From SMK DJ to Harvard


All smiles: Loh and Lim (standing, third and sixth from left, respectively), and Ng (seated, far right), with other Malaysian students at Harvard.

THEY have long graduated from secondary school but three former SMK Damansara Jaya (SMK DJ), Selangor, students still adhere to the school’s motto “to be knowledgeable to contribute”.

It was precisely because of their abiding belief in this principle that Andrew Loh Zhu An, Lim Kai Shen and Ng Siew Sanz – who bade farewell to their school in 2004, 2008 and 2010, respectively – found their way to Harvard University in the United States where they are currently pursuing their postgraduate studies. Loh, who had advised African, Asian and European governments as a consultant at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, said action in service of the greater good is a value much appreciated at Harvard.

“Harvard looks for people who care so deeply about issues that they are compelled to improve their communities, their country and the world,” he told StarEdu.

And the 34-year-old, who co-founded a “one-stop shop” in 2020 to empower ordinary Malaysians to fight Covid-19 by contributing to initiatives from civil society, has his alma mater to thank for instilling in him the value that has stood him in good stead over the years. “My most important learning was never academic – they were about action,” said Loh, who is pursuing a Master in Public Administration at the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), as well as a Master of Business Administration at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

He specifically named his Form Two English language teacher Koh Bee Lian and his debate teacher Magdalen Su Ai Tiing for shaping and inspiring him.

“Both Puan Koh and Puan Mag went above and beyond their call of duty, staying long after schooling hours to coach debate teams and to help weaker students with additional classes,” he recalled.“The most important thing I learnt back then was that there is power in action. So, inspired by my teachers, after my Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM), I went back to SMK DJ to coach debate,” he said.

Under his coaching, he revealed, the school won two national debate championships, adding his contribution, in turn, inspired his juniors to follow in his footsteps to coach debate, continuing a cycle of virtuous action. It was through his involvement in debate coaching at the school that he first crossed paths with Ng, who is currently pursuing a Master in Public Administration in International Development at the HKS. Agreeing with Loh that public service paved their way to Harvard, Ng shared that she had developed a chatbot for migrant workers that serves as an information channel, data collection tool and multilingual reporting system for trafficking and forced labour incidents.

Like Loh, the 29-year-old attributed her achievements to SMK DJ, where she was given debating, public speaking and choral speaking opportunities, and had the guidance of various teachers who went the extra mile to prepare her for competitions.Another SMK DJ alumnus, Lim, who is pursuing a PhD in Population Health Sciences, specifically in health systems and economics, said in terms of serving the country, his thesis uses Malaysia as an example for countries that are seeking to encourage the private sector in delivering healthcare services.The 31-year-old is a proctor for first-year undergraduates at Harvard.

“As a proctor, I interact frequently with students about their academic and social life. I cannot stress how enriching this experience has been,” he said.Lim, who describes himself as coming from a first-generation college family, shared that as a schoolboy, he “didn’t really think about life after secondary school”.

That changed when the teacher in charge of the students’ counsellor club at SMK DJ prompted him to start thinking about his future, even encouraging him to apply for a scholarship to study the A-levels at HELP University.

“I honestly did not think my grades were good enough, let alone my ‘empty’ resume. But Puan Mary Ann was kind enough to write me a reference letter, and I managed to get a full scholarship,” said Lim, who has never looked back since. For students aspiring to pursue their tertiary studies at Harvard, Loh advised students to “think beyond yourself, and read up on young Malaysians who strive to make a difference such as activist Heidy Quah, lawyer Lim Wei Jiet, and Undi18 co-founders Qyira Yusri and Tharma Pillai”.

“Academics are necessary but not sufficient. I ask you now: what are you doing to change lives, communities and the world?” Both Loh and Ng also advised students to look out for scholarships. “Don’t self-select out just because you think Harvard is expensive,” Loh urged.According to Loh, Harvard awards full scholarships for eligible bachelor’s degree candidates whose parents make less than RM270,000 annually. “Many other American universities do this, as well. There are a lot of resources out there for ordinary students that Malaysians aren’t aware of such as usapps.org – a non-profit that helps Malaysian students who want to study in the US,” he said.Ng added that she is able to pursue her master’s programme at the HKS because of multiple scholarships.

“I would encourage more women to pursue these amazing opportunities and consider a career in data analytics, public policy and/or the intersection of both, like what I am aiming to do,” she said.

Charis, 19, a student in Kuala Lumpur, is a participant of the BRATs Young Journalist Programme run by The Star’s Newspaper-in-Education (Star-NiE) team. To join Star-NiE’s online youth community, go to facebook.com/niebrats.

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