, and Nanu dressed kinda between smart casual and casual – jeans and faeries wings aren’t Dress Code 2 category. However, swap the jeans with a pair of nice slacks or a skirt and you’ll have a pretty good idea of how Dress Code 2 works.

Dress Code 3: Casual – the other default dress code. Jeans and a t-shirt basically. Easiest to put together. However, do be aware of your surroundings; some places (especially more conservative areas) may consider casual outfits as being too unprofessional and undignified. Internal UWP activities are usually Dress Code 3.

Dress Code 3
DeeAnn contemplating the mysteries of the dress-coded universe.

Dress Code 4: Get Dirty – no, we’re not advocating porn. Plenty of community service projects involve dirt and dust – gardening, cleaning up, even cooking. For this you’ll need something that’s easy to wash and which you won’t get too bothered about getting dirty. A simple cotton T-Shirt and jeans work well. Often you’ll get free T-shirts during the tour; some people use those for Dress Code 4.

Dress Code 4
Myself getting away from carrying wood and rock all day. My shirt’s so full of wooddust. Thank goodness for Dress Code 4!

National Costume – this is always fun to have. Go for something more smart casual/DC2, instead of elaborate; super-elaborate ones, such as those with heavy embroidery, are usually very expensive and heavy, and can be in great risk of getting wear and tear on the road. Something a little tamer is easier to bring around and wear, and can also function as a DC1 or DC2 outfit. But for goodness sake, stay away from stereotypes; don’t bring too many kilts if you’re Scottish, or liederhosen if you’re Gemran (unless that’s your thing).

National Costume
Nanu looking very ravishing in her sari from Nepal. She looks ravishing anyway, the lucky woman.

Performance clothes – this is where my experience may differ from yours, and where it’s best to check what the handbook has to say. In the old Up With People days, people had costumes; they differed by show, and ranged from bright yellow t-shirts to full-on costuming. (And a long blonde wig nicknamed The Cat.) During my WorldSmart tour, we all wore black; it’s a good basic colour, and it goes with all the other dress codes. Get something comfortable but still classy, so you can move easily and still look nice while doing so. Go for interesting tops; T-shirts can be a bit boring after a while.

black
Some of us during the Toyota Celebration – I think we’re singing Shima Uta. Usually the outfits are all black, no design or anything else; however, Huning is something of a Style Goddess so we pretty much let her do whatever she wanted.

The current Up With People shows may demand something with more colour. You will get a colour pallete if this is the case – a document with a selection of colours and shades. Get something vaguely ethnic: Bohemian works well, as does actual ethnic clothing – but you don’t have to be authentically ethnic. Pair this up with something black or in denim (usually pants or skirts). Also, get accessories! They can make a big difference.

colour
Tangerine Power!

Other clothes to bring include: house clothes/sweatpants, swimming outfits, winter clothes (jacket, scarf, gloves, hat), underwear, sweater/jumper. You won’t need anything super-formal, but if you do, you can get something at the city. Or go with a national costume – your’s or someone else’s.

One thing to remember: you will need less than you think. People tend to wear the same thing over and again and no one really cared. You probably won’t rediscover the bttom of your bag until quite late into the trip (like me). Sometimes there are donation drives too, so use it as a change to recycle or donate the clothes that don’t fit or that you just don’t like!

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Blogathon: #6 – What To Bring On An Up With People Tour

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You’ll be gone for about 6 months, perhaps to a country you’ve never been to before. You’ll experience both the extreme heat of summer and the freezing snows of winter. You’ll be living with 22 different families and need to get gifts for all of them. And you don’t want to leave home without your teddy.

The hardest question for all about-to-be Uppers: What to pack?

Not all of us are blessed with super organizational skills (unlike Nina, who attributes this to being German, and my sister, whom I’m starting to suspect is part-German somewhere) but not to worry! You don’t need super organizational skills to pack for an UWP trip! (though if you do have super organizational skills, more power to you.).

Here are some simple tips, taken from experience, on what to bring and not bring for an UWP tour:

Clothes – when you get your handbook (in the mail, before you leave for Denver), it’ll tell you what sort of clothes to bring. UWP follows a dresscode system according to activity, which I will elaborate in a later post. But bring the following:

  • Something business formal – a suit, jacket, etc
  • Smart casual – not as formal as a suit but not supremely casual (a nice top, good skirt/trousers, etc)
  • Casual – t-shirts, jeans
  • Something you’re willing to get dirty in (something casual works)
  • A national costume – you could go for a Miss Universe-style costume and get something really formal and elaborate. Problem is, it may be too heavy and too expensive. The better idea is to get something that would be “smart casual” forms of the national costume – a samfoo, a salwhar khameez, a nice kebaya or baju kurung that’s not too heavily embroidered. If you have any casual ethnic clothing (ethnic tops, skirts, etc) bring those too; they’re more interesting than the typical smart casual/casual wear!
  • Something to perform in – the handbook will tell you if you need to bring anything of a certain colour (there are usually colour pallettes). When I travelled, it was all black. Yours might be different.
  • Something to lounge around the house in – you’ll spend more time in your host family’s house than you realize, and you don’t want to be wearing kiddy nightclothes. Yoga pants are ideal; they’re comfy, look presentable, and wash easily.

Toileteries – get travel ones to start with. Host families usually have some put aside for guests; my host family in Erfurt actually made special packets for the both of us. Even if you do run out, you can buy them at the shops. (Japan’s are crazy expensive though.) Hotel ones and packets work well. Bring a toothbrush + toothpaste, some shower gel and shampoo for the first month or so, moisterizer and lip balm (Denver’s very dry), and maybe some makeup – you won’t use a lot though, because you won’t ever remember to use any of it! The minimum is best. (And for women – feminine hygiene products are easy to find, but bring some for the first week at least, especially if it’s due soon after the start of the program.)

Gifts – host family gifts are important. They provide a link to you and them, and they show your appreciation for hosting them. Most people get something from their culture – crafts, books, so on. Others get something that represents them; one guy in my crew was in a band and his host family gift was demo CDs. Get something small and portable (you don’t want to be lugging heavy things around), and if you can, get a variety – that way, you can suss out the host family’s personality and get them something that suits them best.

Books – you’re not required to bring books of any sort; however, journals are really handy. They can function as diaries of your travels, a place for host families and crewmates to write messages (real fun to read back!), notebooks, scrapbooks, and so much more. I’d recommend getting those that are spiral-bound; they’re easier to open. As for reading material – don’t bring too many. 2 maximum. Books get traded around anyway.

Technology – the three most common tech gadgets in my crew were iPods, laptops, and cameras. I brought none (I only own a laptop) and I regret not bringing the laptop – I survived without it, but it would have made things so much easier. However, this is up to your personality. If you don’t really use computers, don’t bring one. Ditto other tech gadgets. Only bring what you know you’ll miss, and leave the heavy stuff at home. HOWEVER, do get yourself a thumbdrive/USB drive – that is a LIFESAVER, especially if you don’t have a laptop on you.

Medicine – if you’re on prescription meds, bring them, and bring the prescription in case you run out. You may need a doctor’s letter to transport medicine overseas; check beforehand. You should be able to find a doctor if you’re feeling ill; however, they’re not always cheap. Consider getting a road risks insurance, you never know what can happen if you decide to take a road trip.

Food – you don’t need to bring food. However, some local snacks and candy will go a long way, especially in the Picnic Stations that are the buses. A packet or two is best.

Identification – you will need a passport (with visas where necessary), a local ID card (if you have one), a driver’s license (if you have one – you won’t be allowed to drive but it’s good to have), an ISIC card (it’s not a must, but it’s very handy especially in Europe), and your tickets to and from the trip. Make sure you have photocopies; in my tour they scanned and photocopied our passport, but do make copies anyway.

Money – you’ll be broke sooner than you realize. Bring about US$250 worth of US dollars and Euros; double that for Japanese Yen because it’s crazy expensive. A little less of that for Swiss francs since they don’t use Euros (but things costs the same). A credit card is also helpful for emergencies (some airports use it as ID for the automatic e-ticket booths) but don’t overspend and watch for exchange rates. If you can, exchange the money before you leave home. Some people say bring traveller’s cheques; I didn’t bring any, but it’s up to you.

It’s time to post this now; I may have more ideas in post #7. What other things should you pack for a long trip?

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“Doing School” In Malaysia – Part II: What Can We Do?

In the first part, “”Doing School” In Malaysia – Part I: What’s The Problem?”, I talked about some factors that represent the dire need for a change in attitude towards the Malaysian education system.

This change of attitude needs to come from all places – students, teachers, parents, schools, the government, communities, media, the general public. Everyone can do something to bring back education in Malaysia back to what it should be about: learning, giving back to the community, and being engaged – not trying to play games.

Part II: What Can We Do?

1. Expect the unexpected – Not everything is really going to go according to plan. Perhaps you won’t get the grades you were hoping, or the course you want is unavailable, or an unexpected family event happens that takes up your time.

It’s not necessarily a matter of “I’m a good person, he’s a bad person”. As the saying goes, bad things happen to good people. (And besides, in some viewpoints good & bad are rather subjective.) Anything can happen to anyone.

Life seems to have a funny way of acting up when we don’t want it to. But that’s just how life is sometimes. The trick is to not let this get you down. Accept that things happen. Sure, there’s no harm in appealing your position or asking for a second opinion or whatever…but don’t let that paralyze you from moving on!

Often – at least in my experience – such things end up being blessings in disguise; a better offer might come up, or your lost chance might end up being not all that. Look for that blessing, appreciate it, and take is as it comes.

2. Lose the “special little snowflake” mentality – What do I mean by that? It’s described rather succinctly (if very crudely) by Mr T in this Ask Metafilter post about things you wish you knew at age 20:

YOU ARE NOT A SPECIAL LITTLE SNOWFLAKE! WORK HARDER! YOU DO NOT GET REWARDED IN THE REAL WORLD FOR BEING GOOD AT TAKING TESTS, DO YOUR GOD DAMNED HOMEWORK!

The “special little snowflake” mentality is basically an entitlement complex – the idea that certain things should fall into your lap due to certain other factors. “I got straight As! I must get into Harvard!” “I got a top degree! I must have the best job in the world!” “I got a million degrees! I must be richer than Bill Gates!”

Straight As don’t guarantee you anything. Having a top degree doesn’t guarantee you anything. Nothing is a guarantee. Jobs or degrees or prestidge or whatever aren’t going to fall on your lap – you still need to work, to have passion, to show dedication, to actually learn and understand.

Heck, we have real-life examples now – how many of the complaints coming through about lost uni places and lost scholarships are on the lines of “Well he got less As than me, how come he got it when I didn’t?!” And hey, Bill Gates was a dropout. So were many others.

If you really want something, be prepared to really work hard for it. Especially when you don’t get it the first time -it’s situations like those that really test your dedication and passion. If you’re willing to spend years mourning over the loss of a scholarship, instead of actually looking for other opportunities for funding…did you really want that scholarship?

3. Make education more like the real world – right now there is quite a gap between how school works and how the real world works. Education here has often been referred to as the menara gading – “ivory tower”. While it’s seen as a model of achievement here, the “ivory tower” term isn’t actually meant as a compliment. Rather, it’s a reflection of how academics become a barrier between someone and the real world; while they’re all caught up in books, they can’t survive outside the tower.

The curriculum could use some updates – if not in the actual content, at least in its presentation. It’s been shown that people learn better when there is a personal connection to the material – so use that to your advantage. Connect Maths formulas to real-life problems. Talk about Science in relation to current affairs (the designer baby debate is a good one). Examine Literature and its messages with the state of the world. The possibilities are endless!

You could even connect different subjects to one another. Do some scientific research that involves mathematics and logic, connect the implications of such research with historical precedents, learn about societies that would benefit from such research, write an essay on the research – and perhaps an illustrative story. You don’t even need to wait for the schools or teachers to do this; while studying, see how each subject interrelates to each other (or make the connections yourself!).

Exams could use a makeover. Denise Pope describes perfectly, in her Stanford lecture, what the problem is:

How many of us at our own workplaces are told, “you are in a very high-stakes situation – in fact a promotion, or your job, depends on it. We’re gonna give you something that you fill out with a paper and pencil. You are NOT allowed to use ANY of the resources that you normally have available to you. Guess what? It’s gonna be timed. Guess what? I’m the one that makes the decision and you have NO recourse over this. You have to do it ALONE – and it’s all gonna happen on Tuesday.”

Make use of more practical assessments (not just exams, but homework too) – project work, group work, long-term projects, field studies. Create assessments that reflect how the knowledge can be used in the real world (even if somewhat indirectly).

And if the exams still happen – design better questions. Create situational questions. Encourage use of creativity and critical thinking. Don’t get stuck into dogmatic marking schemes – allow for different points of view, and look for people who understand why their answers are what they are. This would make a big difference already.

Note: there isn’t anything inherently wrong with academics. However, it can be dangerous to be completely immersed in one world while ignoring how to survive and thrive in other situations. Living requires skills of all kinds.

4. Be adaptable – adaptability is the one skill most needed but least acquired by Malaysian students. When changes happen, or the unexpected becomes reality, students feel trapped; they think “Oh no! My life is over!” and act like it is so. For them, everything hinges on that grade or uni spot or scholarship: one misstep, and it’s all gone.

It need not be that way. As mentioned earlier, things happen; sometimes not the way we like it to. But there’s really no point in waiting for others to change while we bemoan our fate. We create our destiny.

Plan A doesn’t work? Go for Plan B. No Plan B? Make one. There’s no need to lock yourself in so early anyway – there’s plenty of time, and people & situations do change. If you have to take a break because you can’t get into uni now…accept that, and make the best use of that break (you most likely need it!). If you need to work to earn money, then do honest work. Don’t let sudden changes block you, paralyze you.

And if you do decide to change your mind – different course, academic life not for you, whatever – then make the change. You are allowed to change your mind.

5. Work for it – If you really want something, go all out for it – and prepare to sacrifice.

Oprah Winfrey once mentioned an anecdote on her show about how her acting coach told her that she (Oprah) didn’t actually want to be an actor, but that she wanted to be a star. She said that if Oprah really wanted to be an actor, she would be willing to quit everything and wait tables while waiting for those acting jobs. She’d put in the hard work – because acting jobs aren’t going to fall on her lap just like that.

It’s still true, even outside showbiz. Some people are lucky in that things happen without much effort. If that’s the case for you, great! However, you still need the dedication and motivation to keep at it. There’s no point being lazy about it.

There will be times when it’s hard and you’re feeling unmotivated. That’s fine; perfectly normal. But again, don’t let it paralyze you. Seek help, take a break, do something else…let yourself recharge. Then go back with a new sense of perspective and see if it helps. And if it really feels like a dead end…well, there is no shame in change.

6. Lose all illusions of prestidge – people here tend to be really hung up on prestidge. Go to the “top schools” – premier schools, Ivies, Oxbridge, whatever. Get prestidgious degrees. Earn top money in top jobs. Nothing but the top.

There is a difference between what is prestidgious and what is the best. Prestidge is a matter of opinion, of hype and the status quo. It’s what people say is best. What’s really th e best is a highly individual matter – what’s best for someone is different from what is best for someone else.

Harvard has this reputation for being the “best university ever” but for many people it’s a bad choice – it’s not the place to go if you’re really artsy, for example. Science subjects are touted as the “smart student’s subjects”, and Arts and Humanities are left for the “backwards students” – but what makes a Science student any smarter than an Arts student? And do you really want to be a doctor to help people – or because it apparently has more glamour?

As Denise Pope constantly mentions, college should be a match, not a trophy. Basing decisions based on how prestidgious it is is living on someone else’s terms; the only terms you should live by is your own. What’s right for you may be a completely unknown name in the middle of nowhere. What you excel in may not be a well-known job. That’s fine. If it fits you best, that’s the way to go.

10 universities do not hold a monopoly on providing the world’s best education. 3 career paths do not hold a monopoly on being the best jobs. What makes a place good or not is how you make of the experience; prestidge is largely useless if you can’t make the best out of it. In the end, it’s you that matters, not some silly ranking system.

7. Be open to possibilities – and make them – Education does not only consist of school, tuition, and exams. There are SO MANY options out there! They can be taken anytime, in any order, and any pace.

You don’t have to rush to enter uni before the SPM results are out; feel free to take a year off. You can work for a while between studies. You can take more esoteric subjects. You can drop the issue entirely. It’s all up to you.

This goes in well with expecting the unexpecting and being adaptable – we have plenty of opportunities out there. Not all are conventional, but that doesn’t make it bad. It’s up t us to find those opportunities, recognize them, and take advantage of it.

Hey, we could even make our own opportunities! Companies can sponsor students on study-abroad trips. More programs can be developed. Charter schools, as suggested by M. Bakri Musa, can be set up to make primary and secondary education more flexible. Some of these ideas can even be synthesized – Kathy Sierra suggests “learning designers” in her post “College Matters…Sometimes” (a followup to her equally amazing post, “Does College Matter?”:

Maybe there should be third-party “learning designers” who you pay to plan and choose the best options and put together a perfectly tailored custom program from a variety of learning vendors (instead of throwing all your learning eggs into one school basket) that still includes some general education, but in the way that makes the most sense for that particular student, and uses both online, distance, and *some* face-to-face learning. If a parent (and more importantly, the student) thinks that leaving home is important, that can be a component as well (although I’m still voting for the crash-course with a backpack and a rail pass thing). The students could go to a kind of “advanced learning camp” that could be anything from an off-campus dorm (complete with cafeteria), or something more primitive.

The possibilities are all out there! Make use of it! Don’t get stuck in a narrow-track minded; open it up a little.

8. Take care of yourself – students are harming themselves by not eating or resting in the name of studying. Schools aren’t helping; many ignore health issues (especially mental health) just for the sake of perfect records or attendence (how many of us were told that we still had to come to school despite being sick?). Pressure mounts, and many students blow up – their health plumments, their emotions go haywire, they get exhausted and fall into anxiety and depression. All sadly too common.

Our body, mind, and soul has boundaries; let’s respect them. Have some proper rest – don’t burn the midnight oil out too long. Eat a balanced diet. Stay away from “superdrugs”; they just really mess you up. See a doctor if things go back (or even for a checkup – really handy). Don’t just sit there reading books; take a walk or two.

Also, don’t pile on the pressure. There’s already so much going on in life as it is. Allow students to breathe and be themselves. They will not be a failure if they aren’t perfect; no one is! The suicide rate for youths in this region is already too high; let’s not make it higher.

9. Get a life – It’s not meant to be rude. Rather, students nowadays tend to focus so much on textbooks that they forget who they are. This doesn’t mean “drop everything and go shopping” (though if that helps you, great) – it means exploring other facets of yourself and letting that show through.

Perhaps you have a creative side. Perhaps you like performing. Perhaps you’re curious and want to see how things work. Perhaps you have an idea for something never before seen. Perhaps you have a strong passion in something they don’t teach in school. Pursue those! Even if it’s just for a few minutes each day. It provides a welcome mental break, and it helps the person holistically – instead of being super-concentrated on one aspect, they are balanced on almost all aspects of themselves.

Don’t let the fear of failure stop you – you don’t have to be Ian Thorpe to enjoy swimming, and you don’t have to be Harry Potter to cast a little magic here and there.

10. Honour youths with unusual interests – the youths we glorify here tend to have conventional attributes. Straight As, Ivy acceptance, Nicole David. There isn’t much room for flexibility.

However, there are so many young people out there doing amazing things that are out of the ordinary. Photography, writing, presenting, science, performance, crafts, manufacturing, management…so much! They could use a lot more encouragement and support.

Feature these youths in the media. Provide assistant and sponsorships for their projects. Provide an ability for these youths to network and collaborate on projects. (TakingITGlobal is a great international resource for this, but we need a more Malaysian-specific one.)

When youths see that there are young people who are happy and content and sucsessful at doing various other things besides studies and sports, they’d be motivated to pursue their own passion. Not having straight As won’t bother them or hinder them; they’ll know that they can make it no matter what. And that’s a valuable lesson we can impart on them; that they are capable of doing anything they set their mind to.

11. Rely on yourself – every year the Blame Game is played: “the Government is conspiring to keep worthy people out of scholarships or university! There is something wrong with them! They hate us!”

Sure, the system needs a LOT of work. But we should already know by then that we can’t rely 100% on them – or any outside person. In the end, we can only rely on ourselves; we need to be responsible for our own achievement, for our own goals, for our own wishes. We can’t afford to be needy, begging for handouts.

Playing the Blame Game and continuously whining year after year about how “life is unfair” gets us nowhere. Yes it’s unfair. And while they fix themselves up, let’s be resillient and adaptable and look for our own options. This is our life; we need to take it into our own hands.

There are plenty of ideas about how to bring positive change to the Malaysian educational system – much more than the 11 I have here. What other ideas do you have? Are they being implemented now? How can we implement them? Even the smallest idea helps.

Links in Post:

Gap Years: Taking Time off Study to Learn

A desire to travel, escape boredom, and take a much-needed break from studies. Do they sound like good reasons to take a year off from university? How about wanting an education that extends beyond the confines of the classroom, and craving for a taste of independence?

– Tan Shiow Chin, Gap Year Allure, The Star (Malaysia) Sunday 4th June 2006

Those words head off an article in The Star’s recent Education pullout about five British girls – Rachel Baum, Victoria Young, Emily Wemily-Whitefield, Lisa-Ann Goodman, and Claris Davison – who are all here in Malaysia travelling and working on various projects (working at the Taiping Zoo and doing community outreach, amongst others) as part of their gap year.

Some may wonder, what exactly is this “gap year” we speak of? Here’s a guide:

So what exactly is a gap year?
A gap year is pretty much what the name implies – a break between periods of study. Basically, gappers (a common nickname for those who take gap years) take time off between periods of schooling to do something else for a while.

When are gap years often taken?
Gap years are most commonly taken between secondary education (O-Levels/SPM or A-Levels/STPM) and tertiary education (college and university), between undergraduate and graduate/postgraduate work, or between graduation and work – though there are some that take gap years during secondary or tertiary education itself.

Where are gap years popular?
Gap years are very common in the United Kingdom (one very famous example being Prince William, who took time out after Eton to work with Raleigh International) and are gaining popularity in the United States, Europe, and Oceania, but they haven’t been quite as popular in Asia, including Malaysia.

And why is that?
There are a few prevalent beliefs amongst Asian cultures – including Malaysian ones – that discourage youths from taking gap years. Amongst them:

  • You must go straight to university from secondary school, and complete it entirely; if you take time off, you won’t be able to reenter
  • If you reenter university after taking time off, you’ll be older than the rest of your classmates, you’ll be old when you graduate, and you’ll be old amongst your colleagues
  • You must enter the workforce right after graduation, or else you will miss out on climbing career ladders and be dommed to low-level jobs for a long time, losing out on money and prosperity
  • Gap years only encourage you to loiter around and waste time; nothing is gained
  • Gap years are expensive and not worth the expense
  • Gap years are a “Western” thing

Let’s tackle these beliefs one by one.

Belief 1: “You must go straight to university from secondary school, and complete it entirely; if you take time off, you won’t be able to reenter”
There is no law that states required age for university entry. You will not miss out on admissions chances if you take time off after your exams. Indeed, for many students in Malaysia, they won’t be able to enrol immediately anyway since they would most likely be called up for National Service, which already takes a chunk of time away.

Universities and colleges will always be around; they will wait. It is possible to get accepted and then apply for a deferment, which allows you to enrol later. In some countries (especially the United States), taking gap years may actually boost admissions chances, as it shows initiative, independance, and other skills and abilities, making you more of a complete package and an asset to the university community. Harvard University, most people’s idea of a “top university”, even encourages recent accepted students to take a gap year before enrolling.

Gap years also allow you to really reflect on your chosen path, and it’s a great opportunity to see whether the course you want to take is the one for you – better to find out that you don’t really want to be a dentist after spending a few months working in a dental clinic, than to find this out after spending at least 4 years (and thousands of dollars) in dental school!

Not everyone does return to university life after a gap year. Some just seem to take on “gap lives”. This isn’t lways a bad thing; university isn’t for everybody, and for some people, being a free spirit is better for their souls. Everyone has their own path, after all.

Belief 2: “If you reenter university after taking time off, you’ll be older than the rest of your classmates, you’ll be old when you graduate, and you’ll be old amongst your colleagues”
Here’s where the old adage “Time waits for no man” doesn’t quite apply. Life isn’t exactly age-dependent. You DON’T HAVE to graduate by 21; you DON’T HAVE to earn a million by 30; you DON’T HAVE to be married with kids by 35. Everyone has their own pace in life and you’re allowed to live by your own pace. Age doesn’t necessarily determine your success; what determines it is your dedication, passion, and determination to make it happen. Anything is possible if you set your mind to it and work for it.

There are people who graduate college in their 70s and 80s. Presidents and Prime Ministers are typically in their 60 to 80s. One of my university classmates was nearly 30; she was the oldest in a group of 18-20-year-olds.

Heck, I’ve taken plenty of time off here and there (I’ll share my story soon), and if I do graduate by the projected time (2009; I’d be about 24) I’d still be very young for a lot of things. Life is short, yes; that doesn’t always mean we have to rush. Age is but a number; it’s all in how you make of your situation.

Belief 3: “You must enter the workforce right after graduation, or else you will miss out on climbing career ladders and be dommed to low-level jobs for a long time, losing out on money and prosperity”
Again, you don’t have to rush. There’s plenty of time for work. Employment rates change, and there are always job openings – you can even create your own job! Even fresh graduates who have never taken some time off aren’t always guaranteed a job, so there’s no real way to say whether having a gap year is necessarily a detriment to employability.

Gap years can also be a great resume booster. In the same way that they help university admissions, employers would be very impressed with people who have taken the initiative to explore various options and gain experience. Based on your varied skills and experiences, you would stand out over other competitors vying for the same job whose resumes are more conventional but less unique.

I personally feel that we’re focusing too much on materialistic gains. “If you don’t get a good, high-paying job, you’re a failure” – this mindset is a corollary to “If I don’t get straight As/admission into top universities/a scholarship/a degree, I’m a failure”, and is extremely destructive. Success shouldn’t be on just how much you earn or what you own; it should be about your satisfaction with life. What makes you happy? Many people take gap years just to answer that question; it’s definitely something we should think about.

Belief 4: “Gap years only encourage you to loiter around and waste time; nothing is gained”
Here’s where I share my story.

I was severly burnt out after my SPM exams in 2002. I had struggled through that year with stress, unpredicted and unfortunate circumstances (including the disappearance of a few dear friends), as well as panic disorder and depression. The school environment had become highly toxic for me, and I knew I couldn’t continue in similar environments – at least not immediately.

Right after the exams, I vowed to take time off for myself. I used that time to really delve myself into things I was interested in. The first couple of things I did was a radio book review show, as well as applying for a job with Xfresh. (I almost got the job; however, I lived out-of-state, which was a problem.)

2003 was a flurry of activity. I was reunited with one of my best friends, Asha Gill, after 9 months of no contact and got to meet her for the first time later that year. (She was based in Hong Kong previously.) I took hip-hop dance classes for a few months – finally, some exercise! I gained an interest in American Idol, and in the middle of the year my mum and I flew up to Washington DC, USA, to see Clay Aiken (whom I’m a big fan of) and the other contestants on their American Idol roadshow. (My aunt – my mum’s sister – lives in Virginia, which is nearby, so it was good for my mum to come along too.) That was an experience in itself – Clay Aiken’s fans are a community of their own, and we had plenty of parties and meetups; I even got filmed for the news!

I also became part of The Star’s BRATs – going to my first workshop in Lumut, Perak; writing a front-page interview (with Asha!); participating in their End-Year trip to Mabul, Sabah to work on marine conservation by making artificial reef balls. I also took part in the National Novel Writing Month, an international challenge to write 50,000 words or more of a novel in the month of November. Together with the BRATs’ End-Year trip, I closed off the year by participating in Power 98 FM Singapore‘s Radio DJ workshop, and on New Years 2004 I launched Asha’s official website AshaGill.Com, which I had been working on for much of the year before.

Ironically, I was meant to be enrolled in Limkokwing University College by mid-2003, which wasn’t really to my liking but at the time wasn’t much of a choice; other circumstances delayed this to February 2004, which really gave me my “gap year”.

I have since taken another gap year. After one and a half years in college (much of it spent on other things such as volunteering with Amnesty International, writing for BRATs, and participating in the Project-Blog Blogathon), I travelled with Up With People from August till December 2005, and (besides having the time of my life) had a major reevaluation of wht I wanted to do with my life. I didn’t return to college; instead, I visited my relatives for a while, and then worked with Channel [V] International for a few months to gain experience and save up for my trip to Denver, Colorado, for the Up With People Premiere. I also got involved with the All Women’s Action Society through a few projects and workshops. I will soon reenter university life by entering Queensland University of Technology for three years; who knows how long it really will be or what else I’ll be up to!

Those two years I spent doing out-of-the-box things (2003 and 2005-2006) were the biggest learning experiences of my life. I learnt more from all the activities I did during those times than I ever did at school. It built up my confidence, taught me so many things about myself and the world, connected me to all sorts of people, and gave me exposure to things that I would NEVER get in a school environment. Many gappers have reported that they felt the exact same way. And besides, we were too busy to loiter!

Belief 5: “Gap years are expensive and not worth the expense”
That really depends on what you aim to do in your gap year; not all gap years are the same.

There are plenty of organized programs that market themselves for gap years – from specific gap-year programs such as LeapNow and Where There Be Dragons, to programs organized by the likes of AFS, Up With People, Raleigh International, The Peace Boat, semester At Sea, and The Scholar Ship, and much much more. Prices of these programs differ; some offer financial help, some are self-funded.

Gap years need not always be organized programs. Plenty of people design their own gap years. Backpacking is especially popular, particularly with people who want to travel on a low budget. (The Art Of Travel provides excellent advice for backpacking on the cheap.) Some people take up jobs or start their own businesses, helping them earn money instead of spending it. Internships, volunteering, and job shadowing barely cost anything but can help you earn good money in the future by gaining experience. There are also people who are more spontaneous about their gap years – instead of planning in advance, they just take whatever comes their way.

Gap years can also help you save money. Many people enter university not really knowing what they want to study or do with their lives. While not everyone is going to know their life purpose in their 20s, gap years offer a great opportunity to explore interests and see what sort of things you like. You could save hundreds of thousands of dollars in university fees by enrolling to a course or university that fits your ideals more, rather than something chosen in an undetermined haze.

Belief 6: “Gap years are a “Western” thing”
While they are more common in Western parts of the world, due to their more liberal attitude on education and youths, there are plenty of people in other parts of the world that take gap years. I’m one such example. Young Singaporean men are automatically enlisted for their own National Service, which is in a way a form of a gap year (albeit a government-mandated one). Gap years are even gaining popularity in countries with traditional expectations of education, such as Japan and Korea.

Another perfect example of local people taking gap years is Suzanne Lee, who has taken time off from studying to explore and photograph the world. She has just been selected as one of the top 10 finalists for the KLue Blue Chilli Awards, which is a great way to recognize her efforts. Congrats Suzanne!

Gap years are flexible, open to possibility, and full of potential for growth, exploration, and innovation. Here are some resources:

Websites
GapYear.Com is widely regarded as the definitive guide for gap years in the UK. Transitions Abroad and GoAbroad offer plenty of ideas and articles on studying, working, travelling, and volunteering abroad. SolBeam is a young woman who took time off from her work to travel to Costa Rica – and has never stopped travelling since. Her blog contains wonderful stories about her trips and explorations, as well as some tips on travelling. Also check out the links in the “Links In Post” section below.

Books
The Teenager’s Guide To School Outside The Box (ISBN: 0613938860) by Rebecca Greene contains plenty of ideas for those still in secondary school (and who just left), while Delaying The Real World (ISBN: 0762421894) by Colleen Kinder is geared towards college students and college graduates. Also check out Michael Landes’s The Back Door Guide To Short-Term Job Adventures: Internships, Extraordinary Experiences, Seasonal Jobs, Volunteering, Working Abroad (ISBN: 1580084494).

Whether travelling, volunteering, learning something new, or just doing something different, gap years are a great way to decompress from the pressures of school and still get amazing learning experiences. If you’re stressing over where to go to university, or what to do after graduation, take a gap year – it’ll help you clear your mind and explore your choices.

If you have any gap-year stories of your own, please feel free to share in the comments. Also feel free to ask questions, and share opinions. Discussion is fun!

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Scholarships Woes: Here We Go Again

So here we go again.

Exam results are out, results for the government scholarships are out…and also out are the newspaper reports of a random "straight A" student who felt cheated out of a scholarship.

Among the many remarks and excuses heard during this time:

  • "I worked so hard for these As! I woke up at 2:45 in the morning every day to study!"
  • "I know someone who got less As than me but got a scholarship. Not fair!"
  • "I must study medicine! And I can only do it with a scholarship!"

Ever notice how it's always medicine? Or at least a scientific subject? You rarely hear about someone failing to get a government scholarship to study creative industries or sociology or humanities. Oh, wait…there aren't any.

How many of these doctor-wannabes really want to be doctors anyway? To serve the community by providing healthcare and guidance and support? How many of them are only pursuing medicine because it's what they "should" do? Because it's what their parents want them to do? Because it's expected of them?

Half the scholarship problems would probably be solved if the students would actually apply for what they're interested in in the first place.

Another thing these reports bring out about our students and the education system is our massive entitlement complex. People, getting straight As DOES NOT ENTITLE you to ANYTHING! There is more to a person than their grades, and it looks like the scholarships committees are taking that into account. You can't even say that you must have the straight As anyway, or else you lose out – obviously there are people with less-than-perfect grade slips that are getting assistance.

If they think this is shocking, they've got another thing coming when it comes to international scholarships. See, Malaysian scholarships (public or private) tend to be limited in the following ways:

  • They are very often for a science-related subject (with the rare business subject, and the so-rare-it's-endangered Arts & Mass Communications subjects assisted by ASTRO)
  • They usually come attached with bonds to companies lasting up to five years – other scholarships aren't that restrictive
  • They don't let you take other scholarships – at least in the USA this is allowable (Benjamin Kaplan was so successful at this that he wrote a book about it and showed up on Oprah for it)
  • They do not have diverse criteria – it's either grades, or need. That's it.

This only causes more problems than it solves:

  • There isn't enough diversity in educational choice; students who want to explore unusual or unorthodox courses are not given any help, assistance, or support
  • Too many students take up subjects for the wrong reasons – forced into it, expected to do it, so on – without accounting for interest, passion, and sincerity; the really interested ones end up losing out
  • Students put themselves at high health and sanity risks just for grades or scholarships (some even nearly kill themselves) – priorities are misplaced
  • Students who think scholarships are the be-all of their existence are lost when they don't get what they want; they then are unable to make the best of their situation, instead opting to mope and complain
  • Students spend too much energy on some things and too little energy on others (rest, other interests, etc) – they end up being totally unprepared for international scholarships, or other experiences in life
  • Thanks to the bonds, students don't even get the freedom to explore possible career choices. They may have changed their minds in college, or have an opportunity to explore a different company in the same industry, but can't act on it
  • Getting one scholarship might not be enough, since higher education costs are high – but the "no other scholarships" rule makes it difficult to fund higher education
  • Interesting personalities and efforts are not recognized; already we have people saying that "the only ones who say As don't matter are under achievers". Way to insult and downgrade the efforts of people like Suzanne Lee or myself.

There needs to be some major changes done towards the scholarships system in Malaysia, to make it truly fair for everyone and not run into the same problems year in year out. Amongst them are:

  1. Encourage diversity of educational paths. This needs to start at the school level – stop making arts/humanities students "lower class people". People have different abilities and interests, and this should be encouraged – through better classes, more courses (perhaps a Drama paper in the SPM?), and more extra-curricular opportunities
  2. Allow flexibility in scholarships. Let students gain more than one scholarship, if it helps them pursue their educational goals. Don't restrict them to long bonds; allow them flexibility to explore their career path and the industry. Heck, loosen up the "citizens only" deal; at least open it to permanent residents too, since more often then not they contribute a lot of time and energy to the country.
  3. Remind students that straight As are NOT a guarantee, and teach them how to make the best of situations. Once students get rid of the "straight A" entitlement complex, they'll be better able to handle disappointment or change, and they may even be open to other options. Those who may not get straight As would also be able to stay calm (instead of panicking and thinking the world is over), as they are able to work with their options too.
  4. Recognize other abilities, efforts, and personalities. Don't make this either a grades thing or a money thing. Take note of the interesting things students do – volunteer work, educational travel, creative work, so on. This encourages students to be more well-rounded, and also helps greatly students who don't fit the traditional educational mold.
  5. Support alternative learning efforts. I couldn't get any financial support for my Up With People trip (save for RM300 prize money from Hitz.FM – thanks guys!) because no one knew what it was and no one wanted to know what it was. It wasn't a university program, so no dice. One of my crewmates from Singapore managed to get funding from his university. Not everyone is cut out for university, or even WANTS to go to university straight away, or just wants to explore something else for a while; support their efforts to find education through other means.

Tony Pua of Education Malaysia has written quite a bit on the subject (1, 2, 3, 4). One of his suggestions was to stop giving scholarships to SPM students (O-Levels) and give them to STPM students (A-Levels) instead. I disagree with this, for two reasons:

  • The STPM doesn't suit everyone. You're still in school, so there isn't enough freedom; also, there aren't a lot of subjects offered in the STPM (especially anything arts/humanities related)
  • Some people can't even afford to take the next step after SPM. Without those scholarships, where would they go?

His posts and the comments are rather interesting though, so I suggest taking a look.

In the meantime – what do you do if you don't get a scholarship?

  1. Keep looking. The JPA doesn't hold a monopoly on scholarships. There are so many out there that may be better suited for you.
  2. Reevaluate your choices. Why did you apply for that particular scholarship? Because you want to? Because you have to? Because it's a "proper" subject, even if you have no interest in it?
  3. Explore other means of funding. Loans, work-study, part-time work, selling stuff, competitions – money comes from many sources. Who knows, you might even have a fairy godmother who's willing to help you out. (hey, it sometimes happens.)
  4. Ask the university. I'm not entirely sure how receptive local universities are to this, but many universities around the world would be able to give you ideas and suggestions about funding your study. Contact their Finance Department and ask them questions.
  5. Take time off. You don't have to go to university now. If you can't go now, so be it. The university won't run away. Use this gift of time to empower yourself – get a job, go travelling, do volunteer work, learn a course in something else; something to enrich your life and give your brain a break from all the studying too. You'll learn quite a bit about yourself – and you might even realize what you actually want to study. (And hey, you can use this time to earn some money for yourself!)
  6. Relax! It's not the end of the world if you don't get a scholarship, or don't graduate, or don't go to college. What really matters is what you make out of the situation. When life hands you lemons…what do you do with them?

Good luck to all looking for scholarships, congratulations to those that have them, and if you haven't – don't worry. There's always a way, if you're sincere and committed enough.

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Resources Wanted!

I've applied for a booth for Levi's 501 Day on the 28th of May about alternative education, and I'm on the lookout for resources to promote during the day.

I am looking for materials for the following:

If you have any idea of resources I should look for, or how to get all of them before May 27th 2006, please email me ASAP! Also please pass the word to anyone and everyone that can help.

You're also welcome to help me out during the day itself – email me for details.

Thank you ever so much!

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