|Global UGRAD Malaysia||
Despite being a person who was not afraid to try something new, I had never been out of the country prior to the Global UGRAD Programme. In fact, the first reason I applied was because my sister was planning to further her education in the US and we thought it would have really been fun if we both got to go at the same time!
During the application process, I started thinking deep about this possible adventure and what was in it for me. I had chosen not to further my studies abroad just yet since I wanted to better understand the Malaysian landscape as a young woman breaking out of her teenage-hood so that I wouldn’t be considered someone who never knew her roots or understood her nation well enough. I believed that when I was confident enough, I would take that plunge and travel.
This opportunity forced me to step up to the plate. I had to believe that this was the right next step for me so that I could handle the application well. Only if I believed whole-heartedly in taking that step would I have been able to give it my all. My journey prior to being accepted into the Programme was not short of challenges. I even almost had to forego the Interview but I was determined to get into the Programme and with the right emotional support from my family, I successfully got in. I was accepted into the Fall semester at the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities.
I was overwhelmed! I didn’t even know where Minnesota was! I got more excited when I learnt how huge the campus was. Imagine the possibilities at such a thriving city where you could grow without being judged.
The UGRAD Alumni of Malaysia were a supportive group who went all out to ensure that us newbies would not feel too out-of-place and disconnected. They organized a Retreat prior to our departure, also serving as a Reunion for fellow alum to exchange and network. It was comforting to have many helping hands extended and the words of wisdom exchanged better prepared us mentally to face any challenges during the Programme and beyond it i.e. after we had completed it.
I have to admit, the first week was challenging; to be in a foreign land, having to understand the coin system!, learning that even amongst Americans there were different accents and slangs, sign boards completely in English (believe me, it can be quite shocking to the senses when you’ve subconsciously been reading them in Malay all this while). During this time, meeting UGRAD scholars from other countries was such a comfort. Although none of us had met each other before, we felt an instant connection, a bond that is surprisingly formed with any other fellow UGRAD. We had added each other on Facebook prior to leaving for the US so we somewhat had an idea who we’d be meeting the day after our arrival. In doing so, I met Thai UGRAD scholar, Warisa, during immigration clearance! Little did I know that it was the beginning of a wonderful friendship.
Speaking of meeting friends before actually meeting them, I had had a head-start with my roommate as well. We did not know much about each other, but we quickly bonded over how similar we were although we lived half way across the world from each other! We had much knowledge and laughter to offer each other, like how I made a distinction between dinner and supper while she considered them the same, or how we would spend an evening watching Jersey Shore and rattle on about how ridiculous it always was.
I was also excited for classes. I had taken two classes in Politics, one in Contact Improvisation (a relatively new dance form) and American Sign Language (one of my long time wishes!). I was intrigued at the amount of reading that had to be done in such a short time. I got worried sick until my Uncle gave me a call and gave me some advice: It is about knowing what the big idea is, what is the author saying at the end of the day. I pondered on this and immediately stopped a page-to-page reading and started thinking in a new perspective. My discussions in class improved as I now knew that in order to understand a new field, it wasn’t in the details but in the main idea. Once the framework is right, the details easily fell into place. This is something I was going to carry with me for the rest of my academic studies back home.
I loved the fact that the Residential Hall I was placed in housed many International students. The Living Learning Community: Students Crossing Borders was a two-floor area in the Hall that placed one American with one International student per room and catered for an enriching global learning experience. Not forgetting the Minnesota International Student Association (MISA) at the University that frequently hosted events and opportunities for students around the world to meet and share. I had participated and volunteered in their events, the most notable being the Fashion Show that I was coaxed to join by Warisa.
Not wanting to restrict myself to any particular type of volunteer activity, I decided that I would join one-off events that would show me different aspects of volunteerism. I met up with the TakeAction Minnesota group off-campus to learn about local social issues that were dear to Minnesotans. I had the chance to join them in an economic forum that saw people of all ages and backgrounds share their opinions on what needed to be fixed in the system. I was surprised at how similar some of the issues were in Malaysia. I also joined the Al-Madinah Cultural Centre, an Islamic group at the University, to a ‘gotong-royong’ event organized by two Christian groups. A thought-provoking and intellectually-stimulating inter-faith discussion was held after everyone had returned from their assigned tasks.
With work comes pleasure, right? I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel to a few cities. It was a new experience, having to learn about booking tickets, watching the weather and being prepared for the unknown. Travelling in itself is a pleasure. Each city I visited had an identity of its own. Some were quieter and others were bustling with life. Travelling can inspire you to reach newer heights, like when I took up the challenge of travelling to New York City on my own right before my departure back to Malaysia. A short trip it was but a highly fulfilling one it proved to be.
While I would have loved to stay on, I also know that I have a duty towards my nation. I have big dreams to be part of a better nation, and those dreams were made bigger through this adventure.
My little nugget of thought: Dream big, put your plans into action today and keep that spirit up because you may never know whose life you would someday touch.
By: Kalainilaa Kalaiyarasu (UGRAD Alumni Malaysia 2012/2013)