There was nothing special about my upbringing beyond the fact that we spoke English at home. As a product of a multiracial marriage, English was a compromise between two cultures.
At school, I entered the pure science stream. I loved history and languages, but saw science as a way of deciphering nature’s own language or code. I also actively sought to enter everything from debates to sports meets. I learnt how to speak and present in public and experienced the ragged determination needed to win a long race. When I look back at my schooling years, it was those experiences I cherished the most.
After SPM, I was awarded a PSD scholarship to study in America. For a student who enjoys both the humanities and the sciences, the American education system is perfect as it is flexible and allows students to explore different subjects. At that time, Biotechnology was the in thing and I wanted very much to be part of this exciting new wave. To this end, I even obtained an internship to work in a lab at Universiti Malaya for a few months just to gain some research experience.
The application process to an American university starts a year before the application is due. The first obstacle is the SAT, which many find difficult due to intricacies of the language and the biasness of the test towards English speakers. Therefore, to succeed, students must be as comfortable with English as any American student would be.
However, SAT scores are not the sole reason for admission into any Ivy League school. Many applicants across the globe have perfect scores. To get the attention of the admissions committee, it is important to show that you are a well-rounded candidate. The extra-curricular activities in high school and the short lab internship enhanced my credentials.
The other important feature is the admissions essay. American students spend months writing and proof reading the essay because it is an intimate representation of themselves to the admissions board. As for me, I was lucky to have an English teacher who drilled me on grammar, composition, and writing, as well as my parents who dutifully read and edited all my drafts.
Then there is the interview, which is designed to delve even further into the background of shortlisted candidates. Why choose to study science? Why even apply to this college? What is the greatest challenge you have faced? As you answer these questions, remember that the interviewer is not only interested in your response but also the way in which you speak and carry yourself.
I arrived at Harvard and found that Biotechnology was not offered, so the department head suggested biochemistry instead. I quickly settled in, enjoying the freedom to choose my classes from both the sciences and humanities. Harvard also offered amazing opportunities for undergraduates. Taking advantage of student grants, I spent one summer in Costa Rica learning Spanish while researching the nutritional habits of the indigenous peoples. During the term, I conducted research both in virology at Boston Children’s Hospital and at the Harvard Law School Program for Islamic Finance.
In my final summer as a student, I applied for an internship with the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) in Kuala Lumpur. Although I loved science, I knew that lab work was not for me. I am a social person and enjoy interacting with people from different cultures, so my tutor recommended I try management consulting instead.
My science training provided me the analytical skills required of a consultant. Strong communication and presentation skills honed in a US-style classroom were an advantage, especially when interacting with clients. In BCG KL, many interview candidates often fail due to their poor command of English. Again, I was lucky that my experiences allowed me to thrive at BCG.
After a successful internship, I was offered a permanent position. Before returning home to work, I spent some time volunteering at a refugee camp in Ghana. My time there gave me insights into politics, healthcare, and socio-economic policy in the complex environment of Africa and made me appreciate Malaysia more.
The sum of my experiences has shaped my work today at BCG where I continue to work on life sciences, healthcare, and public sector projects where possible. Looking back, I realise that I am here today because I took many random opportunities that shaped my personality. But it all would not have been possible if I had not been able to read, write, and speak English well. If you master the language, you will not be afraid to speak up and present your ideas. And when you do, someone out there will hear you and help you succeed.
Nadiah Wan graduated in Biochemistry from Harvard in 2007 but ended up as a management consultant in KL. In an effort to expand her horizons beyond those visible from skyscrapers, she is attempting to learn how to use a camera properly and dreams about exotic travel destinations. One piece of advice I would give to any aspiring Malaysian student is to improve their command of English. From my story, I hope you will see why.
Note: The above entry was written in 2010 for What’s After SPM?, published in 2011. This non-for-profit book project is a collaboration between Leaderonomics and a team of young Malaysians. Click here for details on the project and authors.
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