How Blogging Has Impacted My Life (contest entry)

The people at Brazen Careerist, a Gen Y-oriented career and jobs website, are giving away a free ticket (worth US$425) to SXSW Interactive, one of the world’s biggest digital media conferences. To get a shot at the ticket, they’re asking people to write a post on how blogging has impacted their life. I’m a conference geek, and I’ve heard a lot of great things about SXSW, so I thought I’d give it a shot – something different, for EducateDeviate.

I’ve been online ever since 1995, when it first came to Johor (Malaysia). I immediately latched on to it as an avenue for expressing myself and meeting people. There used to be a children’s website (possibly named KidSpot) that I was very active on – I’d write stories, find penpals, and even get books to review by post. I loved the Internet and hardly went offline (save for one year when my parents wanted me to study).

The Internet, and all the variations of blogging – starting from personal sites on Geocities to online diaries at Diaryland and Livejournal – have impacted my life in a lot of ways. I’ve gained and lost friendships (and sometimes my sanity went with them!), gained entry to events that I wouldn’t even had heard of otherwise, be able to counsel and support other people with similar or connected life stories, and help others help themselves.

Here is a story that illustrates how the Internet (and, in a bit, blogging) has made a major impact, one of those impacts being the formation of EducateDeviate:

Ever since I was a kid I’ve wanted to be an exchange student. My overprotective parents hardly let me out of their sight, and when the opportunity finally came up (at 16) by AFS Malaysia they only allowed me to apply to the Japan program because it was free. Of course, being free (it was sponsored by the Japanese Government), it was highly selective. I wasn’t too keen on Japan, but it was the closest I’ll ever be to being an exchange student, so I applied.

And was rejected.

To console myself, I decided to send a music request to By Demand, a then-new interactive music request show on Channel [V] International. The channel thought my request was pretty cool, so they had me as a caller on the show. I liked the experienced, and loved the show, so I made [my demand], a fansite for By Demand and their hosts, Adrian da Silva and Asha Gill.

This unexpectedly made me a celebrity amongst the [V] crew at the time. I was a regular caller/contributor and the crew, especially Asha, became very good friends. [V] moving and losing contact with Asha the next year became really tough personally (I was dealing with panic disorder and depression, and it was a major exam year) and I kept online journals documenting my thoughts and struggles.

In my first gap year in 2003, I used the Internet to search for opportunities and build an interesting life for myself. Asha and I got back in touch, and she got me to set up her official website. I also joined The Star-BRATS, and travelled to the US mainly for an American Idol concert (I was a major fan of Clay Aiken at the time) and received some notoreity amongst the Clay Aiken fandom – including a stint on national news! – for having travelled so far.

I entered my first university in 2004 and used the Internet to keep up with what was going on in KL, thereby starting my work in activism. My desire to be an exchange student still lingered, and I spent about a year looking up options. It was a comment on a post in Livejournal that led me to Up with People, and eventually the best experience of my life.

My Up with People trip showed me the power and joy of experiential learning, and – having talked to some of my school juniors about their experiences – knew that there was a demand for information but not enough resources. While in Dhaka (for my cousin’s wedding) I decided to start off the New Year with my thoughts on education and the year ahead. And so EducateDeviate was born.

Through EducateDeviate I’ve documented social trends in education, explained alternative education (and some of its forms), showcased opportunities unheard of by Malaysians or founded by Malaysians, and featured inspiring young people. A letter that turned into an article (and a blog post) became one of the most popular posts here. I’ve helped people close to despair and supported other young people helping their peers. There were attempts at a blog carnival and at an e-book, and a decent go at a blogathon fundraiser. There is also the push for more young people speaking at conferences – the list is still one of EducateDeviate’s most popular posts and will soon be a project with the International Young Professionals Association. And ther were always plenty of resources – what I wish I had some years ago. Because of all the young people that come together to support this site, EducateDeviate managed to gain an award – thank you everyone, it’s an awesome honour and it helps spread the word further.

I managed to get a little bit of notoriety during the UN Youth Assembly last year for my liveblogs, and spun that into some media experience with the GK3 Young Social Entrepreneurs Forum, which has led me to a whole bunch of interesting people and projects – as well as the utterly fantastic BrainStore company, which even gave me a paying research gig! There’s been other things like those too – mainly by building off one opportunity and seeing where that takes me. I’ve learnt a lot from some very inspiring bloggers, and was heartened to see that someday I could make my mark on local government with a blog as my starting point.

Sometimes I wish I was more like Gala Darling or the people at NOTCOT – the sheer popularity and influence of my blog leading to fantastic opportunities everywhere, all expenses paid! I did just get recently asked to speak at an AIESEC Malaysia conference (I can’t make it because I’m still here in Brisbane but good luck guys!) and I did get a free DVD to review, so I’m probably coming close. (All-expenses-paid trips to something like SXSW are still desired though, hint hint!) It takes luck, work, and keeping your eyes alert.

I’m already over a thousand words with this article, yet I could go on and on about how my blogging and involvement in social media (not just with EducateDeviate, but for other things) have let to an interesting and fascinating network, lots of experiences I wouldn’t have even imagined otherwise, and the propensity to give things a go even if it doesn’t look all that possible – you never know where it will take you!

I may slow down with EducateDeviate someday, or refocus – I would love to bring its work offline and do more real-world projects. However, blogging and the Internet will still be a core component of what I do and who I am.

I’ll end this with a cute little anecdote: blogging got me love. There’s a foreign exchange community on Livejournal and one of the posters used to create a comic strip about her experiences. We got to talking and she told me about International House, a university college in Brisbane. She convinced me to come stay there while I’m in Brisbane, and that was where I met my boyfriend. Two and a half years on, we’ve had our dramas and comedy, but we’re still going great. Who knows where this may lead!

Advice from Harvard ex-Dean: Slow Down

Those of you heading to Harvard, or to university in general;
those of you waiting anxiously for SPM/STPM results (have you even taken the tests yet?);
those of you putting in 24-hour days to get those “top grades” to get into something like Harvard thinking it’s the Holy Grail;
those of you pushed into the 24-hour days lifestyle for the Holy Grail by your parents, teachers, peers, the authorities;
those of you that are doing the pushing:

Please heed the words of ex-Harvard Dean Harry Lewis:

Slow Down.

(the above link leads to a .PDF – download and READ.)

Is dropping out necessarily a bad thing?

I just saw these series of ads today and, as odd as it may seen, the sentiment portrayed here rather annoys me:

I completely agree that education is important, and as the ad says, it’s good for everyone. (After all, that’s what guided the formation of EducateDeviate.) However, what annoys me about campaigns like these is the false dichtomy that they set up – it’s either school, or nothing.

Not everyone thrives, or even survives, in a traditional school setting. Most schools around the world focus on mathematical and verbal intelligence, judging competence through written examinations. There isn’t as much respect or attention given to those who express their intellengences in other ways, such as through the arts or mechanics (see Howard Gardner’s theory on multiple intelligences). For instance, in Malaysia, vocational and trade schools, as well as business and humanities streams, are usually seen as being for “under-achievers” – those who could not score well in exams. Taking up vocations or trades (or indeed, anything that’s not the Pure Sciences) by choice is unheard of, as it does not carry the same prestige as being in the Science stream.

Why have we developed this pro-Science-anti-anything-else mentality? Life consists of all sorts of knowledge and experience, and education comes in different forms. Just because someone cannot cope in the cut-throat academic environment of traditional school, and has decided to drop out, does not mean they are automatically a failure in life.

It would be better if campaigns like the above didn’t just say “dropping out is EVIL” and actually gave you concrete options for those who can’t cope with normal schooling and feel the need to drop out. Sometimes students are facing immense social issues, such as bullying (see my last entry) and can’t concentrate on education when their peers or teachers are acting against them. Some want to learn something that their school system does not offer, or even learn best in a style not offered by their schools. Some are facing major personal and family issues, such as poverty or ill-health, and need to prioritize those above school work.

Some suggestions of those options would be:

  • Homeschooling or distance education, which would allow students to learn at their own pace (is it really such a terrible thing if they graduate high school at 20 instead of 17? At least they’re learning) and receive personal guidance, which is often missing from traditional schools
  • Alternative school systems such as Sudbury Valley/Summerhill or Waldorf-Steiner, which focus on students’ democratic rights to choose their own education, as well as a more holistic form of learning
  • Vocational or trade schools – Australia is really good with encouraging and supporting trades education, providing apprenticeships and other education+career pathways without the stigma
  • Schools like the Albert Park Flexi-School which are specifically formed for those who could not function in traditional school (for various reasons), letting them learn at their own pace while still providing structure and emotional support
  • Taking a break from school, and coming back to it later (also following the “at your own pace” idea)
  • Taking college/university classes while at school – some students feel like dropping out because they don’t find school challenging enough and get really bored
  • Providing real-world experiences with education, such as internships or projects, which get them engaged in their education
  • Providing support for student welfare to cover needs that are of a higher priority than school – for instance, nutritious food, health-care, and family support

In the same vein, campaigns that encourage high schoolers (especially those from at-risk backgrounds) to aim for college need to be carefully examined to make sure they don’t make college the only option. While those programs certainly mean well, and are needed to show that college is an option for anyone (not just for a select few), my concern is that they unnecessarily stigmatize those that can’t, or have made the choice not to attend college. Not having a college degree does not doom you to a life of failure.

Many of the above options apply at the college level – personal and alternative education, taking a break (one big reason some students don’t thrive at college is because they aren’t prepared enough and just need some transition time), getting involved in the real world. As I’ve mentioned earlier, while college is certainly a form of education, it isn’t the only one.

The macro-reason for campaigns like these is that the world has been set up so that one would find it hard to move forward without some level of formal education. But is that fair? Should people be denied employment, sustenance, or personal development just because their education and life experiences are uncertified? Doesn’t this create a stigma against non-academics who have opted to learn from experience (or are forced to by life circumstance)?

In some places of the world, valuable educational experience is set at a very high premium, causing elitism and class divides – people can’t afford university, so they can’t get the paper that would help them earn more money to help them get into higher education. It’s a vicious cycle. A better solution, then, is to widen the scope of education to include all forms of learning – academic, vocational, humanistic, holistic, and so on – and create pathways for people to get involved in life and their community, welcoming all forms of learning.

Everyone’s educated in their own way, and we all need each other. Telling them that if they opt out of one form of education, they won’t succeed in life at all, is misguided and unhelpful.

Life = Risk

If you haven’t failed, you haven’t lived.

A Vision of Students Today

An extremely thought-provoking video from the Digital Ethnography class at Kansas State University – does the current education system really work with the reality of student life? Or is it stuck in the past? (thanks ExperienceCurve):

I particularly liked the part towards the end where, after one student holds up a sign that says “After I graduate I would likely be hired for a job that doesn’t exist today”, one student holds up a filled-in exam answer sheet and responds “This won’t get me there”. Now this is a university class I’d love to take.

Updates

Some quick updates on what I’ve been up to:

1. I didn’t get selected for the KaosPilots Stockholm. I was one of two non-Scandinavians in a bunch of 29 (the other was ironically also Bangladeshi, but has been in New York for most of his life and considers himself American) and got on quite well with the others, particularly my specific group. I thought my chances were good, but evidently not. It may have been a language issue – our group was the only English-speaking group, and English was a second language for most of the people.

I can’t talk about the specific tasks, as they’re meant to be kept secret, but suffice to say it was INTENSE. A whole lot of things to do, non-stop from 9 to 9 for two nights. It did seem a little disorganized at times (at least letting us know end times would have been good!!) and it was plenty crazy, especially in the cold snow. But it was a good experience. I’ve been in touch with the people at Aarhus (I had a chance to visit their school too) and I have a lot of support for getting into there, so we’ll see.

2. I’ve done my second year of university, though not too well (due to various factors throughout the year). I’m not sure where I stand university-wise – whether I get to continue as usual or repeat a semester, keep my scholarship or lose it. If I decide to go to Aarhus that would complicate things further. Here’s hoping things work out for the best.

3. I didn’t win the AYA Dream Malaysia Award, but that’s fine as being nominated is already pretty good. My mother and a family friend went to the ceremony on my behalf (I was in Sweden) and they told me it was a lot of fun. Thanks AYA for organizing it and congratulations to the winners!

4. As a result of the AYA nomination, I have earned a year’s worth of hosting and domain. I’m going to use it as my portfolio, and I’m considering moving EducateDeviate there and expanding it further. At least I can pick a better theme! (I’m not sure if I’ll keep using WordPress, even the standalone version. While there are a lot of add-ons, themes, and other things for it, it is a pain to customize without advanced coding knowledge, and their tech support isn’t very impressive.)

Do you have any other ideas for what I could do with the site now that I have a lot more space to play with?

Things will likely get very quiet – I’m trying to work out details for the GK3 conference, but that’s about it really. If you have any ideas for things I could cover or get involved with for the next three months, drop me a line.