I studied Matriculation after SPM as a biological science student. I loved biology, so I picked Medicine, Pharmacy, and Dentistry in my IPTA application form. I nearly fainted when I called the hotline later and discovered that I was accepted to study forestry science! What was I supposed to do with that degree? Sell firewood?
My parents could not afford private education, so I enrolled in Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) against every grain in my body. I applied to switch to another course after getting decent grades in my first semester, but was duly rejected.
Being away from home and treated as a second-class citizen was really hard. Back in Sarawak, I shared meals, clothes, and daily life with roommates of all races. At my university, students got roommates of the same race or the same home state. There were also occasions where people made remarks about Sarawak as if it was not a Malaysian state! A comment like “Jauhnya awak belajar ke Malaysia (How far you have travelled to study in Malaysia)” made me want to show my identity card to prove my citizenship.
However, my wicked sense of humour helped me cope with my frustrations and I pulled off countless harmless pranks. I did not give my best effort in my studies, even though I knew I could have gotten perfect scores each semester – I hated the course.
After graduating in 2005 with honours and a decent CGPA, friends encouraged me to pursue my Masters. However, my father was still burdened with my siblings’ education expenses, so he told me to work. Furthermore, I was not confident of pulling off the alternative – studying while working – and I was not keen on doing something just for the sake of doing it. One of my lecturers also commented that it is better to work before returning to school because you will be surer of what you want to study. I followed his advice and applied to be an English tutor.
I remembered taking my family out to dinner with my first pay cheque. I was so proud of myself, even if my earnings were peanuts compared to the workload. I literally made a living from marking piles of books, seven days straight. Yet, I discovered that I loved teaching and interacting with students.
The only downside was that my colleagues and I would be reduced to tears by the principal over every mistake we made. Thus, I decided that I loved teaching, but preferably in a less hostile environment. Later on, I became a conservation educator for the Wildlife Conservation Society-Malaysia Program (WCS), an international non-profit organisation that works to save wildlife and wild lands.
The job required me to teach about orang utans, a great ape species with DNA almost matching ours. I travelled extensively to communities to conduct education programmes in Iban, my mother tongue. To prepare myself, I read books in Iban (but they might as well have been written in Arabic) and listened to Iban radio. I also spoke Iban more often at home instead of the usual English-Iban mix. Did I also mention self-deprecating humour is a great icebreaker? I use it all the time at work. I guess practice (during university) does make perfect.
What does a conservation educator do? The job requires someone able to interact with different audiences, and preferably speak the same language as the target audience. For example, a typical programme in a longhouse can involve villagers of various age groups. Some of these villagers may be illiterate; hence, the use of images during a presentation helps to bring the conservation message across. We also frequently use play-acting with selfcreated costumes and Iban traditional stories to explain links between them and wildlife. Ibans in particular have close connections to animals, which is evident in the patterns of their traditional dances, weaving, and tapestry.
Towards the end of the programme, there is always an open dialogue where anyone can ask questions related to WCS or wildlife and we do our best to answer them.
I have grown a lot since my first day as a conservation educator, courtesy of great mentors and supportive colleagues, all passionate about conservation. The people I have met, the work that I have done, and the places that I have visited have shaped my wonderful life as an educator. There were also moments when I had to deal with difficult, uncooperative audience, but I guess you cannot win all the time.
For SPM graduates, do not worry if you messed up (or think you did) in your studies. There is indeed life after SPM, and it is a wonderful, exciting world waiting to be explored. All choices are half-chances, but you are a winner if you use what you have and make the best of it.
Leona Liman is a conservation educator for the Wildlife Conservation Society-Malaysia Programme. She studied to be a forester in Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) and was trained as an English teacher. She works in remote communities, teaches rural and urban students, and trains conservation staff and teachers on conservation education.
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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