DATUK Dr Ibrahim Hussein is a seasoned veteran. The man has a PhD in mechanical engineering, has been a power plant engineer and a lecturer, helped set up Universiti Tenaga Nasional (Uniten) and was its deputy vice-chancellor for 13 years.
He has seen thousands of students.
But even he struggled with his emotions as he described the plight of students who are so poor that they even fear going to university. They are afraid it would bring extra burden to their parents.
Ibrahim is now the director of Yayasan Tenaga Nasional (YTN), a trust under Tenaga Nasional Berhad (TNB) that provides scholarships, loans, bursaries and, uniquely, grants to poor students so they can get out of the vicious cycle of poverty.
YTN is the administrator of the My Brighter Future (MyBF) programme, which started in 2018 and is designed to help poor students make it to university, college or a polytechnic.
The grant is special in many ways. The students need not be the best academically. It pays not just tuition fees but also all other expenses, including board and personal expenses. That’s because many students who just get their tuition sponsored drop out as they cannot afford living expenses.
Also, the students do not have to repay the money or even be bonded to the company. In fact, they do not even need to apply.
The selection process is done through the Bahagian Pengurusan Kemasukan Pelajar (BPKP) or Unit Pusat Universiti (UPU), and priority is given to families registered under eKasih.
The list is passed to TNB, which sends a letter of offer to the tertiary institution. The selected students then get two offer letters – one from the university and one from the trust.
That’s how Ibrahim knows of students who refuse to open the envelopes. Some just don’t believe it.“We had to get the tertiary institute’s officers to call one such student to open the letter. He refused because he thought it would burden his parents. But when he did, it was all joy, ” said Ibrahim.
There are those who have trouble filling the forms, not because they don’t know how to but because of their family situation.
One student, Muhammad Akidd Mohd Sharif, did not know what to write when asked his father’s name. His mum died when he was just one month old and his father remarried, leaving Akidd with a different family.
His foster father and mother are the only parents he has ever known. Finally, he wrote his foster father’s name as his guardian.
“He is my father, ” said Akidd.
The foster father, a farmer, had seven children of his own and could hardly afford the cost of education for Akidd, who is now pursuing his degree in Electrical Technology, majoring in the power industry, at Universiti Teknikal Malaysia Melaka.
Some 1,000 students are picked every year for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and TVET (technical and vocational education and training) programmes from seven institutes.
Many of the students have repaid the trust placed in them by YTN – they may be poor financially but hardly so in their studies.
“More than half of them managed to get CGPA scores of 3.0 and above, ” said Ibrahim.
“One scored 4 flat. Remember, these students were not picked for being high achievers. These are just children of B40 families who are willing to work hard and get good scores.”
The students are picked largely for STEM and TVET courses because the trust’s target is not just academic excellence, but also to create entrepreneurship.
“We want to create businesspeople – in electronics, electrical, computers, spas, the beauty industry, etc.
“They can then get jobs or start businesses and help lift their family and community out of poverty, ” said Ibrahim.
The trust not only gives the students sums of RM10,000 (degree), RM9,000 (diploma) or RM6,600 (certificate), but it also helps to ensure that they adapt to life at tertiary institutes.
Most recipients are from the interiors of Sabah and Sarawak and rural areas in the peninsula and they need help to adjust. For many of them, the journey to the colleges and universities in the peninsula is their first ride on an aeroplane.
Once they are at college, many are afraid to leave the grounds.
“They have never seen life outside their own communities and are afraid to open up. Some want to drop out to help their parents, ” said Ibrahim.
And that is another major problem – parents who want their children to stay home and help them instead of continuing their studies, according to TNB Chief People Officer Datuk Mohamed Razif Abdul Rahman, who has been part of the MyBF programme from day one.
“Many of them come from disjointed families. The RM500-RM1,000 these children bring home means a lot to the families. So, they do not want to send the children to study, ” said Razif.
His team was surprised when some 60 of the 1,000 recipients turned down the grant in the first year. Surprise turned to shock when some of the officers were chased away by parents, who refused to let the students go.
However, with some persuading, about half of the 60 returned in the second intake, said Razif.
Now, the trust is trying to help the families cope too. Razif said he has talked to the welfare department and zakat bodies to help the parents.
“We want them to take care of the parents while we take care of the children. After three or four years, the children can go back with skills and it will be a win-win situation, ” he said.
The trust is not stopping at just sponsoring students. To get them acclimatised to urban life, the trust holds get-togethers and conventions where the students can discuss their problems.
It also has the “duta” (ambassador) programme, where a couple of students are placed in each institution as liaison officers to bring the students’ woes to its officers.
The trust is now reaching out to even younger ones, especially in Sabah and Sarawak, under its Mutiara Timur programme, whereby students who have just finished PT3 and Form Four are taken on trips to Uniten and other places in the peninsula to inculcate a desire for further studies.
Razif, meanwhile, says they are looking at tutorial classes for those in the programme who are not doing well academically. The idea is to make sure all of them continue their tertiary studies as far as they can go. Once in the programme, even at certificate level, a recipient stays until the first degree.
“Our plan is to develop a learning journey for the students, ” said Ibrahim.
For people like Ibrahim and Razif, it’s a journey of love. For the students, it’s a journey to success.