How I ended up in the United States for Actuarial Science

Written by Terence Chow: Kuala Lumpur

Rice fields as far as the eyes can see, rubber plantations with perfectly aligned rubber trees, an array of beautiful islands, a diverse population with rich cultures, and of course, exotic foods with Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Thai influences. These come to mind when I think of my home country, Malaysia.

In January of 2010, I packed up my life into two suitcases in preparation to travel halfway across the planet to attend Drake University in Iowa. I grossly underestimated how hard it was to leave my family, friends, and the place I had called home for the last 19 years, especially knowing that it would not be feasible to visit home more than once a year. I was missing out on birthdays, graduations, weddings, and Chinese New Year celebrations, all in the name of making a better future for myself. In the weeks before I left, I was in a constant state of mixed emotions. I was excited, nervous, happy, and sad.

While at Drake, I was asked many times why I came to the United States. My cookie-cutter answer had always been “Drake has a great actuarial program.” It is true that I choose Drake for this reason, but there is much more to the story of why I came to the U.S. in the first place.

When the British colonized Malaysia (more accurately, British Malaya, at the time), they brought large numbers of Chinese and Indians from China and India into Malaysia. Close to two centuries later, Malaysia is known for its diverse demographic of three main races, Malay, Chinese, and Indian, with a ratio of about 10 to 4 to 1.

The Malays, along with a very small number of indigenous people, are classified as bumiputera. Bumiputeras enjoy special rights in Malaysia. Here are a few examples—a certain percentage of new admissions into public universities must be bumiputera, qualification for some scholarships is quota-based to favor bumiputeras, many government-tendered projects require the companies submitting tenders be bumiputera owned, and bumiputeras are entitled to discounts on new housing regardless of wealth.

These pro-bumiputera rights were put in place in the 1970s as affirmative action to bridge the economical and educational gap between the races. Now, four decades later, these policies are obsolete and have turned into a smokescreen for institutionalized racism. Groups excluded from these policies, in particular the Chinese and Indian minorities, have come to accept this reality from a very young age, including myself. They have accepted that they can never be treated the exact same as their Malay counterparts. With right-wing organizations vehemently defending bumiputera rights and perpetuating the idea of Ketuanan Melayu (Malay Supremacy), there is not much they could do.

The racial quotas in the education sector have, for as along as I can remember, spurred desire among parents to send their children to domestic private universities or foreign universities when the time comes. Domestic private universities have gladly taken advantage of this shift by partnering with foreign universities to offer transfer programs that would enable Malaysian students to earn a degree from a foreign university at a lower cost. Schools in Singapore, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States are among the most popular choices. This phenomenon is fueled by two other factors: the gradual but steady decline in the quality of public universities in Malaysia over the past couple of decades, and the reaction by employers to favor candidates with degrees from foreign universities.

The problem is that most parents cannot afford to provide their children with the opportunity to study abroad. When scholarships are not awarded by merit alone, parents have no choice but to cut expenses to save up for their children’s education as a form of insurance. But what about student loans? The National Higher Education Fund Corporation (abbreviated as PTPTN in Malay) provides loans to eligible students. The loan eligibility requirements are extensive (although not racial in nature) and applicants are limited to specific courses. Besides, the maximum amount you can loan per year is RM 16,000 to RM 30,000 (or US$4,800 to US$9,000), which is far too small to fund a foreign degree.

My father was one of the few of his generation to have had the opportunity to study overseas, and he wanted the same for his three children. My parents were well aware of the fact that in order to guarantee high quality education for the three of us, they would have to set aside a lot of money. It helped that my father was a mechanical engineer earning a decent paycheck.

I graduated secondary school with straight A’s in my Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) or Malaysian Education Certificate exams. I applied for the Jabatan Perkhidmatan Awam (JPA) or Public Service Department scholarship, which I did not get. Then, I enrolled myself into the American Degree Transfer Program at Taylor’s University in Malaysia. I even got a great discount because of my good grades. I took freshmen- and sophomore-level classes during the 1.5 years I was at Taylor’s. It was here I found out about Drake because of the university’s partnership with Taylor’s, which allowed me to transfer my credits to Drake. Earlier, I credited Drake’s reputable actuarial program for the reason I choose this university. The second reason was because Drake gave me a Presidential Transfer Award that would reduce my tuition by $4,000 per semester as long as my cumulative GPA remained above 3.5.

It was the middle of winter when I came to Iowa. It wasn’t my first time in the States, but nothing could have mentally prepared me for the winter in Iowa. I thought to myself, “What have I gotten myself into?” It was at least a 70-degree temperature difference between Iowa and Malaysia at the time. I experienced a blizzard and freezing rain within the first two weeks. I took lots of pictures of the snow and ice to show my friends and family back home though. Four years later, winter is still my least favorite season.

I spent 2.5 years at Drake to complete the rest of the required classes, in time to graduate in May 2012. During my first semester at Drake, Dave Kester (a.k.a. Coach Kester) was my Interest Theory professor. He offered me my current job at SALT Solutions, something I am still immensely thankful for. Above all, I have to thank my parents for their love and financial support, without which I wouldn’t have had the chance to study abroad. I don’t know how I found the courage to leave everything behind and come all the way to the United States. I’m usually guilty of not stepping out of my comfort zone enough. In hindsight, it was the best decision I have ever made in my life.