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I was horrified when I learnt I had been picked for National Service. I stared long and hard at that awful word, ‘Tahniah!’, hoping it would go away. Being the only one in my class to be chosen, I considered myself incredibly unlucky.
Yet, this chance selection turned out to be one of the best things that has happened to me. Not so much for the experience itself (which in fact was very memorable), but for my subsequent decision to begin A-levels half a year later, taking the July route instead of January like all my other friends.
Being an impatient person, I was initially quite reluctant at having to start in July, for it meant that I could only apply to universities a year later than everyone else. But what I failed to see then was that I had not decided what I wanted to do after SPM anyway. I only had a vague idea of becoming a doctor, perhaps.
Upon soul-searching and speaking to people in the field, I realized that I did not have the passion required to make it in the medical profession. Thus, going to Sarawak for National Service was a stroke of luck that probably saved me from being an unhappy and unsuitable medical student.
When July came, I was more energised than ever to start college after six long months of holidays. Another blessing was that I had more time for extracurricular activities before I left for university. My best friend and I joined Amnesty International, a human rights organisation, after reading about their work in the local papers. A whirlwind adventure for us began, learning about issues I was previously unaware of, and traveling to little-known pockets of the country to visit Orang Asli villages.
Eventually, we started our own human rights society in college, a scary idea at the time as I was secretly still uncertain about my leadership capabilities. We also had no money and no members, save the few unfortunate classmates we forced to join us. However, we took a chance and began fundraising by selling human rights-themed bookmarks. Nobody really read books in college, but we raised a whopping amount anyway, thanks to the aggressive tactics of our dedicated new members. Step-by-step, the club continued to grow.
We had some big successes, little victories, and also embarrassing failures. The experience of bruising and picking myself up taught me more than my textbooks ever could, for I soon found myself quite adept at leadership, while the little successes that we achieved spurred me to take on more ambitious goals.
Along the way, I was also fortunate to meet some fascinating young people from very diverse backgrounds – some were studying to be lawyers and psychologists, while others were already filmmakers and talented young actors.
At a human rights youth conference in Hong Kong, I met young activists from the Asian Pacific region, and later had the opportunity to work with some of them on joint projects. One such project was making a short human rights film, which allowed me to go behind the scenes of movie making and learnt a whole new bag of tricks. All in all, it was a truly enriching experience.
However, juggling A-levels with all my other activities was tricky at times, and I had to be careful not to slack off at college. It often meant giving up a few social events, but I was never much of a party girl anyway.
By the end of 2008, it was finally time to apply to universities. Initially, the American process seemed so ridiculously complicated that I nearly passed it up. After overcoming my initial confusion, I actually came to like writing essays for my application – they forced me to dig deep and examine my past experiences. So I dug and I dug, turning over every single event in my life to discover the one thing that would set me apart.
At last, I decided to write about my upbringing and how it led to my interest in human rights. And so along with my SAT scores, secondary school grades, and letters of recommendation, I nervously sealed off my hopes and dreams in a little brown envelope to America.
One groggy morning some months later, I awoke to find an email from Stanford. I remember how furiously my heart pulsated as I clicked it open, and waited. I screamed, waking the neighbours. I had been accepted.
For a long time it felt surreal knowing I had gotten into the school of my dreams, but I also knew it would not have been possible without taking a semi- gap year to figure myself out. The word “Tahniah!”, turned out to be quite right after all.
Ho Mei Kay is an Economics major at Stanford University whose recruitment into National Service probably saved her from being an unhappy and unsuitable medical student.
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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