Throughout my school days in Malaysia, my parents could only afford two pairs of uniforms at once. Therefore, every day after school I would wash my uniforms and hang them outside the house to dry before the sun went down. During the monsoon season, I would leave my wet school uniform to dry underneath the refrigerator vent grill—waking up constantly all night long to flip it so that it would dry evenly, arriving presentable but tired at school the next day. Nevertheless, I enjoyed going to school because it was an escape from the drudgery of home life. Since my father was a fisherman, instead of doing my homework or playing with friends after school, I almost always had to help him gut fish and devein shrimps. After cleaning the fish, I not only had to take care of my younger sister but also 4 little cousins who my mother baby sat for extra money. By the time my cousins went home and the house was quiet, I was limited to only one hour of study/homework each night in order to save on the electric bill. I could not read by candlelight because it was too dangerous in our small wooden home.
Despite the difficulties, I was always happy and satisfied. In 2002, I graduated from elementary school and became the first student of my school who achieved a perfect score on the Malaysia National Examination for the 6th Grade. My success story as a fisherman’s daughter attracted the attention of Malaysia’s national newspaper and I was interviewed and my story published. A plaque honoring my achievement hangs at the entrance of our elementary school.
Poverty can be turned into an asset if one is diligent, clever and able to recognize opportunity. In my first year of high school, for example, a new educational policy was introduced in Malaysia in which all science and mathematics courses would be taught in English as opposed to Malay. I was in one of the first batch of students using the new textbooks. I borrowed the five freshman science and mathematics books that we were to use that coming semester from my best friend whose family could afford to buy them, and then I copied them all by hand one by one throughout the course of that summer break preceding the courses. (Fishing was good that year and I was allowed to have the light on in the room to read and write). In this way, I learned in advance of my classmates at the same time that I was able to develop a beautiful handwriting style. While some parents could afford to pay for supplementary English language instruction, my parents could not and it was challenging for me to understand my science and math teachers in English because they barely understood the most basic of English themselves and were generally as confused as we were. Nevertheless, I not only achieved a another perfect score on the Malaysian National High School Examinations in 2005, but also went on to achieve new school records for examinations in the area of Art as well as Math and Science in 2007, with my achievements again published in Malaysia’s National Newspaper.
Next, I was off to study in Singapore on a scholarship that only covered tuition and so I learned to survive independently, spending all weekend working at the Millenium Hotel as a banquet server: incredibly long hours, 14-15 hours a day for two days in a row. Since there was no train service past midnight and we could not afford car service, my coworkers and I used to sleep in the store room using table cloths as our bed and blanket. I studied very hard to succeed and earned second place in my cohort and a spot as representative to USC as a visiting scholar.
I had a wonderful time at the University of Southern California and this experience greatly enhanced my determination to succeed. I also met the man who I would later marry during my time there. Four years ago, I returned to the United States to marry him and build a new life and home working and studying. However, my husband lost his job, started to do drugs and alcohol, and became very abusive. For several months, I would often use the D-train like a mobile motel, from Coney Island to Brooklyn, to 205th Street in the Bronx, back and forth until the next morning. As a student at the College of Staten Island, I wrote an essay for the Cuny Intercollegiate Essay Competition, about racial discrimination against new immigrants and abuse against women, and won the first prize.
I thank you for your consideration.