It is Day 2 of Chinese New Year of your Form 4 (9th Grade) year. You are on the computer in your mum’s room -- to escape the heat and the irresistible cookies -- and have just discovered something that will change the rest of your life. “Financial aid for international students,” reads Harvard University’s website. For the very first time, the possibility of a path other than the public university in your state in Malaysia reveals itself.
You will very quickly learn about: the liberal arts approach; student activism; professors who have coffee with students; living somewhere where you get to wear a winter coat; pursuing an education completely in English … And you will fall in love. You will fall head-over-heels, stupidly in love with the idea of going to university in the U.S. -- it’s something about lying on green lawns and reading books written by dead Greek men, right?
I’m writing to you, not to tell you how exactly things will unfold, or even that “everything will be okay” -- because between where you are and where I am right now, there will be plenty of not-so-okay moments. Instead, I’d like to offer three simple pieces of advice -- which, knowing how stubborn we are, you probably won’t accept so easily, but I can try:
One: Never apologise for your deep curiosity and “weird” questions. You were born with a fascination for all kinds of people, ideas and places. You are “itchy” to try everything. Try everything. Be that one kid who sticks her hand up and ask questions in class -- but more than that, look up from your book and around at your classmates, and figure out what they’re interested in. Armed with a little bit of blur, never-know-what's-going-on recklessness, you will slowly collect an unlikely but precious set of experiences. Your “annoying questions” will one day turn into the ability to “ask the right question at the right time,” to make people uncomfortable and have real conversations. Never stop reaching out and being genuinely interested, and your life journey will astonish you, again and again.
Two: The time you have right now is just as important, if not more important, than the time you will get to spend in university. (Spoiler: Yes, you will go to university.) It is not where you are, but what you make of it. Remember that it’s not how much you do, but how meaningfully you live. Your family will not live forever. Your friends will move away. You will be displaced from city to city, country to country, over and over again. There will be many tough decisions and rough moments on your road ahead -- stay open and keep listening to the perspectives around you, but most importantly, listen to your inner voice. It is already telling you things you will take years to figure out how to articulate and live out.
Three: Always, always be grateful -- for your energy and personality, for the doors that will open, for the people who help and support you even though they have no good reason to believe in you. Thank them, again and again. Because you are and will continue to be ridiculously lucky and privileged. You have always had a mum who’s incredibly open, loving and supportive. And you will cross paths with: Teachers who care enough to deal with your sh*t in and out of classes; friends who are brutally honest because they care; a non-profit founder who will teach you to question why you really want to go to university, and craft your own definition of success; host families who will comfort you with home-cooked food and the wisdom of strong women; USAPPS, a community of Malaysians studying in the U.S. that you never thought you needed but eventually wouldn’t have made it without …
You didn’t do much to deserve this, but your life will turn out to be astonishingly, overwhelmingly exciting, fulfilling and gratifying -- soak it all in, because that’s all you can do. And never, ever forget to say “thank you” for all the people and pieces of your life, and use your privilege to pay it forward. College is but part of the journey, and what a beautiful journey it will be.
Life will be incredibly kind to you, so be sure you are to others, too.
With peace, love and respect,